NEIL AND LIAM FINN
Later this year there will be a slew of releases tied to the 50th anniversary of the release of The Beatles self-titled album, aka The White Album (and just quietly it will offer some neat little gems as well as bulk). It was a massive seller in the USA and a touchstone then and ever since, an album which could be as confounding as it was pleasing, but most of all a summation of the myriad – not always complementary but nonetheless weirdly collectivist - routes of the band’s songwriters set free from the constraints of time, space and outsider’s expectations.
In their own way - in their modest, single-album, two-instead-of-three songwriters, familial, dad’s studio, off-not-blazing-white-cover, quintessentially New Zealander way - Neil and Liam Finn offer something of a White Album of their own with Lightsleeper.
It’s written by a father who can provide the most sublime melodies, guilt-wracked lyrics and diligently structured songs, but also enjoys experimenting with extensions of electronic and acoustic sounds, loos structures, and the freedom of not having to answer to anyone. And a son who has breezily mixed a keen melodic turn with a penchant for shifting structures, varying rhythms, lyrics which can veer from interior to exterior, and the ability to be a one-man-show on stage.
The result is a blend of material that can be pretty-as one minute and off-kilter the next, as in the early pairing of the pastoral dreaming Meet Me In The Air and Where’s My Room, captured in a line from the latter, “So help me sing along/Something weird I’ll practice on you, yeah.”
Meet Me In The Air is equal parts Pink Floyd circa Meddle, but without the incipient paranoia, early ‘70s Beach Boys, without the philosophising, and Elliott Smith, but without the subtext of self-loathing. Where’s My Room is rickety groovemaking and lo-fi guitar scrolling, like Neil offered in his first album with big brother Tim, intersecting with, at first, assertive cellos, and then elegant piano that faintly echoes Joe Jackson’s Real Men, before suggesting a kind of hippie disco that blends into the returning strings.
Or the Finns can make a love song in the guise of a disquieting atmosphere created by swirling keyboards and swampy bass, as in Any Other Way, just as easily as they can, seemingly randomly (but actually cunningly, reminding you that the semi-mythological nature of the lyrics is grounded in the Mediterranean) insert some Hollywood Italian via mandolin and accordion amid the heavy dragging grand pop of Back To Life.
The juxtaposition of Romantic piano-and-strings with what sounds like a Theremin, or keyboard bass with what you’d have to call Eno-esque ambient voices, in Hiding Place is in keeping with the way the lyric graduates from a two-hander story about a couple at cross-purposes into a blurry haze of apparent non-sequiturs like “Women from Iceland are handsome by accent/Hold on here Dad, want you to think/ want you to believe”.
Naturally there’s some Catholic imagery, like angelus bells, amid a love song of absence which is boldly lush with choral tones, in the captivating Listen, and then some imagery which is more hallucinogenic than holy, in the choppy but still defiantly attractive Ghosts.
If We Know What It Means and Anger Plays A Part are more conventional pop songs - the former a drowsily pretty wander down a beach road to a quiet party; the latter hitching a ride on a tune that’s classic Finn – they merely showcase how smart calls (the slide guitar of We Know What It Means for example) are still being made.
Maybe it’s all there from the start really, the album opening with a song Neil wrote for Liam’s wedding, variously called Paxos and Prelude-Island Of Peace. It’s intimate and grand, pretty and niggling with odd little sounds, synth-y and front-loaded with a family choir.
In it the many voices invite us to “reach out at the end of the day, tell us you love her/Welcome to ships coming in”, before leading us into a jump-in-the-water feel of “everybody hold on together, together, together … oooooooh”.
Many ideas at play, some immediately appealing, some you warm to, and a relaxed sense of songwriters not so much drifting with the winds as riding those winds with freedom. Sound familiar?