Neil Finn’s latest solo album, Out of Silence, offers us the gift of catharsis in a season of unpredictable politics and societal division. This month, the Crowded House singer has returned with ten songs about family relationships, romance, self-examination and life after terrorism– and they’re all set to the most beautiful string, brass and choral arrangements I’ve heard in ages.
Whenever rock stars hire an orchestra, there’s a danger of creating sentimental sap or of failing to bring a too-grandiose musical vision to life. Thankfully, Out of Silence touches all the right nerves; rather than a decidedly classical project or cinema soundtrack, the album feels like something The Beatles’ late producer George Martin might have loved the chance to put together: Each cut is flecked with Neil Finn’s reliable optimism and built around Steinway pianos, traditional instruments, and a handful of what the New Zealand songwriter calls “characterful” voices backing him. “I just wanted to hear singing like you’d get around a campfire with friends,” he says of the Kiwi all-star vocalists he asked to join in. “Sometimes writing [alone] can be very insular, so being in a room and teaching people music was a very positive thing.”
To make the record, Finn says he holed up in his Auckland studio, where he experimented with piano riffs he’d discovered during a fruitful late-night burst of inspiration a couple of years ago. After finalizing the notation with his longtime arranger Victoria Kelly (The Hobbit), he brought in his singers, plus a mini-symphony, sons Liam and Elroy, and his brother Tim Finn (onetime Crowded House and Split Enz bandmate). Then he streamed the recording process live on Facebook every Friday in August (cue the Infinity Sessions). The weekly videos fit right at home in the 21st century music industry’s D.I.Y. climate and have created instant musical connections between Finn’s fans and the new songs.
On the resulting recordings, Finn’s melodic work is nearly matchless. The soul-searching “More Than One of You” and “Chameleon Days” are introspective yet hummable; “Second Nature,” a tribute to the heroism of everyday love affairs, gallops breathlessly to the swirl of staccato strings a la Electric Light Orchestra; the intricate intervals of “Alone” are lush without pretense (besting even Paul McCartney’s 1989 “Distractions”); “The Law is Always On Your Side” is a Crowded House-style pub tune sung as a parable; the ballad “I Know Different” references Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea as a metaphor for overcoming personal crisis; and “Terrorise Me,” penned after the 2015 Bataclan massacre in Paris, is a defiant waltz about the value of making music in the face of chaos and horror.
Finn’s home country is slightly detached from the hotbed of global angst (it’s further away from North Korea than Los Angeles); He says recording Out of Silence there made him “feel fortunate to be on the other side of the world, to some degree,” The album doesn’t openly discuss nuclear threats, natural disasters, and political nonsense, but the songs’ fitness and readiness to assuage these stressors is implied measure by measure. The gorgeous “Love is Emotional” is Finn’s plainspoken plea for love and understanding in relationships at every level. “The music is a recognition of isolation, but is also a reaching out to find warmth and human contact,” Finn says, adding, “If this album is some form of escape or comfort, I’d be happy about that.”
“Don’t Dream It’s Over,” a song he wrote for Crowded House in 1986, also continues to soothe and empower – more than three decades after its release. Finn was already in the process of making Out of Silence when his band performed “Don’t Dream It’s Over” at a concert in Australia in the days after POTUS was elected in 2016. The song has been covered by Toronto’s Choir! Choir! Choir!, New York’s PS 22 Chorus and a half dozen high profile artists, including Eddie Vedder, Chris Martin, Miley Cyrus and Ariana Grande. But on the steps of Sydney Opera House last November, its “open-ended” verses about not letting the world build walls between people unwittingly formed an anthem of resistance that’s still going strong.
Neil Finn is OK with that – even though he insists it’s “just a song.”
“When the world goes to hell in a handcart, as it were, an opposite and equal reaction will eventually manifest,” he says. “You’ve got to believe in the overall goodness of the human spirit.”