Home Read Albums Of The Week: Crowded House | Gravity Stairs

Albums Of The Week: Crowded House | Gravity Stairs

THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE: “For more than four decades, Crowded House leader Neil Finn has been on an evolving, winding journey. Crowded House’s mid-’80s hits like Don’t Dream It’s Over and Something So Strong, combined with albums like Woodface and Together Alone, set the standard for the period’s erudite jangle-pop, while always pushing the band’s art forward.

That creative spirit brings Finn and his Crowded House bandmates to Gravity Stairs, their first new release since 2021’s Dreamers Are Waiting and eighth overall. Produced by the band with Steven Schram, the album shows Crowded House in their current incarnation — Finn, Nick Seymour, Mitchell Froom and Finn’s sons Elroy and Liam — as sharp as ever, feeling musically adventurous, and still capable of reaching the staggering highs that have made them an international favorite. It’s the act of climbing those figurative “gravity stairs,” inspired by a heavy stone staircase near where Finn vacations, that he likens to his own mindset as a creator.

Gravity Stairs is symbolic of the struggle to ascend, acknowledging the opposing forces of weight on the mechanics of living. It’s an act of will everyday. Finn describes that process in Magic Piano, which opens the album. Lush and sophisticated, the song’s arrangement captures an almost hallucinatory feeling of drifting upward. “Let the melody reign, oh yeah,” Finn sings, offering homage to what he calls his “slavish devotion to music.”

Finn’s résumé bears that out. From joining his brother Tim in the artful pop band Split Enz to leading Crowded House to his numerous solo efforts, Finn’s varied body of work is connected by his knack for penning meticulous, indelible melodies and impressionistic lyrics that demand multiple listens. It’s earned him devoted fans all over the globe.

Magic Piano marked one of the first songs the band — whose members currently reside in four different countries — attempted to work up in rehearsals ahead of their recording sessions for Gravity Stairs, which took place in Australia, New Zealand, and California. The second day they played it, it suddenly clicked.

“It was a very different song when we started playing it. It was probably ambitious as a first recording because it’s not a simple song — it’s got a lot of twists and turns,” Finn says. “But the aim is to produce something that sounds effortless, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world and that it’s always existed like that. That’s the art of record making.”

Other songs on Gravity Stairs do that in the best possible way. There’s a hyper-melodic, Brit-pop quality to Teenage Summer which brims with sparkling vocal harmonies and a longing for connection. Finn imagined the song during the most isolated parts of the Covid lockdown, but instead of melancholy, it has a big, empathetic heart and hope to spare. “It’s about trying to achieve some reality and being aware that connection is hard to make,” he says. “And even before Covid, it was hard to find closeness to people. That became particularly acute afterward.”

Themes of connection and love pop up in several places on Gravity Stairs. All That I Can Ever Own begins with a funky drum beat and shimmering keyboards as it examines impermanence through child rearing and property under threat by rising waters. By the time it reaches its conclusion, it’s arrived at something that sounds like jubilation. “There’s an awareness that you can’t really control the outcomes of what happens when you love someone,” Finn says. “Throughout your life there’s an element of letting go of anything other than the love you feel for somebody.”

Finn borrowed from his father’s war diary for Some Greater Plan (for Claire), drawing on a memory of a whirlwind romance in Italy for a melody that’s both seductive and emotional. “It was always a thing that came up. Dad would have this wistful look in his eye when he would talk about Italy,” Finn recalls. Finn’s brother Tim makes an appearance on the track, which is dedicated to a friend who’s no longer with us. Equally cinematic, the mysterious Black Water, White Circle peers through the world of dreams into the afterlife.

Oh Hi, a friendly tune with colorful spirals of guitar and a chorus worthy of repeat singalongs, makes a promise: “I won’t forget.” The tune has a deep connection to Finn’s philanthropic efforts with So They Can, an international nonprofit focused on building schools in remote parts of Kenya and Tanzania. “I’m hoping the song comes across without needing to know the backstory,” Finn says, “but it’s very much inspired by these incredible kids and their magnificence.”

Gravity Stairs is bookended by a second song about the joys and agonies of creating. Night Song is almost like a waking dream, slipping into different rhythmic patterns and arrangements as it unfolds and following the siren call of creation through a scorpion-guarded desert landscape and out through desolate stretches of night. “Wish there was another way,” Finn sings, knowingly.

“That was inspired by a guy I heard outside my hotel window at 3 in the morning. He was ranting and saying amazing things,” Finn says. “You share that part of the night with people who are on his kind of trip. I felt a strange kinship with him.” The unknown man’s voice is the last sound on Gravity Stairs and his wondrous exclamation is familiar in a way to Finn, who’s experienced his share of late nights trying to unlock the magic of a composition.

“People will certainly relate to the idea that no matter what you’re thinking about at 2 in the morning, it feels like obsession,” he says. “And when I’m working on songs, that’s the reality: I’m going to bed with a tune going round in my head, and I’ll wake up with a tune going round in my head.”

And as he has so many times before, Finn will make the decision to scale those gravity stairs yet again to see what awaits at the top.”