Neil Finn’s first solo album in over a decade – but it’s not like he hasn’t been busy, there was the Pajama Club tour and album, that lovely Finn Brothers record, a couple of Crowded House records and tours and his Seven Worlds Collide shows and albums. Plenty to carry on with even if a lot of it seemed to suggest Neil was hiding. Sure, he’s always collaborated but those Crowded House records seemed like a way of sneaking out slightly lesser material, certainly with Intriguer. It took the Pajama Club record to suggest that Neil was moving forward, even if that was really Sharon’s record.
Dizzy Heights might involve a whole lot of other people – as is the way with almost any solo abum – but it is most certainly Neil’s album. And if it’s anyone else’s then the hat tip must go to producer Dave Fridmann. His chief skill is in obfuscating, that is to say he knows how to blur without burying. He’s best celebrated for his work with Mercury Rev, Sparklehorse and The Flaming Lips but in recent years he’s created magic for MGMT and Tame Impala to rival his best efforts with Rev and the Lips. Here he’s had a hand in creating a very fine mature pop album. A crucial, often guiding hand.
But let’s not take anything away from Finn and what is clearly his vision – right down to knowing who to call in as producer.
Divebomber, the first track issued outside of the album with accompanying film, was such a curveball when I heard it. Neil’s attempt at merging the George Harrison of Wonderwall To Be Here with the Radiohead of Paranoid Android through a Mercury Rev filter. And I didn’t like it. It suggested to me that the album might suffer from too much art for art’s sake. A desperate attempt to re-make, to re-model. But no. In fact Divebomber really is a mini-masterpiece, so perfectly placed on Dizzy Heights also. That in fact is the key to its success for me.
The album starts with Impressions, all wooziness and swirl. We know that this is not the Neil Finn we heard on his previous solo albums, nor with the Enz or Crowded House. But of course it is also that very same Neil Finn – the voice unmistakeable. The colours and textures of the production smeared over what could have been a Pajama Club leftover. And then the title track – an improvement on anything from Intriguer or Time On Earth but cut from similar cloth. Thirty seconds in and that Beatlesque charm arrives, the melody so proudly shining, so plucky as to almost whisper in your ear that the chorus is gonna be a killer – but you know this intuitively just as Neil Finn on a roll writes so intuitively.
First (obvious) single Flying In The Face of Love builds on the Pajama Club sound, harks back to the second Finn Brothers album and reminds you of that line from Nigel Williamson’s Uncut review a decade ago, that if you needed someone to write a pop song to save your life a sure bet would be placing a call to Neil Finn.
But then Divebomber arrives!
It cuts up the album so beautifully. It throws a spanner in the works. And it works! It is perhaps the first Neil Finn song to not sound like A Neil Finn Song. And that’s no mean feat when you’ve got your craft down; so very well honed. It is – still – a curveball. But this new colour is its own reward. It took me a few spins, more than is normally the case, but I woke up humming this song. This song that on first listen seemed impenetrable – it’s subtle trick being that it still left the door open straight away, knowing you’d come closer for a peek.
Better Than TV is this album’s classic example of how the in-form Finn has a sound all his own. First listen and you’re as hooked as any of the great Crowded House songs, it could almost be an album track from the first truly great – must-have – album of Neil Finn’s career, Together Alone. (His first solo album, pretty much).
Pony Ride carries on at the same pace as Better Than TV but it’s all the way back to Split Enz, that voice just doesn’t age – he’s just learning to do new tricks with it.
Side two of the record – and I can say that, because it’s out on vinyl – does fall away a tad from side one, the first six songs are all stunners though; we’re talking very near to career-best in a career of hits. This isn’t like when you’re pleased a new Paul McCartney album isn’t shit. This is the return of one of your heroes, one of the reasons you care about all this stuff so much anyway. And he’s in peak condition. So of course side two can’t be quite as good.
White Lies And Alibis is the first reminder of Finn’s last solo album, One Nil – the slightly sombre, contemplative mood as much as anything in the actual sound. It makes me hope for a third Finn Brothers album before too long too. I’d love to hear the brothers working through material as strong as this.
Your Next Move and Recluse are not instantly as strong as everything else on the album, but at this point it’s getting close to honouring a pass on your first born commitment, it’s like picking favourites amongst your own children.
I’m still standing by my assertion that side two isn’t quite as strong, but the album closer, Lights Of New York, is a beautiful thing – one of Finn’s finest, a whole new vulnerability within the warmth of his voice.
So if it dips once or twice, so be it – this is an extraordinary collection, up there with Finn and Together Alone and the very best of Try Whistling This and One Nil, better in some ways than all of that material too. It’s certainly a close runner among a strong leading pack for the best thing Neil Finn’s done. The best finished – complete-sounding/completed whole.
And to think all I wanted was to hear the sound of one of my favourite songwriters actually trying again. Here he manages that without – crucially – ever sounding like he’s trying too hard.
I was nearly in tears the first time I heard this through. It’s an important record for Neil Finn, for sure. It will be treasured as an important record by his fans. And there’s something in his sound – even as it so subtly evolves – that takes me back to hearing those great Split Enz (Mark II) singles when I was four, five, six, seven, eight years old.
There’s something about this record – as with the very best of any of Neil’s work – it feels like home. It takes me home. It feels like a gift, as if you’ll be the only one listening; some of the very best songwriting in the world, and yet you know that only that voice, that combination of talents, the playing, the thoughts behind the arrangements, could shape it and make it just so.
And make it so right.
Dizzy Heights is astonishingly good. And I’ve played it so many times I’m now at the point that I’m finding favourite moments within songs, those hooks on the end of hooks, new ways to keep you there, to make you look closer, listen closer – new ways of falling head over heels for it every time.