Falsetto is a rock singer's secret weapon. The upper register of a man's voice can transmit a sexy yowl, a vulnerable plea for understanding, or the simple joys of a high melody. In Neil Finn's case, it's all of the above.
He just released Dizzy Heights, his third proper solo record and one that veers further into atmospheric territory than his work with Crowded House or Split Enz. With the help of his musician sons Liam and Elroy and wife of 32 years, Sharon, Finn deftly explores themes of life in the digital age while managing to mesh with the current musical landscape. Above the groovy, occasionally psychedelic bop of this family band co-produced by Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Tame Impala), Finn's voice is a revelation to every middle-aged rock fan who'd lost hope for the next smart pop record: This is the sound of a songwriter ably pushing personal limits.
"I've used falsetto in bits and pieces before, but I just found myself enjoying singing up here," Finn tells me during a phone call from the North Island of New Zealand, where he wrote the eleven tracks on Dizzy Heights. "There's a lot of music I like that's coming from a different angle, from people like Prince. There's no reason I shouldn't explore that."
Although Dizzy Heights is much more akin to McCartney II than Prince, there's an element here of both of those 1980 gems. Not to say Finn's latest sounds like a throwback; it does not. Yet the amalgam of swirling harmonies, strings, keyboards, and prominent bass give the album a decidedly dreamy and soulful edge. Finn credits his wife (who plays bass on the record and with whom he has toured and recorded under the moniker Pajama Club) for some of this newfound buoyancy.
"Sharon's a great dancer and she plays bass from the hips," he says. "The McCartneyesque style of bass playing is something I'm a fan of, but there's also something about just laying it down and providing that functional role of an anchor and a groove, and she does that really well."
The title track is perfectly crafted pop number with a kick in its step and cotton candy backing vocals; "Pony Ride" is a kaleidoscopic romp in 4/4 time; "Strangest Friends" never relents until the last bar; and "White Lies and Alibis" has a gentle intensity that recalls the Crowded House favorites "Private Universe" and "Into Temptation." While the mysterious "Divebomber" is sung almost completely in falsetto amidst heavy orchestration, the outro of "Flying in the Face of Love" is one of Finn's highest-octave choruses ever, with a catchy refrain, head bobbing beat and a killer bridge. "When it feels like a new sensation, then it's gone," he sings in its climax. The song may not carry the same weight as 1986's "Don't Dream It's Over," but if mainstream radio were interested in real music these days, this one would be a bona fide hit.
Even if much of it has a breezy and fresh patina, Dizzy Heights is one of Finn's most thoughtful recordings to date. These aren't just silly love songs or a disposable sonic experiment.
Finn says he's "into" recording at his Roundhead studio in Auckland with new technology that allows him to write and record almost simultaneously. Time there and at his home influenced the lyrics on Dizzy Heights, in which he ponders love and life in the era of "Game of Thrones" and social media addictions. He says his song "Better Than TV" is a metaphor for choosing a lover over one's ever-present screens and personal electronic devices, while the track "Recluse" muses over what Finn calls a "curious modern syndrome" of online relationships and fame. His musical questions are every bit as relevant as Spike Jonze's new film and digital love story, Her.
"You can feel like you're engaging with the world via the Internet, but there are people who are probably not encountering a lot of real life situations," says Finn. "I'm not one of these people who thinks life was better before or after the Internet. This is a new age and it's a matter of learning how to adapt to get the best out of it."