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Why Neil and Liam Finn's new album is a work of genius

Genius at play: Neil and Liam Finn.

Father-son duo Neil and Liam Finn combine their pop and avant-garde sensibilities in Lightsleeper.

Although father-son musical relationships can be fractious (just ask Rufus and Loudon Wainwright or Teddy and Richard Thompson), it has seemed only a matter of time before New Zealand’s first family of music formalised a bridge between the generations with an album.

Neil and Liam Finn’s Lightsleeper, though, is so much more than a simple experiment to see whether Finn senior’s pure, natural songwriting could live alongside junior’s more left-field, inventive production techniques.

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The pair have been playing together live since 2001’s 7 Worlds Collide gigs, and Liam became an occasional touring bandmate on Crowded House’s 2007-08 reunion, but this outing sees them venture far further than dusting off a few family favourites.

Instead, they’ve crafted a genuinely new sound – a bold, magnificent, soaring work of art that understands the honest simplicity of the three-minute pop song with Anger Plays a Part, while fearlessly pushing style and sonic boundaries on more expansive offerings.

Underpinning Lightsleeper is the constant feeling of comfort – the music feels as natural as a favourite family armchair and as instinctive as Sunday morning brunch – and seems to have emerged with the same collegiality as Neil’s solo offering last year, Out of Silence.

To this end, Neil’s wife and Liam’s mum, Sharon, guests as bassist on a couple of tracks and Liam’s brother, Elroy, drums on all, bar three, songs. Cameos from Liam’s regular partner in kooky pop, Connan Mockasin, and Neil’s new Fleetwood Mac mate Mick Fleetwood speak more of the musicians being accepted into the family than the Finns reaching out for new influences.

It’s certainly telling that, in a recent Australian TV interview, Neil was happy to say he and Sharon “hang out with all of Liam’s friends”, while Liam described Fleetwood as “an old friend right from the get-go”. They’ve apparently managed to put together a family band without any of the ego issues and tantrums that tend to blight such projects.

If Lightsleeper was created in relaxed domesticity, that doesn’t mean it’s an album of loose jamming. Liam’s deft playfulness extends to Greek friends bringing their balalaikas along for Back to Life, and the psychedelic, John Lennon-esque funkiness of Ghosts, but there’s no sprawl and no pointless artifice.

It’s absolutely fitting that, amid the experimentation and oddity, there exists a lullaby so perfectly gem-like that Hold Her Close could be gifted to the Prime Minister’s family to mark the birth of baby Neve.

The album is full of outstanding moments, but the highlights tend to come in tracks where father and son layer their key talents. Where’s My Room, which sets Liam’s avant-garde funk against a middle third of Neil’s piano balladry; Prelude – Island of Peace, which was originally composed as Neil’s wedding gift to Liam and swirls layers of diaphanous electronica around a piano loop that seems to be based on the outro of Eric Clapton’s Layla; and the unfathomable Hiding Place are all achingly beautiful and fastidiously composed songs.

There’s genius at play in the songwriting, showcasing the pair’s ability to mix in-house intimacies with grand themes that resonate beyond the Finn family band. At a time when the rest of the world seems transfixed by Neil’s replacement of Lindsey Buckingham in Fleetwood Mac, this album offers a perfect counterpoint by showing his heart remains firmly at home.

LIGHTSLEEPER, Neil and Liam Finn (Inertia / [PIAS])

★★★★★

This article was first published in the August 25, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.