At the Vinyl Preservation Society of Idaho's monthly meetings, attendees are invited to play a song or two on the communal turntable. In choosing the albums that I would bring to my first VPS meeting, I decided on a couple that I thought might impress the other attendees, a couple that were mostly innocuous and a couple of albums that I truly love. When my name was called, it occurred to me that the song I chose to play would say something about me as a person, even to this room full of strangers. Wanting to say the right thing, I picked a song that speaks to me as loudly as it did the first time I heard it in the '80s: "Message to My Girl" from Split Enz's 1983 album Conflicting Emotions.
In the 20-plus years since the release of that album, Split Enz-founder New Zealand-born Tim Finn and his younger brother and bandmate, Neil, have continued to create music both together and apart. As the enigmatic frontman of Split Enz and Crowded House (of which Tim Finn was a short-time member), the younger Finn is often the better-known of the two, the George Michael to his brother's Andrew Ridgely. Top 40 radio stations have not paid the older Finn much heed over the years (but since when is that truly a measure of a musician's success?), and the L.A. Times called him "one of the great underappreciated pop singers of our time." But with Finn's new major-label release, Imaginary Kingdom, that may all soon change.
Imaginary Kingdom, Finn's seventh solo release, is a well-written, well-arranged, well-produced collection of songs by the singer/songwriter that could easily find its way into the 21st century pop music canon. Whether Finn intended it or not, Imaginary Kingdom is his magnum opus. It is a mix of melancholia and magic, the lyrics and melodies floating across an ocean of ideas.
Though the album wasn't released in the United States until April 2007, Finn told BW the album was released in "two-double-oh-six in New Zealand, Australia, the UK and Europe ... the label in America wanted to get it all right. I had releases predicated on deals with labels, and it was very staggered. I started off doing the release for EMI/Australia, and each territory sort of came onboard one after the other in a domino effect. By the time Manhattan got on to it, it was already too late for them to put it out in two-double-oh-six."
Finn has toured in support of the album once already, and this second leg of touring may very well have been a result of the acclaim the album has been receiving stateside. The first track, "Couldn't Be Done," is a bouncy tune in which the nautical theme that ebbs and flows throughout the album is reflected literally in the accompanying video. The single has seen its share of radio airtime, reacquainting Finn with longtime fans while introducing him to new ones. In this time in music when the single is king, Finn said he doesn't have a favorite track. "It's always pretty hard to [choose]. A lot of people have gravitated toward 'Astounding Moon' as being one of my best songs. That one seems to stand out for people. But for me, I like it as an album. It really works for me as an album, which I'm really pleased about. It's not always easy to get that flow."
And flow is definitely an overall theme on Kingdom. While the tracks can certainly stand alone, this is one particular instance when the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts. From the pull of the moon in "Astounding Moon" to the dark drum-heavy "Unsinkable" (a song that opens with the voice of Finn's young son saying, "Dad, I wish we could all go down together," and in which Finn sings, "You've had a realization / like a ship that's going down / we might not always be around"), the sea and ocean move through each song like the waters that encircle Finn's birthplace. "I've always been a pretty watery sort of guy," Finn said. "I come from New Zealand. We're surrounded by water; it's two skinny little islands. There's always oceans, there's always rivers and mountains, and that sort of stuff is integral to who I am and how I grew up. You can't shake that stuff, so I guess I try and find ways of using those images in different ways on different albums. Sometimes they can express sadness, sometimes they can express joy or ecstasy or bliss. Or sometimes sorrow. They're pretty useful images to use really. Especially the ocean." When asked if Kingdom focuses on one emotion more than others, he said it portrays a combination of emotions. "[It's] bittersweet, not on either side of the line too much. There are songs about loss and songs about revelation and songs about regret. I'm never one to go completely down one track. I tend to pull myself up and go back the other way for a while. It's just the way I write. I think bittersweet is probably a good way of putting that."
Proof positive of Finn's take on his album is the difference between the jaunty George Harrison-esque melodies in "Couldn't Be Done" and the solemn, blue sounds of "Salt to the Sea," in which Finn, his voice near breaking, sings "Movin' in darkness to the place I saw him last / Cryin' for the friendship that's forever in the past / We're goin' home to mourn him on a jet plane / Crossin' datelines, we are goin' nowhere fast / There's a river running through our town carrying salt to the sea / And our tears merge with the water carrying salt to the sea." The song is an ode to Paul Hester, who played drums in both Split Enz and Crowded House, the latter of which he co-founded. Hester committed suicide in 2005 at the age of 46. "It was a really tough time for all of us when Paul died. Neil and I were playing at the Royal Albert Hall in London when we heard the news ... we had to get straight on a plane and travel all the way back to Australia for the funeral. It just struck me at the funeral ... how nobody knew what to say or do. Everybody was there for one reason, but everybody was alone. I wanted ["Salt to the Sea"] to be worthy of [Hester's] memory. He was an amazing person."
And Imaginary Kingdom is an amazing album. Finn's early work helped define New Age music, and his latest work may help define new music, saying something not only about Finn but also the people who listen to it.
Tim Finn will appear in Boise on Friday, Feb. 1 at the Bouquet with Miranda Lee Richards. Tickets are $16 advance, $18 at the door. The Bouquet, 1010 W. Main St., 208-345-6605, TheBouquet.net. Finn will perform live at the KRVB 94.9 The River studios at noon on Friday. For more information, visit RiverInteractive.com.