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Crowded House - Time on Earth Print E-mail
Saturday, 01 September 2007

Image There’s an aphorism that says “with death comes experience.” I always believed that was just metaphysical bullshit put forth to convince people to look over the horizon for life beyond the veil. I was wrong. Now, with more sad experience, I understand that it’s not about individuals, but the death you confront throughout your life.

Crowded House has confronted that experience and put out … not their best, but their most mature and beautiful work, Time on Earth. Except for a few misguided choices in production and a couple of songs that should have been held over for a future release, they prove how potent pop music can be, and how gracefully a group’s sound can age. After only a single listen it’s easy to hear how former drummer Paul Hester’s suicide, and perhaps the recognition by his bandmates of their own mortality, has affected them. Whereas only traces of sadness and/or regret drifted through their work before, reflection now reigns. And it’s a mirror we all must eventually face. Where raucous youthful humor used to threaten to overpower the quirky beauty of Neil Finn’s songs, you now find empathy, longing and hope. Everything becomes clearer as you look into that mirror. Time passes. It’s absence that permeates Time on Earth.

It opens with “Nobody Wants To,” a song filled with the lush sentiment you’ve come to expect from Crowded House. But now it entices you to follow along on a heart-wrenching journey, and you go, no matter the emotional toll. When a CD opens with a song that deals with suicide, or other things you don’t want to talk about, you know it isn’t standard fare. Crowded House is opening you up like a skilled therapist, preparing you for what lies ahead.

You’re drawn further down the road of introspection with “Don’t Stop Now,” a song comparing our time spent traveling through space on this rock, to getting lost on the road. As funny a metaphor as has ever been written, “God knows where the satellite’s taking us” is at once humorous, poetic and telling of the emotional state of the story’s protagonist. After these two songs the path is too compelling to back away from, and you’ll follow it all the way to its remarkable conclusion, “People Are Like Suns.”

That’s not to say there aren’t issues along the way. “She Called Up” conceptually fits the rest of Time on Earth but is undermined by an unfortunate “la la” bridge that sounds like it’s trying too hard to recapture Crowded House’s past, a past the rest of this release acknowledges but does not attempt to relive.

The remainder of Time on Earth is polished, loving and affecting. The emotional depth and breadth of the songs, and the subject matter, is unheard of in a world where even the corporate music stores have disappeared and big box retailers control the music market’s buying habits. You will be touched by the gentle, sometimes forceful nature of aural mourning, and wonder how this release could possibly find commercial success.

For me, Time on Earth is another example of the kismet that you will find follows your life if you look closely enough for it, and shows how music, even sad and mournful, can add comfort to your life. The type of loss they’re singing about feels very real to me as I sit here on this warm August morning, and three of the songs are talking to me in a way that only music can.

“A Sigh,” basically acoustic guitar, atmospherics and Neil Finn’s haunting voice, may actually be about the loss of love, but when he sings the lines “a sigh from the emptiest part/it's a tender place/a sigh is more than I can bear,” it tears at me in ways I can’t remember a song ever doing, and I’m thankful that I can play it over and over until it makes me feel better. The harmony vocal is subtle and warm, and I listen to the song a couple more times just to hear that voice come in.

Like “A Sigh,” “You Are the One to Make Me Cry” is centered by Neil’s vocals. If you could sing your thoughts from the edge of death, what would they be? It seems like a song from Paul (who hung himself in 2005):
“You are the one to make me cry,
you are the one to take me home
Of all the stories in your life,
only good things return to you
If I could only say the word
If you could hear me cry for help
I lift my head up to the sky,
but the planes that were circling now have gone.”
What could be gruesome is far from it, as far away as, say, Fergie is from meaningful music. It is touching, plaintive and heartfelt. When Neil’s voice hits falsetto in the chorus it almost cracks, and the pain is touchingly evident. It’s a song that’s too personal for anyone else to ever consider singing, but will be impossible for other artists to ignore.

“People Are Like Suns” closes the standard CD and lifts the sadness, while admitting that life and time continue to pass us by. Even with the madness of this world, people continue to fall in love. Even though we’re like suns, burning up inside, wishing we had done more, we “go out tonight/set this town alight/all fade into white.” With those words, the song, and the standard CD, abruptly ends.

And with that, Time on Earth is over. Thoughts linger behind. Many more than you’d ever expect, and much more complex than perhaps you want. For me, it’s at the perfect time. How does your life feel? Who is it that matters to you? What do you need to say to them? Like I said, it’s about maturity. Reflection. Songs with meaning. If you could speak to someone you’ve lost, someone you’re mourning, what would you say? I really wish the words could be as comforting and poetic as those of Crowded House on Time on Earth. But for me they are simply, “I love you. Goodbye.”

Time On Earth is a clean, modern, recording. The production is crisp and the instrument definition is mostly precise and clear. Considering Steve Lillywhite’s involvement I’m surprised that there isn’t greater distance or more oddities in the mix, but that could be a tribute to the Crowdies’ vision.

I played Time on Earth as I drove around town but found myself wandering off into my thoughts, which isn’t the safest thing to do behind the wheel. The louder you play this CD the better it sounds, whether at home or on the road.

According to a little research I did, the “entire” new/reformed Crowded House played together on only four of the tracks, and if hard pressed I bet I could tell which ones, because they seemed to have a little more drive in the drum kit. I’m looking forward to the entire band playing on the next release. Nick Seymour’s bass playing is as solid as ever, mixed clearly, and as always holds the band together.

Extra Features
The extended edition includes “Stare Me Out,” a straight-ahead rocker that you can imagine a record company exec begging to have added to a CD about death, loss and absence. “Please,” he’d plead, “the kids gotta rock.” If you’d been successful enough in your career you can answer, “We’ll put it on the extended edition,” and he’ll smile like a child. Does it add to the beauty of the album? -- no, but I guess the kids have gotta rock.

“Lost Island,” a pretty waltz time song with a Welsh chorus of background singers. It is “pretty” but fits as an extended track.

And finally, Time On Earth (extended edition) has a special coda, a live-in-the-studio rendition of one of Crowded House’s most popular songs, “World Where You Live.” It is played joyously and almost sounds like an exorcism, but not of evil -- of the past, of regrets, of things unsaid. A smattering of claps and whistles end the song and the extended version of the CD.

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