I think one of the most gifted songwriters of the past twenty-five years or so is Neil Finn, best known as the frontman of Crowded House. And by the way, Crowded House is a seriously overlooked band: musically, they occupy a place on the Beatles Family Tree not too far from Oasis, and one way to think about Neil Finn is as the Gallagher brother who didn’t go bad. This means that his songs are sweeter than theirs, and often more complex — you can write songs like that when you’re really talented and not drunk out of your skull — but in other respects musically similar, and catchy in some of the same ways.
After a long hiatus during which Finn was occupied with other projects, Crowded House released a record in 2007 called Time on Earth. It’s a pretty melancholy record, colored by the recent deaths of Finn’s mother and the former Crowded House drummer, Paul Hester. And the melancholy songs are the record’s best: “Nobody Wants To,” “Pour le Monde.” (The Pitchfork generally positive review strikes me as a fair one.)
One song from the record I’ve been thinking about is called “Silent House”, because it concerns matters that we’re not used to hearing about in pop songs: aging, loss, dementia. It’s clearly about Finn’s mother and his grief at seeing her lose her memory and awareness, and at seeing a once-vibrant home become a “silent house.” It’s a lovely song, I think, even if the Dixie Chicks covered it.
But it’s rather strange to think of pop and rock music coming to this. Rock lyrics have always been strongly first-person, experiential, and confessional — but the experiences confessed have, of course, typically been those of young people. And when experiences of aging have come into play, they have tended to do so either in third-person narratives (Elvis Costello’s “Veronica”) or in deep comic irony (Steely Dan’s “Hey Nineteen”). Country music has always been open to a wider range of human experiences, which is why it’s not altogether surprising to find the Dixie Chicks recording the song (as much as I hate to grant to what they do the honorific title “country music”). There are a lot of country songs about aging, most of them humorous; but it’s strange to think that the idioms of post-Beatles pop can come to embrace, straightforwardly and unironically, the experiences of middle-age and after. I wonder how all that is going to sound in the coming years.