Although Neil Finn was always the undisputed leader of Crowded House, they also possessed an undeniable band chemistry, most apparent on their freewheeling live shows but also evident on their four studio albums, each possessing a distinct identity from each other. When Neil pulled the plug on Crowded House after 1994's Together Alone, it was clear that it was for musical reasons, that he wanted to step out and try some new things, resulting the kaleidoscopic Try Whistling This and the hazy One Nil, both book-ended by albums with his brother Tim. Neil planned to follow that second Finn Brothers album with another solo project, but as he started work, tragedy struck: his longtime friend Paul Hester, the drummer for Split Enz and Crowded House, committed suicide in 2005. In the wake of his death, Finn reconnected with the other founding Crowded House member, bassist Nick Seymour, and slowly the third solo album turned into a Crowded House album, with latter-day second guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Mark Hart brought in along the way, working alongside guests like Johnny Marr and Enz keyboardist Eddie Rayner. It was an organic reunion -- and not uncommon in the Enz universe, either, as the band keeps falling together for occasional anniversary concerts and popping up on each other's albums -- that arose perhaps as part of the grieving process, or perhaps Neil realizing he'd rather be part of a band than a solo act and, in his words, "what other band could I be in."
So, the very fact that Crowded House re-formed made sense, but the resulting 2007 album Time on Earth feels considerably different than the band's first four, often betraying its origins as a Neil Finn solo album. To begin with, it's streamlined where their previous albums were ragged, and the most notable element that's been trimmed is the humor that ran throughout each of their albums. This curtailing of good spirits is an appropriate, even expected, reaction to Hester's death, and his ghost does linger over the whole of Time on Earth, beginning with its very title and carrying through to Seymour's artwork, but most apparent in the subdued, contemplative tone of the album. Finn's lyrics are littered with allusions to Hester -- sometimes deceptively so, as on "Silent House," co-written with the Dixie Chicks prior to the drummer's death and first appearing on their 2006 album Taking the Long Way -- and this mildly mournful vibe is enhanced by the subdued tone of the album. This set of songs takes its time, relying heavily on ballads and meditative, mid-tempo pop tunes, and even the brighter numbers like "She Called Up" are far from sprightly. Finn may in a ruminative mode but Time on Earth is not heavy-handed or oppressively sorrowful: it's contemplative and sweetly melancholy. Given this hushed vibe, it's not surprising that the album, as a whole, is a bit of a grower, as Finn's tunes take some time to reveal their gifts. A few songs have an immediate impact -- such as the gently propulsive "Don't Stop Now," the snappy, jangly Marr collaboration "Even a Child" (the closest this record comes to a rocker) and the spacy, tongue-in-cheek "Transit Lounge," featuring Beth Rowley as vocal support -- but most of these are subtle songs that unfold at their own speed. It may take some time for the songs to catch hold, but once they do, they dig deep, sticking around in the memory like much of Finn's best work. But even if the best of this album does stand proudly alongside the best of Finn's music, Time on Earth is still quite unlike any of his other records: strangely, it feels more like a solo album than either of his solo albums, partially because it's such an introspective work, partially because it sustains a bittersweet tone from beginning to end, whereas his other solo efforts careened wildly between moods. But even if this is unquestionably Neil Finn's show, this also does feel like the work of a band, since there is a warmth here, a feeling of support, that sounds like a group, not a one-man-band. This curious intermingling of sounds and intent makes Time on Earth a haunting yet comforting affair that is quite unique in Neil Finn's body of work, yet functions as an oddly appropriate, utterly worthy, comeback as Crowded House.