“It’s one thing for a band to get back together and expect that everyone’s just going to embrace you as if you’d never left — that it’s going to be a big celebratory and nostalgic exercise,” says Neil Finn, leader of the newly reformed Crowded House, one of the most beloved pop-rock bands of the late ’80s to mid ’90s. “That’s not what we have in mind. We want to get out amongst it and be a band that has to earn our respect again.”
Finn’s high standards and relentless work ethic have enabled the New Zealand-born singer, guitarist, and songwriter to survive three decades in the pop trade, delivering such timeless gems as “I Got You” for his elder brother Tim’s New Wave band Split Enz, “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and “Fall At Your Feet” for Crowded House, and “She Will Have Her Way,” which appeared on Try Whistling This, one of his two solo albums. Adored by fans and critics alike for his keen eye for lyrical detail and matchless gift for melody, Finn proves his songwriting skills are as sharp as ever with Time on Earth, the first studio album from Crowded House since 1993’s Together Alone.
That album was the last to feature the band’s original drummer, Paul Hester, who tragically took his own life in March 2005. In the months following Hester’s death, Finn sought solace in his friend, Crowded House bassist Nick Seymour, and the two began making music together at the beginning of 2006. “We found a way to express something musically and it just felt good,” Finn says. “Even though there were only two of us, it felt like a band again. By the end of that process, I admitted as much to Nick and he admitted it to me.”
Finn and Seymour recorded 10 songs at Finn’s Roundhead Studios in Auckland with their producer Ethan Johns (Ryan Adams, Kings of Leon, Rufus Wainwright) and old friend Ricky Gooch alternating on drums. Though several songs, such as “Nobody Wants To,” “A Sigh,” “You Are The One to Make Me Cry,” and “Silent House” (which Finn co-wrote with the Dixie Chicks), deal with loss, the intense, emotional balladry is balanced by plenty of the band’s signature high-spirited buoyancy, such as the lead-off single “Don’t Stop Now,” the navigation-themed “She Called Up,” the strummy “Even A Child” (co-written with Finn’s friend, former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr), and the humorous “Transit Lounge” (which features a sample Seymour made 10 years ago of a PA announcer at a German airport). “Those four songs add a kind of exuberance, which I think is characteristic of Crowded House,” Finn says. “We were feeling pretty good about things and wanted to capture it on the record.”
Recorded in February 2007 at London’s RAK Studios with famed producer Steve Lillywhite (U2, Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel), those upbeat songs feature guitarist/keyboardist Mark Hart, who joined Crowded House in 1992 (“We asked him the proverbial question: ‘We’re putting the band back together, are you in?'”), and former Beck drummer Matt Sherrod, a new addition whom Finn praises for bringing pizzazz and energy to the proceedings. “Of everyone we auditioned, Matt probably knew the least about Crowded House. In some ways, that freed him up because he was able to express his own character on the songs, and we liked the freshness of that.”
Time On Earth, which is layered with rich textures of guitar, piano, Wurlitzer, horns, touches of Hammond organ and sitar, and plenty of stellar harmonies, should earn the band new listeners who may have missed them the first time around. It will certainly delight the legions of long-time fans who’ve loved Crowded House ever since they formed in Melbourne in 1985. The band’s 1986 self-titled debut spawned the international hits “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” which climbed to Number 2 in the U.S., and “Something So Strong,” which peaked at Number 7. A string of well-received albums followed (all best-sellers in the U.K. and Australia), including 1988’s Temple of Low Men, which included the heart-breaking ballad “Better Be Home Soon,” 1991’s joyful Woodface, a reunion with Tim Finn that produced the classics “Weather With You” and “It’s Only Natural,” and 1993’s sonically adventurous Together Alone, which gave us “Locked Out” and “Distant Sun.” Not long after the latter album’s release, Hester left the band. Finn, feeling his heart wasn’t in it anymore, dissolved Crowded House in June 1996 and released Recurring Dream: The Very Best of Crowded House, which entered the British and Australian charts at Number One. That fall, Finn, Seymour, Hester, and Hart performed an emotional farewell concert on the steps of the Sydney Opera House for hundreds of thousands of fans.
Now they’re back more than a decade later with the July release of Time on Earth, and an extensive North American tour launching in August — a small miracle for those who thought it would never happen. “I think we are trying to take what was a really positive experience and expand on it as best we can,” Finn says. “To make something new feels like the most positive way forward.”