Crowded House - Woodface - Review
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critics' view

It's weird to say, but as a child my first experience of death wasn't through a pet or family member, but through Crowded House. I was eight years old when Paul Hester hung himself, and while I don't remember much of it, I do vividly remember the 2005 Arias: Neil playing "Better Be Home Soon" while a tribute to Paul's life played in snatches of footage, a best-of compilation of a human life. That song is about a failed relationship, of course, but because of that moment and because I was so young it is inextricably tied with Paul's death in my mind – almost like Neil wrote it in 1988 about Paul, he just didn't know it at the time. I still feel a strange kind of guilt for reacting so strongly to the death of a person I've never met.

It's a shame to start this review off on such a sombre note, though, because to an extent nothing puts a stupid grin on my face like a Crowded House album. "Something So Strong", "It's Only Natural", "Weather With You" and of course "Don't Dream It's Over" – which I like to call the unofficial Australian anthem, so well embedded it is into the culture of this country – all defined my childhood like bright flashes of inspiration. One of the most surreal experiences of my life thus far was rediscovering my love for this band in 2014 or so – hearing those four songs again like something from a past life and realising that, no, it wasn't just nostalgia, they held up just as well almost 25 years after their release. Digging into their deep cuts to find the hidden gems: the Elliott Smith-esque "Not the Girl You Think You Are", the live version of "Hole in the River" which dives into progressive rock, "Catherine Wheels", "Whispers and Moans", so many more. Listening for the first time, front-to-back, to the crown jewel from one of pop music's most brilliant, and surely most consistent writers: Woodface.

Apparently 8-year-old me missed "Chocolate Cake" the first time around because I have no memories of ever hearing it then, probably because as a single it flopped due to its hilariously satirical anti-American lyrics. As a mostly serious writer up to this point, Neil showed a surprising aptitude for humour on songs like "Chocolate Cake" and "There Goes God" – although it could well have been his brother Tim's influence that gave us sexy God walking a sausage dog. Speaking of Tim, his inclusion on Woodface was a masterstroke on Crowded House's part that would set this album apart from the others. While never as strong a writer or lyricist as his younger brother, Tim is undeniably the better singer and perhaps one of the best ever in pop, his bluesy growl kicking "Chocolate Cake" up a notch on pure adrenaline just as surely as he delicately wavers and cracks over the slow shuffle of "All I Ask". Meanwhile Neil is at the top of his game, penning timeless melodies that stand amongst the very best on "Weather With You" and "Four Seasons In One Day" and deftly navigating the territories of lost love, lost time and fat Americans without ever stepping in a pothole. In fact parts of Woodface show a sensitive, clever lyricist who never quite re-appeared on subsequent albums, as good as they were. "And I will catch the taxi driver/weeping like a wounded beast" has always been a favourite of mine, but there are cryptic traces of poetic genius dotted all around.

The reason I began this review with that anecdote – apart from trying to verbalise a thought that has been floating around in my head, in some form, probably ever since 2005 – is to try and explain the mixed brew of nostalgia, sadness and ecstasy I get listening to a Crowded House album. Even without Hester's death to colour all my perceptions I'm sure something of the same feeling would have remained; there is something to Neil's bare voice, or maybe in his lyrics, that tints supposedly optimistic songs like "Don't Dream It's Over" with the taste of darkness. It is this quality more than anything else that keeps Crowded House enduring even now, long after they should have faded to just a footnote in pop history. And if my breath catches a bit when, in the Hester-penned "Italian Plastic" (an otherwise ridiculously upbeat love song) Neil sings "I bring you rocks and flowers/you say they look pathetic/you pick me up at night/I don't feel pathetic", I take it as a sign that Paul Hester's impact on my life will never be unimportant.

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