Album of the Week, December 16: Temple of Low Men by Crowded House

Singer and songwriter Neil Finn had some unexpected success on his hands. For the better part of a decade he had enjoyed reasonable success in Australia and New Zealand as part of Split Enz. His brother, Tim, co-founded the band with Phil Judd and asked Neil to join in 1977 when Judd departed. Over the course of six albums, Neil helped reshape the band’s sound, as he and Tim pursued a more pop-oriented new wave sound than the experimental textures of the previous releases. When Tim departed for a solo career, Neil kept the Enz together for one more disc and called it a day. He moved to the U.S. with bandmate Paul Hester. They worked with bassist Nick Seymore and guitarist Craig Hooper as the Mullanes, pursuing a much more traditional pop sound. Hooper left the band and new label Capitol suggested a change of name. As a result, their first release was the eponymous Crowded House. It achieved unprecedented success for Neil and his bandmates, going multi-platinum and spawning two major international hits including the U.S. #2 Don’t Dream It’s Over.

Title Temple of Low Men
Act Crowded House
Label Capitol Release Date July 1988
Producer Mitchell Froom
U.S. Chart  40 U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
[US Hot 100]
  1. I Feel Possessed
  2. Kill Eye
  3. Into Temptation
  4. Mansion In the Slums
  5. When You Come
  6. Never Be the Same
  7. Love This Life
  8. Sister Madly
  9. In the Lowlands
  10. Better Be Home Soon [#42]

For their second album, Finn sharpened his songwriting skills even further. This is his strongest collection of songs, with all 10 blending a strong pop sensibility with a dark, mature approach to the lyrics. Nearly 25 years on,  it remains the highlight of Neil Finn’s stellar career.

The album kicks off with the haunting love song I Feel Possessed. It’s sound is dark and quiet, but the overall message is an optimistic note of need and love. From there the band moves into the harrowing Kill Eye, a dark meditation on killers, obsession, and the more sinister threads of humanity that tie us together. Musically jarring, it sets up the journey to follow.

Next up is another quiet song, the aching Into Temptation. A surprisingly frank look at infidelity and the cost of being overtaken by emotion, it’s one of Finn’s strongest lyrics. The disc takes another sharp turn with Mansion In the Slums, a look at money culture and the perils of living beyond one’s means. It’s especially poignant given the band’s recent success and the challenges faced with following up their massive debut. Finn’s nearly stuttered vocal shows confusion, want, and anger in equal measure with “what I mean is, would you mind if I had it all?” Side one of the original album ends with another song about romance, the potent When You Come. It’s a lyrical explosion of passion, using multiple images from nature to describe a couple whose physical and emotional connection are immensely powerful.

In some ways, Never Be the Same is a follow up to Don’t Dream It’s Over, turned on its head. It needn’t be over, Finn suggests, if we could just fundamentally change who we are in this relationship. It’s a powerful acknowledgment of something coming to an end with a painful reluctance to see the good go along with the bad. Finn exorcises this darkness with Love This Life. Hardly as optimistic as the title suggests, it is more of a mantra to find a way to move on after a powerful loss.

Sister Madly is another meditation on fame, describing the excesses and confusion that can accompany it. The band skewer pop consumer culture neatly, while giving a nod to their occasional complicity. Richard Thompson, also working with producer Mitchell Froom at the time, stops by to lend a tasty guitar solo. In the Lowlands is a nice treatment of all the politics of the album, personal and public. It’s a journey to find a better place, with some cleansing suffering on the way. The album ends with its lone U.S. single, Better Be Home Soon. A testament to personal strength, it offers a hope for redemption through love but is willing to stand on its own two feet. It’s one of the finest songs Neil Finn has written and one of his strongest vocal performances on disc.

The less cheery material led to weaker promotion and basically ended the band’s U.S. success. Tim Finn joined for one album, the sporadically interesting but internationally massive seller Woodface. With additional members popping in and out, Crowded House carried on for one more album before dissolving. Neil Finn has recorded a number of solo albums and a couple of discs with Tim as the Finn Brothers. Crowded House reformed five years ago (minus Hester, who had committed suicide in 2005). Neil also continues with a variety of side projects.

FURTHER LISTENING: Crowded House is a rare album that earns its pop success by having truly strong songs. It hints at the glory to come on Temple of Low Men and is arguably an easier listen. The first Finn Brothers album is somewhat uneven but has delightful contributions from both brothers; the strongest of Neil’s solo albums is 1998’s Try Whistling This, a great set of songs that would have worked with Crowded House but don’t need them to succeed. For fans interested in the Split Enz days, that band’s strongest offering is True Colors, on which Neil truly comes into his own as a writer, matching Tim’s contributions nicely.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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