Time on Earth
he reason Crowded House fans shudder when they hear Jesse Cook butchering “Fall at Your Feet” over the PA at the grocery store isn't because the band's music is 'too good' for that kind of mass consumption. You'd have to be a little deluded to think that the band's hits don't work over the kind of overtly nonoffensive rock/pop mix they substituted for Muzak sometime in the last ten years. Instead, we cringe because the original versions are both so leagues above the tepid slop we're being served and no-one would blink twice about hearing the originals. Neil Finn is a lot of things as a writer, but don't doubt his ability to wrap whatever odd or unsettling take on things he has within the kind of tunes even small town radio is glad to share with the world.
It's to his credit that after he shut down Crowded House, his longest running and most successful incarnation, his subsequent solo debut Try Whistling This was neither as willfully tuneless as the title suggests nor just a Crowded House album minus Nick Seymour and Phil Hester. The latter's suicide is what prompted Finn and Seymour to start playing together again and naturally enough anyone eager to hear the event as central to Time on Earth will find more evidence here than you do on, say, Movement. Possible references abound, from the opening chorus of “Nobody wants to talk about it / Nobody wants to think about it” to second-half highlight “Silent House” which revolves around a surprisingly crunchy guitar-and voice refrain that milks the title's metaphor of absence for all it's worth.
Except, Finn wrote the latter song with the Dixie Chicks for Taking the Long Way, before Hester's death. And in any case he and Seymour are canny enough old pros that while this album may be therapy for them, it's also smooth and simple enough that these songs could fit just about anywhere “Distant Sun” did. The experiments and textures that littered the not-exactly-radical Try Whistling This are nowhere to be found; the closest we get to an updating of Crowded House's tried-and-true sound are the younger female backing vocalist on “Transit Lounge” (featuring a German flight attendant who sounds a bit like she wandered in from a Ladytron album) and the wildly misplaced supper club piano and strings of “You Are the Only One to Make Me Cry.” That song's almost certainly not about Hester—which is in keeping with Finn's old knack for playing bait and switch with songs and lyrics, the way on albums like Temple of Low Men he'd make bank robbery, cruelly deliberate adultery and hypocritical demands that his lover be home soon sound as pop perfect as the upbeat and cheery “Something So Strong” ever was.
And speaking of smuggling, if you don't want to think of Hester but still need some sort of overarching theme here you can just as productively read “Nobody Wants To” as belatedly addressing the events of 2001. The topic is only really directly addressed on “Pour le Monde” (“For the world, not the war”) but the run from it to “Heaven That I'm Making” suggests the Dixie Chicks might have been hanging around more than “Silent House” does. It's the weakest section of the album, as Finn's writing has normally stuck enough to the fantastic ways we tend to depict our interior lives that the songs are awkward even as they remain just as tuneful as everything else he writes.
On the one hand, it's good to have them back; Finn has seemed to drift since Try Whistling This on solo albums and even when teamed with brother Tim, and getting Seymour and the gang (Together Alone-era second guitarist Mark Hart and new drummer Matt Sherrod) seems to have given him a sense of focus he's rarely had before. There's a sustained tone to Time on Earth that Finn's rarely mastered, and that alone comes closer than you might have thought possible to making the record an unqualified success.
Note, however, that Crowded House's first and best two albums ran ten or eleven tracks and under forty minutes apiece. Here things run to fourteen songs and a whopping fifty-eight minutes. Thankfully it's mostly not R.E.M.-style bloat in the length of each individual track so much as a good four or five songs that are noticeably second tier. Finn may specialize in growers, but here there's just too much. The only really successful Crowded House disc that approaches an hour is the Recurring Dream best of, and Time on Earth provides yet more opportunity for us all to get acquainted with the wonders of programmable CD players (and iTunes). Still, given the perils littering the paths of reunion albums, post-mortem albums, and even just generally albums after a band's been around for a couple of decades, that makes this far better than it has any right to be. If they can capitalize on Time on Earth, Crowded House could even conceivably become the rare band to have their best work ahead of them as they enter the pop equivalent of old age.