CD Review of Time on Earth by Crowded House

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Time on Earth
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Released: 2007
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We begin this review with a statement that only reads like hyperbole: Crowded House is one of the Best, Pop Bands, Ever. That’s right, the band that racked up two, count ‘em, two Top 40 singles 20 years ago actually boasts one of the most stunning catalogs you will ever find in the history of pop music. Elvis Costello once said he’d have given his right arm to have written “Into Temptation,” a song Crowded House frontman and principal songwriter Neil Finn’s wife found so unsettling that she was convinced her husband was having an affair. One of the British music mags even said that Neil Finn pisses genius. They were only slightly kidding.

Many a pop fan openly wept when Crowded House abruptly announced their breakup in 1996. Four albums, three new tracks for the hits compilation Recurring Dream, and sayonara, sisters. It was more than most fans could bear. Finn continued to write and record, releasing two solo albums and two albums with his older brother Tim. But as good as those solo records were (1998’s Try Whistling This, in particular), they, sir, were no Crowded House. Finnheads secretly hoped for a reunion, though those hopes were dashed in 2005 when drummer Paul Hester went out to walk the dogs and decided to hang himself from a tree.

Then, an amazing thing happened. As Finn was preparing his latest solo album, featuring CH’s Nick Seymour on bass, they talked about reforming the band. Mark Hart, who joined the band for their former swan song, 1994’s Together Alone, was roped back in, along with former Beck drummer Matt Sherrod to take over for Hester. Saints be praised: Crowded House was together again.

But wait: is that actually a good thing?

After all, it has been 14 long years since their last album, which is six years longer than it took to release their first four albums. Would they be the same as they once were, or would it be like burying them in the pet sematary, where they look and sound like Crowded House but are just a little “off”? As much as it pains me to say it, the pet sematary joke is not much of a stretch. Time on Earth, the band’s latest, is a much different affair than the first four albums were. There isn’t a single “Now We’re Getting Somewhere” or “Locked Out” to be had, but there are a whole bunch of versions of “As Sure As I Am,” “Distant Sun,” and “Love This Life.” In other words, this is a really mellow record, even by Finn’s standards.

The table is set from the very beginning, as “Nobody Wants To” slides from the speakers and cozies up on the couch with a cup of cocoa and a good book. The tempo picks up some with “Don’t Stop Now” and “She Called Up,” but they prove to be the album’s high water mark in terms of energy. This is not to say the album plods along per se – indeed, “Say That Again,” “Pour Le Monde” and “Walked Her Way Down,” while melancholy, rank with Finn’s finest work – but they feel every bit the solo-Finn material that this album was originally intended to be. Crowded House songs have a certain bounce to them, even when Finn is singing about feeling possessed or how he wishes someone would take the weather with them. His solo albums, on the other hand, were much more serious affairs, and the songs here reflect that solo frame of mind, which makes them difficult to accept as the work of Crowded House. That may sound trivial, but any fan of Crowded House will tell you it is not.

In 1989, when Crowded House had quietly broken up for the first time and Neil and Tim had begun work on a Finn Brothers album, Neil quickly realized that the songs he and his brother were writing sounded like Crowded House songs. So he reformed the band, with Tim as a new member, and the result was 1991’s marvelous Woodface. This time around, Finn wrote songs that didn’t sound like Crowded House songs, but he’s calling it Crowded House anyway, which is like Paul Weller reforming the Jam and releasing an album that sounds like the Style Council. There is nothing wrong with Time on Earth in terms of being a Neil Finn album. But to call it a Crowded House album seems dishonest, because it doesn’t look, sound or act anything like a Crowded House album. It’s good, but it isn’t Crowded-House-good.

~David Medsker