I’m going to admit up front that it’s very hard not to overanalyze a new Crowded House album. In the decade between the final concert appearance of the band’s original lineup at the Sydney Opera House and this album, there’s been at least one book devoted to peering into the members’ psyche, and then Paul Hester died. It’s really difficult not to try to read something in between the lines lyrically, and in terms of Neil Finn’s motivations for trying to rekindle the Crowded House fire.

With new drummer Matt Sherrod aboard for the ride, and one song co-written with the Dixie Chicks, it’s safe to say that Time On Earth is not a revisitation of the “Don’t Dream It’s Over” stylebook. And that’s not a bad thing; the original Crowded House’s final studio album, Together Alone, was endearing precisely because it was such a daring departure from the sound that had evolved over the first three albums produced by Mitchell Froom. As is generally known now, Time On Earth began its life as Finn’s third solo album, and he reunited with Crowded House bassist Nick Seymour to record some tracks in the wake of Hester’s death. Midway through the recording, the project went from “Finn solo plus Seymour” to the return of Crowded House.

“Nobody Wants To” and the first single, “Don’t Stop Now”, however, stay on safe territory – they’re not a million miles away from the less daring tracks on Together Alone, and certainly not as “out there” as some of the cuts from Finn’s first post-Crowded House solo album. “She Called Up” is stylistically structured a little bit like Together Alone‘s “In My Command” (or the Finn B-side “She Comes Scattered”), and is the one song that reminds the most of Finn’s Split Enz-era songwriting. Which isn’t a bad thing.

Finn’s Beatlesque sensibilities come to the fore in “Pour Le Monde”, which sounds to me almost like Double Fantasy-era Lennon. It’s a lovely, wistful anthem of a song with a sumptuous orchestral backing – not something I’d really expect from Crowded House, but nice nonetheless. “Heaven That I’m Making” also smacks a little bit of Lennon, but reminds me even more of Finn solo tunes like “Secret God”.

It’s hard not to hold up “A Sigh” and “Transit Lounge” as an indication of where Crowded House could be headed if this new lineup records another album. They’re not exactly groundbreaking in and of themselves, but more than anything else on Time On Earth, these two tracks especially break out of the “safe” mold from which the rest of the album seems to be cut. The former is filled with atmospheric guitar effects, while the latter has some very strange effects for the first minute or so before settling into its real melody, which features female vocalists and sounds almost ELO-esque in places. “Silent House” is another standout, co-written by Finn with the Dixie Chicks, taking a bold step closer to Together Alone‘s unapologetic distorted-guitar jams. I think I say this at least once for every album in which Neil Finn is involved, but why this wasn’t the lead single, I’ll never know.

The question of “which songs are about Paul?” was ringing through my head while listening to Time On Earth (and before reading any liner notes), and while “You Are The One To Make Me Cry” (an interesting counterpoint to Woodface‘s “All I Ask”), the surprisingly upbeat “English Trees” and the oustanding “People Are Like Suns” seem to address that tragic event most directly, in listening to the entire album, I think it’s probably safest to say that Hester’s suicide and the resulting emotional turmoil left in his wake informs the entire project from beginning to end. Listened to in one sitting, there’s a melancholy that infuses even the seemingly upbeat songs. And that’s not a bad thing – those of us who have followed Crowded House since before “Don’t Dream It’s Over” nearly topped the U.S. charts in 1987 are also missing Paul Hester, and it’s an interesting sort of shared catharsis between audience and artist that is needed on both sides of the equation. I’d love to make it to one of the live shows to see how much of this catharsis bubbles to the surface with the new material on stage.

4 out of 4Time On Earth may not sound like a bundle of laughs, with a decidedly not-light-hearted heaviness weaving through much of its material, but it’s some beautiful music, and hopefully a sign that the house can stay crowded for more albums yet to come. Nick Seymour and, on those songs where he appears, Mark Hart (who folks still seem to forget was a full-time regular member of the band when last we left it) weave their magic and prove that there is, indeed, a difference between a new Crowded House album and a new Neil Finn album. I’d love to see them plow a path off the beaten road as they did with Together Alone, and not necessarily even in the same direction. Welcome back, guys.

Order this CD

  1. Nobody Wants To (4:10)
  2. Don’t Stop Now (3:54)
  3. She Called Up (2:53)
  4. Say That Again (5:21)
  5. Pour Le Monde (5:10)
  6. Even A Child (3:57)
  7. Heaven That I’m Making (3:56)
  8. A Sigh (3:17)
  9. Silent House (5:52)
  10. English Trees (3:43)
  11. Walked Her Way Down (4:17)
  12. Transit Lounge (4:25)
  13. You Are The One To Make Me Cry (3:43)
  14. People Are Like Suns (3:52)

Released by: ATO
Release date: 2007
Total running time: 58:30