Review Summary: History never repeats.
There's a homely warmth that seems to glow off the songs of Neil Finn that feels for all the world like a hug from a father. Call it nostalgia from a distant childhood, if you like – god knows I spent enough time sat in front of faded TV sets, watching the videos for "Don't Dream It's Over" and "Something So Strong" and "It's Only Natural" until they were burned onto the back of my eyes. I will never forget an innocent afternoon watching Neil Finn play for Paul Hester - sadly departed by means of suicide - and getting my first inkling of what loss and grief were, still without any idea of how hard the world can be, with no conception of mortgages and pandemics and student debt. The man's music just makes me feel like a kid again, not to mention probably everyone else raised in Australia or New Zealand before the turn of the millennium: a feeling so priceless it couldn't possibly be quantified or put in words. But surely that's not all there is, after decades and side projects and two bands with enviable discographies - surely, there's more?
I know there is, just as surely as I don't know how to explain it to someone who might be reading this review with a faint memory of liking "Don't Dream It's Over" and no other idea who Neil Finn is. Outside of NZ – his own birthplace, and that of art-rockers-turned-new-wavers Split Enz – and Australia – birthplace and endplace, more than once, of Crowded House – Finn's fanbase is small enough to reasonably called a cult following. We certainly earn the title: everyone in this little circle I've talked to, from oldheads still grumbling about when the Enz went pop to the newest converts, pretty much agree that Neil Finn is one of the greatest songwriters of his generation, if not truly the best. His voice seems to ring out with perfect clarity, plain but clear as a mountain stream, summoning an endless tide of melodies and sharp, simple, gorgeous words. There was a time when diamonds just seemed to pour, fully formed, from Neil Finn's hands and land sparkling in the sunlight.
But history never repeats, as the saying goes, so we find ourselves with Dreamers Are Waiting
three goddamn decades after Crowded House's magnum opus, Woodface
. It's also been eleven years since their last release, the fragmented Intriguer
: where that album swung too many ways and buried its winners in overproduction, Dreamers Are Waiting
is the polar opposite. This is functionally an exceedingly safe and pleasant album, written and mixed to provide maximum comfort. You don't have to reach too far to find the reason for this release - it's a warm hug to a world that's hurting, enveloping all of us in that same warmth I described at the outset. ("My wife is wild in quarantine", Neil hilariously sings in "Playing With Fire", before adopting a very Crowded House comforting tone with "pretend it's alright, we'll make it with time"). Those lockdown blues permeate the album on every level, from remotely-conducted recording and mixing sessions, to the decision to refashion Crowded House as an explicitly familial project. Talented Finn sons Elroy and Liam are on drums and guitar/keys respectively, with the legendary Nick Seymour still on bass, but resident American/multi-talented one-man band Mark Hart has sadly been left out. It's an understandable decision, given that Neil's rapport with his sons and Seymour (who may as well be family after 30+ years in the group) is easy and instinctual. But it stings a little to see a vital part of the more complex, layered era of Crowded House stripped away, leaving it hard not to feel Hart's absence on lesser, skeletal tracks like "Whatever You Want".
Finn has spoken frankly about making another Crowded House album because the time felt right, because he too wanted the comfort and familiarity of his old band. This goes a long way to explaining why this reserved, simple album bears the title over the more eclectic Dizzy Heights
, reassigned as a Neil solo album partway through recording. It's actually not too difficult to draw a line from Dreamers...
to Out of Silence
, the stunning chamber folk excursion Neil released in 2017. Both luxuriate extensively in the sounds of the talented Finn family, even scoring co-writes from a borderline-reclusive Tim Finn; both look out at a damaged, complex world around them from a safe familial space. But Out of Silence
was obsessed with quiet, the silence between the notes almost as important as the richly textured music itself. Dreamers Are Waiting
is Crowded fuckin' House, man - a name that carries not only comfort but the burden of expectation to longtime listeners.
The need for some powerhouse pop does pay off in part; the funky "To an Island" and strutting, horns-led "Playing With Fire" are clear early standouts, while the bluesy "Sweet Tooth" and gentle synthpop "Love Isn't Hard at All" are destined to be deep cuts which roar to life at live shows. And as ever, Finn's innate gift to match suggestive storytelling with an indelible melody soars to life on a slow burn track like "Show Me the Way". In between these modes is where the album slightly falters: casual listeners will probably have trouble distinguishing between mid-tempo plodders like "Goodnight Everyone" and "Too Good For this World" for several listens, and on the Crowded House closer scale, "Deeper Down" falls significantly short. It's a funny thing that the sheer consistency of Neil Finn's songwriting can almost work against him. The man has been pumping out classics since at least 1978 and has barely ever stumbled on a dud, but knowing he's capable of writing some of the greatest songs of all time ("Better Be Home Soon", to throw a dart at a very enviable wall) or even excellent late-career fare ("English Trees" or "Falling Dove"), can make the pleasant affability of Dreamers Are Waiting
start to verge on nondescript.
These are more than nitpicks, sure, but a little less than album-wrecking holes in the flyscreen. Taken on its own terms – as an album dreamed up by a family unit, jamming in a familiar space while the world raged around them – Dreamers...
is largely great and lovable in its faults. By this point in time, Neil Finn should be a grizzled elder statesman of the music scene, popping his head up now and then to soundtrack an obscure theatre show (which is functionally a description of how elder brother Tim operates these days). But unusually, brilliantly, the man refuses to disappear. Every three years at the most, he's back with another album under some project name, packed full with brilliant gems of observation and melody, whether the backing is soft rock, chamber pop or even ambient arty contemplation (as in 2018's unjustly underseen Lightsleeper
with Liam Finn). Neil Finn deserves all our accolades for sheer reliability, if nothing else: pop legends are supposed to burn bright and flicker into black, but he remains a bastion of simplicity and comforting warmth, which is really all the acclaim Dreamers Are Waiting
needs to be accorded.