Classic Album Revisited: Neil Finn – ‘Try Whistling This’

In 1996 after more than a decade of magnificent music making the members of Crowded House surprisingly decided to shutter their endeavour. There were a number of reasons some evident at the time and others that would become apparent later. At the time one of the central reasons for the decision was the band’s desire to go out on top of their game in an increasingly adverse musical environment. The other more private reason was the bandmates desire to assist drummer Paul Hester’s fight against his chronic depression; which was acerbated by the demands of constant international touring. Crowded House would make the announcement of their self-imposed breakup in June of that year. Their fans, however, wanted a proper sendoff and would not allow the band to end in a whimper. Crowded House would give the fans what they wanted and perform a farewell charity concert on November 24th 1996 on the steps of The Sydney Opera House. The concert would draw upwards of 150,000 people and be recorded for posterity.

Attendees of the concert and those who have seen the Farewell to the World DVD have often found it hard to understand why the breakup was necessary. At the concert it was obvious the band was beloved and the band members seemed to be emotionally stricken by their final curtain call. However, because of the previously mentioned reasons, there could be no going back and the three main band members were moving on. Paul Hester would become an entertainment personality in Australia; Nick Seymour would form a number of bands and be involved in producing. Neil Finn the frontman and founder of Crowded House would launch his solo career and also collaborate on various projects with renowned artists and family members. Time and again the trio would state they were looking forward rather than to any attempt to reunite. Many fans saw Neil Finn’s solo release as the final nail in the coffin for any hope that Crowded House would reunite.

In 1998 Finn would release his debut solo album, Try Whistling This. Finn would produce the album with Tchad Blake, Marius De Vries, and Jim Moginie. Never before has Finn released something commercial without band cohorts. Try Whistling This would be the first time Finn would reveal himself without the filters or safety net that a band provides. The album would display Finn as more experimental and risk-taking than in his prior manifestations, but also confirm that no matter his approach he is a master songwriter of erudite and engaging music. Neil Finn the “King of Pop Melancholy” by going solo would suddenly be allowed to take a left turn away from what many Crowded House fans had come to expect. Some would even liken the release to Finn “going Radiohead”. Finn ever the pop genius still tempered Try Whistling This with recognizable Crowdie flourishes and try as he might never abandon his love of Beatles sonic sensibilities. The release is a walk through all his ample musical skills conveyed in literary pop melodies that stick with the listener long after the album is over. The release is loaded with majestic ballads and impressive rock tracks that utilized off-kilter structures that would become a distinct proprietary blend on Finn’s future solo works.

Thematically the topics were denser, moodier and more self-examining than on Crowded House efforts, yet Finn would never totally abandon the desire to include approachability and whimsy in the release. The album title was an inside joke, referring to Finn’s desire to write catchy tunes without Beatles sonic fingerprints all over the songs. He was challenging himself to take his efforts beyond easily hummed tunes he could effortlessly create. The punch line to the joke was, in the end, he could not fight against his ingrained instincts; often failing at the set challenge but ultimately providing a collection of brilliant tracks. The effort kicks off with Last One Standing and begins as it means to go, utilizing an off-kilter mandolin and glitchy percussion accompaniment. For those familiar with Finn’s backstory and history of collaboration with his older brother Tim Finn, it is easy to read the narrative as an examination of sibling love and rivalry. Tim, the founder of the band Split Enz, recruited younger brother Neil into the band and Neil ended up penning the better know tracks by Split Enz. He would eventually move on to a more renown career. Yet the song is not taken from the perspective of an apprentice besting their master. Instead it is a reminiscence of their joint climb up the mountainside of fame and the love and admiration Neil holds for his brother and that period of his life, “Lean and hungry with a fire in your eyes, I’ll play catch up, you can show me where it is at, I’ll go along with anything you want to do, every day I’m making round, so high I might as well be gone.” The lovely ebb and flow of the song’s structure maintains the interest in the narrative making it a great opener, easing Crowded House fans into Finn’s latest manifestation.

The rocker Souvenir is an electrifying track. It is very revealing as Finn presents his impression of what it is like for the artist in our media intrusive world. Discussed is all the glad-handing and expectations that need be met, “Where the guests like souvenirs they play with you ‘till you’re all worn out.” Souvenir displays what is like for a person to become a commodity. The lyrics and sonics perfectly channel a passive/ aggression feeling about the reality of this situation. The song present Neil Finn as never before, angry and world-weary, as he takes to task the rapacious media and their desire for their pound of flesh, “loosen up your tie, make the viewers cry, I cannot pretend to cry.” What prevents this track from becoming an angry screed is the truth Finn exposes along with the inspired accompaniment that is potent and demands attention. With King Tide Finn eases off the aggression a smidgen but provides another potent rocker. The track is filled with gritty guitars and buzzsaw bass lines that feed the drama of the song. Reality is presented as the King Tide that knocks you off your feet disorienting your sensibilities. Also expounded is that our well-intended plans are often made in a vacuum and tend to be destroyed when exposed to reality, “The hunger inside won’t go away, it’s starting to rise and the sea rushes into my world.” The musical outburst at the end of the song is the devastation of the vision when it experiences reality.

The title track is a beautiful crossover from Finn’s Crowded House works. The sonics are held together by Finn’s almost intuitive ability to make a melody out of disparate parts and still allow you to sing along. The selection is loaded with bittersweet melancholy and drama making it breathtaking. Along the way the lyrics address the difficulty in songwriting, a task that is akin to spinning straw into gold and fighting hard to be heard. This song really showcases Finn’s often under-appreciated vocal gifts. She Will Have Her Way lightens the ponderous mood of the album. It is a playful song among many Finn has written over the years about his wife Sharon and their decade’s long marriage. Expressed is his understanding that she is his prop and stay, “Still no end in sight, though I travel far and wide…she will have her way”. He reveals no matter how clever he thinks he is or how conniving, she catches him out and rules the day. The punchy percussion and utterly lovely melody drive this song. It begs you to sing along and is Finn captured at his most Beatlesque.

Neil Finn when playing the song Sinner live has often dedicated it to ”all the altar boys who flirted in church.” The song deals with personal questions of faith that Finn has discussed frequently in his songwriting. He has never quite shaken his Roman Catholic upbringing no matter how lapsed and questioning he has become as an adult. He presents himself as someone who with a twitch upon a thread is brought back to the precepts he took in as a child. He characterizes this in the imagery of how he was once a soldier of the cross and now walks the earth like some forgotten soldier. He questions if he has walked away from his faith or come to the realization that religion is different from faith. This conundrum is presented over an outstanding blend of cool Jazz and bass driven Funk. There is bravery in taking up this touchy subject best expressed by the lyric, “these things I should keep to myself, but I feel somehow strangely compelled.”

The experimental Twisty Bass seems to utilize every instrument but the kitchen sink. The song is a big risk that pays off beautifully. The lyrics take a stream of consciousness route with images conjured up that are disturbing and entertaining while it takes a poke at our voyeuristic tendencies. Loose Tongue takes this idea a step farther in the discussion of mankind’s indiscrete tendencies. Finn excoriates humans for our love of gossip and innuendo and points out how words can lead to devastating results, “a good man has been hung because of my loose tongue”. Finn questions why we are so drawn to gossip; is it envy, curious, spite, why do we kick a man when he is down? The oscillating tempo of the track adds emphasis to the whisper down the alley inaccuracy that can take down a good person.

The song Truth has one of the most long-lasting lyrics in an album filled with them, “ remember everything you do continues long after your gone”, followed by another universal concept, “ truth is worth more than pride”. The message of the track is that being honest with yourself is the most important thing. This lovely ballad is prophetic and timeless and even more applicable today as the important truth seems to get lost in every facet of our society. There is brilliance in the structure of this song showing off again Finn’s instinctually ability to write a totally engaging work.

Astro was inspired by catch phrases Finn’s backing band musicians and children were using. Finn uses this as a launch pad to discuss society’s obsession with being cool and seeking Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame. He points out the danger of letting this desire imprison the soul which in turn keeps a person shallow instead of developing into a better version of one’s self, “all your best one-liners are borrowed from a film, … The thing that gets to me is how you’re never free and how the spirit yearns, your body is a prison.” Without getting preachy Finn gets his point across. Dream Date along with Astro asks us to be more independent in our thinking and resist the echo chamber of conformity. The accompaniment is unconventional. Finn seems at first to offer an easy listening pastiche then subverts it with a Latin-tinged sonic and a fantastic wah-wah guitar lick making for the delectable offering.

The final two tracks display Finn ending strongly. Faster than Light is a glorious ballad that is meant to remind us that life is but a moment. His message is that during our time on Earth it is important to remember love, grace and forgiveness are among the things that make life worth living. Throughout all of Finn’s works, he has stressed that what we do echoes and casts long shadows. He points out on this track that the most praiseworthy individuals are those who demand no thanks or recognition. , “…and praise will come to those whose kindness leaves you without debt and bends the shape of thing that hasn’t happened yet.” On the accompaniment, Finn tosses in some quirky sonics to change things up but never gets in the way of the song’s melodic excellence. Addicted is a powerful narrative that puts you in the mind of an addict. Whatever the addiction, there is always the foolish boast, “I was addicted to the drug but now I know when I’ve had enough.” The sonics of the track has this haunting almost celestial feeling that is undercut by the woolly-headed feeling of depression and substance-induced grogginess. It is easy to see the character of the narrative as being chronically clothed in a bathrobe making excuses. The continuous looped beat works effectively as the hammer of reality putting pay to the addict’s lies. On the track, the rationalization that one can control addiction culminates in the character backsliding into addiction. The disappointed Greek chorus sings the mantra “you’ve come so far” and the pixilated piano draws the song and the album to a close. The track is simply genius.

Finn with Try Whistling This took on an ambitious challenge. He wanted to separate his solo debut from all that had come before in his work with Crowded House and other prior manifestations. He was walking a tightrope between his desires to become his own entity and not wanting to alienate those who had followed him throughout his various bands. By that measure, he succeeded in presenting something removed from Crowded House. A release that was less pop and more sonically challenging. In some ways, the release was also cathartic for Finn allowing him to deal with all that had occurred good and bad in the Crowded House era. Most importantly Try Whistling This would emphasize that no matter what musical role Neil Finn would morph into; band member, partner, or soloist he would always retain the singular ability to write outstanding and engaging musical works. Neil Finn has been an esteemed performer for decades and has earned the ability to present himself in any way he wants. In his solo efforts, he has gone on to release three critically acclaimed creations, along with album collaborations his wife, brother Tim and sons Liam and Elroy. He reconvened Crowded House in 2006 and has worked with some of the most renowned talents in the music business in his 7 Worlds Collide efforts. Try Whistling This captures Neil Finn’s first steps into a world not defined by a band or record label expectations, displaying along the way his immeasurable brilliance.

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