The Evolution Of Crowded House In 15 Essential Tracks
Crowded House’s ascent wasn't an easy one - but when they clicked, they achieved songwriting greatness.
They may have said farewell to the world in 1996, but the truth is Crowded House have never really gone away.
Born out of the ashes of Split Enz, singer-songwriter Neil Finn and drummer Paul Hester made the move from their native Auckland to a new life in Melbourne. Nick Seymour, who had already been laying down the low-end with various bands around the city, caught wind of Finn and Hester’s plans to form a new band. He wanted in, and the foundations were laid for one of the all-time great pop-rock groups. The next decade would come with equal parts triumph and tragedy, timeless classics and inner-band turmoil. Crowded House’s ascent was never an easy one, but when everyone involved was on the same page it was clear that they were capable of true standard-bearing songwriting greatness.
Reunions followed in 2007 and 2016 — the former with two new albums in tow, and the latter to commemorate their initial farewell on the steps of the Opera House. These saw Finn and Seymour recruit longtime touring member Mark Hart, as well as new drummer Matt Sherrod — who, famously, had never heard a song by the band before joining. Though the untimely passing of Hester loomed over both reunions, they were ultimately treated as celebrations of his life and music – not to mention the band’s ongoing legacy.
2020 was meant to be Crowded House’s proper comeback year, with Finn and Seymour introducing a new line-up — Finn’s sons Liam and Elroy, plus original producer Mitch Froom — and touring globally. Unfortunately, the world where we live (ohhhh-ohhhh) had other plans. 2021, however, has been a little kinder. The band’s long-awaited comeback LP, Dreamers Are Waiting, arrived last week following a tour of their native New Zealand — and with, any luck, more touring still to come.
Even when they’re not touring, though, you can still hear their songs just about everywhere — and they mean just as much now to listeners as they did back then.
Today, let’s take a look at 15 essential songs from the band’s catalogue — and, much like when we talked about You Am I, we’re going to try and shift the focus away from the obvious choices for the most part. We all love ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over,’ absolutely. But what more can you say about that song that hasn’t already been said? When it comes to the Crowdies, there’s an entire private universe to explore — so come join us on this blind date with destiny.
#1. ‘Mean To Me’ (1986)
There’s logically no better place to begin than the side-one, track-one of Crowdies’ beloved debut, which also served as their first single. The hangover of Split Enz’s is still present, most notably in the song’s wigged-out keyboard detour.
What ‘Mean to Me’ accomplishes outside of that, is establishing key touchstones of what will go on to be inextricable parts of the Crowded House sound. Both Finn’s strident pop sensibilities and his unique lyrical sense of place make their firm stamps here simultaneously. From Te Awamutu to the Hollywood Hills, ‘Mean to Me’ was a giant leap into the next chapter.
#2. ‘I Walk Away’ (1986)
For a band primarily praised for their pop songs, Crowded House don’t get nearly enough credence as a rock band. Case in point: ‘I Walk Away’ is a certifiable gem from Crowded House’s B-side, but wasn’t even released as a single.
There’s something zeitgeisty about this one — it feels like U2 at their hungriest, propulsive and urgent in its delivery. Hester puts on a showcase of tension and release, while Seymour holds down the low-end and Finn executes some truly underrated guitar work. It’s exemplary of a fully-fledged power trio firing on all cylinders, rockin’ all over the world.
#3. ‘Into Temptation’ (1988)
If you ever needed an example of how convincing Neil Finn’s songwriting is, consider this: Sharon Finn thought Neil was cheating on him because of this song. It’s worth noting that she’d been married to him for six years here — and has remained so right up to this very day, celebrating their 40th anniversary next year.
Such was the detail of this escapist ode to infidelity, however, that she couldn’t help but wonder. Add in the undercurrent of Hester’s unmistakable jazz-brush finesse and a synth-string orchestral sweep, and you’re left with one of the band’s most emotive, understated moments.
#4. ‘Sister Madly’ (1988)
One of the most recognisable bits of iconography associated with Crowded House is the three classic-era members side by side — Finn and Seymour either side of Hester, who is positioned with a snare drum and splash cymbal in front of him. This is how the band would convene to perform ‘Sister Madly’, their homage to the skiffle movement and to street-corner musicianship.
Seymour executes a career-best walking bassline, and the trio’s three-part harmonies are impeccable. Of particular note, however, is once again Hester’s jazz brushes — somehow, he always knew just how to make a snare drum positively sizzle.
#5. ‘It’s Only Natural’ (1991)
The Finn brothers working together again after years apart was a short-lived but beloved era of Crowded House. Woodface saw the band enter the new decade with a string of sterling hits, with ‘It’s Only Natural’ deservedly serving as one of its most revered. Who else but Neil and Tim could put a minor fall after a major lift and still have it sound like pristine pop?
Their omnipresent harmonies bolster the song’s already-robust arrangement, creating something thoroughly distinctive and ultimately career-defining. Also of note: This is the only Crowdies song to begin with a clown-horn noise. Just because, really.
#6. ‘Italian Plastic’ (1991)
Paul Hester only wrote a handful of songs in his tenure with Crowded House. He was not the articulate and evocative writer of the band — this, his solo contribution to Woodface, rhymes “pathetic” with “pathetic.”
What Hester did have, however, is heart — and plenty of it. Hearing the Finns go all-in on a chorus as simplistically beautiful as “When you wake up with me/I’ll be your glass of water,” you can tell both wished they’d penned it. This isn’t the smash ‘Fall At Your Feet’ or ‘Four Seasons in One Day’ was, but it never needed to be.
#7. ‘Pineapple Head’ (1993)
Long before he joined Crowded House as a full-time member, Liam Finn was contributing to Crowded House songs. The story goes that Neil’s son uttered several of the nonsensical phrases throughout the song’s lyrics when he was sick with a fever as a child — among them “detective is flat” and the title itself. This was then transformed into a sea-shanty waltz, with steely guitars and a cooing Mellotron beneath it. Compositionally it’s part ‘Norweigan Wood’, part ‘Golden Brown’, all Crowded House. Amidst the album that effectively served as the beginning of the end, ‘Pineapple Head’ offered whimsy and charm.
#8. ‘Private Universe’ (1993)
Together Alone was the quiet, introverted follow-up to the bright, extroverted Woodface. No song on said album reflected this better than ‘Private Universe’, which grounded the band in solitude and ambience.
In fact, the song may be among the quietest in their discography — which, rather than being easy to ignore, only makes you want to listen more intently. Doing so will lead you to its wafting keyboards, hypnotic tablas and Finn embracing these fleeting moments of unity while he’s able. Though not exactly a festival anthem, it’s survived as a favourite among both fans and the band themselves.
#9. ‘Not the Girl You Think You Are’ (1996)
Before shutting up shop, Crowded House recorded new songs for their greatest-hits album Recurring Dream. The fact these final songs were as exceptional as they were proved what a creative force Crowded House were for their time, even with one foot out the proverbial door.
Here, Finn pens his own Beatles homage, coming after Sir Paul himself dubbed Finn the greatest living songwriter. It’s another low-key, humble and wholly charming Crowdies moment. There’s also sentimental value attached: These sessions marked Hester’s final time recording with the band. Once more, he waltzes into the good night with a quintessential brush shuffle.
#10. ‘Don’t Stop Now’ (2007)
It wasn’t long into writing for the first time following Hester’s 2005 passing that Finn realised he wasn’t making a new solo record: he was making a Crowded House record. The band’s first single in 11 years stemmed from an innocuous Google Maps mishap, but its pleading chorus of perseverance was reflective of Finn and Seymour’s collective grieving. A star guest turn from Johnny Marr sees his trademark jangle open up the crack in the darkness to let the light come in, while Finn’s minor-major cadence allows for a rainbow after the storm. It’s quote-unquote “new” Crowdies, but simultaneously evergreen.
#11. ‘Saturday Sun’ (2010)
With Finn, Seymour, Mark Hart and Matt Sherrod now road-tested and in full swing, Intriguer saw Crowded House 2.0 take advantage of their present-tense vitality and take a few more risks in the creative process. ‘Saturday Sun’ is the album’s shining example, which sees Finn toy with a vocoder for the first time in the band’s history to a fittingly intriguing effect. Elsewhere, Sherrod packs a rumble as he locks into Seymour’s distorted bass, while Hart adds in a surprising guitar solo and a stinging zither to cut through Finn’s off-kilter chorus. Things have changed, certainly. For the better, though.
#12. ‘To the Island’ (2021)
We arrive in the modern-day with a single from Dreamers Are Waiting, the debut of Crowded House 3.0. It’s worth commending Finn for remaining so explorative and creative into his 60s when most of his contemporaries have happily settled into nostalgia.
‘To the Island’ is one of the darkest, weirdest Crowdies singles ever committed to record. From its haunting Finn-family harmonies to its spiralling boom-thwack drums, it’s a fascinating and calculated circumnavigation of alternative pop. Here, you’re living on island time. Bonus points: check out the exceptional Tame Impala and UMO remixes, that double down on the song’s peculiarities.
#13. ‘Something So Strong’ (1986/1996/2006)
Time for the encore. More hits! ‘Something So Strong’ is rightfully revered as a staple in the band’s discography, but admittedly the shine of the original has worn off somewhat with its dated, reverb-heavy production. If you want to hear the song at full strength, head to the Farewell to the World live album/DVD.
Hessie’s drumming is exceptional as always, packing more of a punch, particularly in the chorus. Hart’s Hammond organ adds a warm layer to the already-bright pop tune, too, and Finn even gets a “move-away-from-the-mic” moment in the bridge so the audience can sing it for him.
#14. ‘World Where You Live’ (1986)
No matter where you look, ‘World Where You Live’ is delivering. 0:10: “Here’s someone now” is the best opening line Neil Finn has ever written; sudden and perfect. 1:41: The “ohhhhh-ohhhhhh”s and “ayyyyyy-ayyyyyyy”s of the chorus are some of the catchiest ever committed to record. 2:47: “To the world, to the world, to the world” is the finest hour of both Seymour and Hessie as backing vocalists, plus an all-time best Crowdies outro.
‘World Where You Live’ is a nigh-on spotless concoction — one of the earliest examples of the classic trio’s chemistry and their lofty pop ambitions confidently realised.
#15. ‘Better Be Home Soon’ (1988)
‘Better Be Home Soon’ has been played at weddings, and it makes perfect sense. ‘Better Be Home Soon’ has been played at funerals, and it makes perfect sense. ‘Better Be Home Soon’ has closed out nearly every show Neil Finn has played in the last 30 years, and it makes perfect sense. ‘Better Be Home Soon’ was the song he chose to play at the ARIAs to pay tribute to Paul Hester, and it makes perfect sense.
Few songs throughout history have meant as many different things to as many different people. Even fewer have had all of those meanings serve as entirely valid. There is no song Neil Finn has ever written that’s quite like ‘Better Be Home Soon’, and that makes perfect sense.
David James Young is a freelance music writer and podcaster and he will be home soon. Find out more at www.davidjamesyoung.com