Listen to this track by Antipodean heroes and top of the range pop song exporters Crowded House. It’s “Kare Kare”, the opening track to their fourth album Together Alone, released in October of 1993 and produced by Youth, he of Killing Joke and a very sought after producer at the time.
The record was something a transitional work for the band, losing Tim Finn as a full-time member who’d only been with them for 1991’s Woodface. He would appear as a supporting player on this record. By the time this song was recorded, they’d taken on a brand new member in American multi-instrumentalist Mark Hart to apply his skills as guitarist and keyboardist. Also, their stalwart collaborator Mitchell Froom’s signature production style, not to mention his keyboard work that had helped to define some of their most successful hits, was not to be heard on the sessions.
Possibly because of these changes, the work itself stands out from the rest of the band’s catalogue up until then. Where the songs that head writer Neil Finn wrote never dealt in absolute dark or light, the songs on this record were decidedly further along the spectrum toward the darker end.
So after seven years of being a band by this point, and a very successful one at that, why the long face, Crowded House?
“Kare Kare” could be considered an odd way to start a pop record, full as it is of gloom and foreboding. Maybe it had to do with the setting of the recording that also lends this track its name: Karekare beach in Auckland. It was the very same site of the film The Piano, which is also something of a sombre and haunting work in which the locale itself makes its presence felt.
This is a song of restlessness and of a troubled spirit, reflected overtly in the lyrics; “sleep by no means comes too soon”. The band had created international waves up until this point, and Karekare beach was something of a homecoming after some of the biggest successes they’d ever achieved by then as a buoyant and seemingly happy go-lucky pop band singing “Chocolate Cake” and “Weather With You”. Yet, that particularly remote and primeval location right on the ocean at Karekare beach where they lived and recorded nearby was something of an alien landscape. At night, the darkness was total but for the stars and the moon; feeling pretty brave until the lights went out, indeed. And as if falling in with that setting, it was a time of personal upheaval for the band as well.
As a result, the music is darker, knottier, no less appealing as pop music, but definitely less crafted and more organic than anything they’d delivered previously. For its part, “Kare Kare” is a group effort, not a Neil Finn song, filled with blurry electronic ambience, brooding bass from Nick Seymour, subterranean slide guitar from Mark Hart, murmuring spoken voices underneath Neil Finn’s lead in the background that sound like troublesome thoughts, and drummer Paul Hester’s crashing cymbals that evoke dark shores at midnight, and the feelings that often come at that hour. Perhaps all of this was appropriate to the way that everyone in the band was feeling at the time; on top of a wave and about to make a drop. Once again, the beachside location made that metaphor into something pretty literal.
The experience in recording the album under these conditions stirred up all kinds of psychological dregs that are evident in other songs on the record, connecting to themes of guilt (“Nails In My Feet”), domination (“In My Command”), mental illness (“Black and White Boy”), and pain (“Catherine Wheels”). These themes came out in a more overt and unguarded way in Finn’s writing than ever before, and arguably since. In this, starting the record off with “Kare Kare” really isn’t an odd move at all. The role it plays is to set the stage for listening to to all of the other songs, even as the actual location set the scene for recording them. It’s to let the listener know what they’re getting into.
But another important point about “Kare Kare” in particular is that mixed in with all of that foreboding is another force that seems to pull the song in a completely opposite direction. It’s filled with awe, and with a sense of wonder of the enormity of the universe that would be carried over to songs like “Fingers of Love”, “Distant Sun”, “Private Universe”, and the title track “Together Alone”. That later tune includes some traditional Maori choir singing that hooks into a deep sense of the spiritual. This isn’t territory they’d ever covered before, either musically or thematically speaking, which may or may not explain the presence of both the Buddha and Jesus on the cover art. It was transformative .
This transformation was perhaps not a completely good thing for the band as a working unit. It laid them bare, and the group would slowly dissolve after Together Alone was created, coming to an end on the steps of the Sydney Opera House in late 1996 with their last concert with founding member Paul Hester behind the kit. But, the experiences they had and the states of mind they were in did help them to create their most celebrated record that they’d been heading toward since they started, and one that would set the pace for Neil Finn’s solo career when the band’s first phase came to an end. And their ability to deal with darker themes would be exercised even more rigourously when they gathered together on the occasion of Paul Hester‘s passing in 2005.
If you didn’t already know, Neil Finn has a new solo record out called Dizzy Heights. You can buy it on iTunes.