In November 1996, Crowded House played a farewell show at the foot of the Sydney Opera House. Between 100,000 and 250,000 people showed up -- around 1 percent of the country's population -- for what proved to be a powerful and moving farewell. In the United States, Crowded House is best known for the 1986 single "Don't Dream It's Over." But in Australia, all of the band's four albums had huge popularity, and saying goodbye was a national event.
As an Australian living in the United States for the past 16 years, there have been two times when I felt like a girl without my country; once was Crowded House's farewell concert. I should have been there. The other was the 2005 suicide of drummer Paul Hester. In Australia, it was a national tragedy. Here, it was barely noticed, but I was devastated. I met Paul once as a 14-year-old fan in a Melbourne pub, and he had been amazingly sweet to me.
Now, 14 years after that farewell show in Sydney, Crowded House has re-formed and put out a new album, Time on Earth. It's an album and a reunion that came about in the wake of Hester's death.
"It's not like we're saying in any way that something good could come from this, because nothing can," singer Neil Finn said from Denver during a recent phone conversation. "But we wanted to give due respect to what we were as a band. I didn't want it to just end like that."
In 1986, my family and I lived in Melbourne, Australia. Life in our house revolved around the kitchen and the record player. That year, the record we played most was Crowded House, the self-titled first album from the Melbourne-based band that had formed out of the ashes of Split Enz. My mother listened to Dylan and Motown, my stepfather had introduced me to the Cure and the Clash, but we all listened to that infectious album.
From the very beginning, Crowded House played perfect pop songs, songs that were deceptively straightforward until you realized the complexity of the melody and the heartbreaking precision of the minor keys, or the incredible lyrical restraint and insight of Finn's songwriting. New Zealand-born Finn was mostly responsible for the songs, but in Australia the band as a whole was loved with almost equal affection. We loved bass player Nick Seymour for giving Crowded House its visual personality – Seymour's loopy labyrinthine artwork adorned the album covers and even the suits the band wore. And we loved Hester for his humor and style. Hester's banter and exuberance were as much a part of Crowded House's live shows as the music.
Temple of Low Men, Crowded House's second album, enjoyed less success in the United States than the first, but it's hard to know why. Singles such as the achingly vulnerable "Better Be Home Soon" solidified Finn's reputation as a world-class songwriter, and solidified the band's place as Australian musical royalty.
Crowded House went on to make two more albums before that farewell concert. In the intervening years, Finn put out two solo albums, both with occasionally astonishing songwriting.
In the aftermath of Hester's death, Finn and bassist Seymour found solace in each other's company, and eventually started playing music together again. "There was a point late in the album project when Nick and I felt good about being Crowded House again, and we wanted to do that," Finn says. "And we knew we had to look for a great drummer." They eventually hired Matt Sherrod, a former drummer for Beck. "Matt's been spectacular," Finn says.
Time on Earth is dedicated to Hester's memory. Many of the songs have references to the suicide and the man, and despite his absence, the album is heavily influenced by Hester's loss and friendship.
It's an album that can seem a little soft and overproduced to American ears – Crowded House has always been a band that is hard to define by genre. But if you listen a little deeper, you will be rewarded. Johnny Marr, legendary guitarist for the Smiths and Modest Mouse, collaborated on two of the tracks, including the single "Don't Stop Now." And Finn's ability to write devastating melody is showcased with songs such as the subtly humanitarian "Pour Le Monde." The album has received almost universal critical acclaim.
It's a fitting tribute to a band and a man who have meant so much to so many people.
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