In the Lowlands: Crowded House’s Temple of Low Men at 35

A look back on Neil Finn’s inward turn while surfing a wave of unprecedented success

Temple of Low Men magazine ad (Image: eBay)

Neil Finn has done pretty well for himself, all told. Today, he’s a member of Fleetwood Mac, the group having decided they’re never going back again to Lindsay Buckingham.

He’s been an OBE since 1993, enjoys healthy income streams from soundtrack work and touring, and admirably spearheaded the 7 Worlds Collide project, a series of all-star concerts and recordings for charity. He placed a number of songs on the Australasian Performing Rights Association’s Top 100 New Zealand Songs of All Time list, including one – you can probably guess which one – at #2. Radiohead called him pop’s “most prolific writer of great songs”. You can’t spot his celebrity on sight – he’s always been a humble, normal bloke. But even outside of NZ, where he’s basically a god, he’s one of pop music’s most unassailable successes.

The long path young Neil took to prominence is a unique one. His proximity to pop stardom began at just 15, in 1973. Split Enz – co-founded and led by his elder brother Tim and future Swingers leader Phil Judd – were there on the telly, for the New Faces talent contest (they came in second to last). Three years of slow ascent later, Judd, and his songs, were gone. Having moved to Australia in an effort to broaden their commercial horizons – native Kiwi pop was still fairly nascent – Tim decided to bring his brother into the fold, at the suggestion of departing bassist Mike Chunn. Seven years after Neil sat in awe watching his brother and his band strive for stardom, he’d penned their biggest hit to date, “I Got You”. It shot to #1, as did its parent LP True Colours. Neil was instrumental to the band’s newfound international success.


VIDEO: Split Enz “I Got You”

Tim was on fire too, his talents ever-evolving, and many see this as the start of the band’s greatest era – though their dizzier, more progressive early work is also abundant with treasure. And while Neil and Tim have remained unusually harmonious collaborators, consistently finding reasons to work together as a writing duo, all records attest to Tim’s chagrin at Neil’s dark-horse swing around the track. It’s true, the elder Finn’s tendencies were more experimental, while Neil, who turned 20 in 1978, was rooted more comfortably in the tighter, more easily melodic Beatle reconfigurations of the New Wave era. And no one, even only children, needs explained why your younger brother suddenly being regarded as the golden boy, in the band you invited him into as a mere guitar player, would be a reasonably upsetting feeling.

The thick midsection of the ‘80s were where all of this came to a head. In 1983, after two more albums and five more hits (two of the biggest were Neil’s), Tim, recently recovering from a nervous breakdown, decided to exorcise some of his anxieties with a solo album. “There’s a fraction too much friction”, he diagnosed his own band from this untyrannical distance on the album’s hit; it was evident in both the title and content of Split Enz’ own Conflicting Emotions, a wonderful, underrated album which features one of Neil’s loveliest great songs (“Message to My Girl”) and one of his ugliest (“Bullet Brain and Cactus Head”, also likely a commentary on his relationship with Tim). By now, the band’s record company was shying away from their artier tendencies, and paring down their support. Tim had had enough, and split.

Neil threw together an uneven farewell album, See Ya Round, and set out on his own path, on which he quickly encountered a Capitol executive with ears abuzz. I’ve never been clear on whether Tim’s gold-in-NZ, dead-everywhere-else follow-up, The Big Canoe, is titled in preemptive reference to the band Neil was workshopping out in Los Angeles. But pretty soon that name crowded anything Tim was doing out. Crowded House took nearly a year to break internationally, helped immensely by “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” one of those heaven-sent modern standards. It was massive in the U.S. and U.K.; Neil had punctured the big-time firmament. Ever-puckish, Tim was candid about his feelings at the time: “I was happy when it wasn’t going well and depressed when they got a hit. [Neil] had achieved what we’d dreamed of for so long.”

Crowded House Temple of Low Men, Capitol Records 1988

And though it was far too soon to dream it was over, Finn himself was already feeling acute pressure to follow up. Details of what was going on behind the scenes as the band slumped semi-triumphantly into their sophomore effort – working title: Mediocre Follow-Up – are nebulous at best, but at base it’s clear that being an overnight success didn’t compel frequent visits from Finn’s muse. Relations between he and the two others crowding his house were civil, but never completely stable. Troubled drummer Paul Hester kept the rooms running with electricity, but his wild-card ways robbed the band of a backstage ballast. Evidently, one was needed – a tantalizing, if unclearly sourced, tidbit online suggests that Finn began to blame bassist Nick Seymour for a case of writer’s block. Neil fired him (for a month) in 1989.

When Temple of Low Men came out 35 years ago, its very title announcing a downbeat retreat from the more hyped-up vibe of the debut, there was little agreement what to make of it, by press or public. But in general, the disappointment that terrified Finn had been manifested. The bar it hoped to meet had been a high one. Certainly, if their first album peaked at number one in Oz and won the ARIA for Album and Song of the Year, as Low Men and its gorgeous closing ballad “Better Be Home Soon” respectively did, they’d have been plenty pleased. But the album was quickly regarded as something of a missed step. If you’ve lucked into a blockbuster, you’re expected to keep busting blocks. And the press’s enthusiasm while kind, tended muted, outside the outright savagery of Robert Christgau’s brilliant but bitchy blurb:

“Problem’s not that philistine tastemakers are quashing Neil Finn’s hit-debut blues, but that Finn has neglected the only thing he has to offer the world: perky hooks. Programmers don’t care what he’s brooding about because nobody else does. Plenty of popstars have managed to stir up interest in their petty anxieties. Be thankful there isn’t one more.” He concluded with the casual dismissal of a C grade.

As usual, there’s at least one kernel of eagle-eyed truth, whether you agree or disagree: perky hooks were Neil Finn’s great talent, and for whatever reason, this wasn’t his target when he had the weight of a worldwide hit on his shoulders. The elusive personal factors aren’t made all that clear by the songs, most of which tend abstract lyrically – “I Feel Possessed” and “Better Be Home Soon” sound like two of the sweetest messages to his girl Neil ever wrote, but they’re scarred all over with uncertainty. And when he does nail the words, as on the Elvis Costello-favored “Into Temptation” – absolutely one of the top ten greatest songs ever written about infidelity – he echoes the dark sadness of the subject with his music. (Finn insists this song was inspired by the escapades of a rugby team in hotel rooms neighboring his).

The sound of the album also constitutes the start of a self-liberation from the ‘80s sonic trappings the debut inevitably boasted. Though producer Mitchell Froom and his soundscaping partner Tchad Blake were still evolving into their suggestive, atmospheric ‘90s style, you can hear them playing around with unconventional sounds, weaving careening sheets of psychedelia into “Kill Eye” and “When You Come”, or paring down the settings to showcase Finn’s voice – which is underrated, assured yet so emotionally present. “It’s funny to me,” Froom told Finn on his Fang Radio show. “Records just happen, you make them, you do the best you can.” He tells of how mixer Bob Clearmountain, living up to his name, “felt he went a little too bright on the record,” having damaged his ears after an ill-managed scuba-diving foray.

It’s true that to some extent, Temple of Low Men’s rep now stands as “one for the fans” – a sleeper of sorts sandwiched between the glossy multiplatinum debut and the lively, inspired Woodface, for which Tim Finn himself was briefly brought in as co-writer and vocalist. The latter is perhaps Crowded House’s best album – a testament to addition, collaboration, brotherhood, sharing the load with someone you feel more comfortable doing so with than your bandmates. But Temple of Low Men is the album on which Neil got to stretch out more than ever before, explore his gifts, and while it may have yielded unpleasant feelings on every side, his decision to resist forcing hit hooks was probably the right one – this being Neil Finn, it’s not as if there isn’t a wonderful melody hidden in every corner of the music.


VIDEO: Crowded House “Better Be Home Soon”

Are they good songs? Yes. Great? Well, only a few – that Richard Thompson plays the solo on the peppy “Sister Madly”, for instance, is the most interesting thing about it. “It’s a mystery”, Finn told the Guardian years later about the act of songwriting. “And it’s a mystery to me that it’s a mystery; it annoys me that I haven’t got any code or modus operandi for writing.” A normal bloke till the end. Structurally, these little works often feel confused, just like the production. “It suffered a bit from having too many parts… like it was trying a bit hard,” Froom later conceded. Hearing Finn perform these songs in spare acoustic settings on the Fang Radio episode devoted to the album is a revelation – finally, some of these songs breathe, and you can luxuriate in Finn’s chords, the expert Beatleness (there’s no other word for it) of his choices.

On this loose show, Neil will sometimes issue “tree reviews,” providing his retrospective analysis of an album along his career by linking it to a particular kind of tree, which he describes (sometimes seeming to forget he’s talking about an album) in mock-meditative tones over an amusingly unamusing New Age soundtrack. For Temple of Low Men, he selects “the weeping willow, for the mixture of melancholy and steadfastness this album displays.”

He seamlessly proceeds into a review of Xgau’s review of Low Men: “A critic, Robert Christ-someone, claimed I was wallowing in self-pity with this album – but I disagree. Perhaps, like the weeping willow, I was simply leaning closer to the river to avoid being chopped down, and to feel better the flow of nature, and the bittersweet sadness of experience. So, fuck you, Robert.”



Ryan Maffei

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Ryan Maffei

Ryan Maffei is a freelance writer, musician and actor in the Dallas area. He was a member of the lost punk group Hot Lil Hands and the lost pop group the Pozniaks. He loves the Go-Betweens and was lucky enough to write liner notes for their box sets.

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