Perfect Pop Songs #3: Neil Finn’s “Souvenir” (1998)
Next up in this series is a track from Try Whistling This (1998), the first solo album by Neil Finn. The youthfulness of his voice on this song, and indeed in his entire output, belies his age: less than a month before the album’s release, he turned 40.
As every online biography of him indicates, Finn is a consummate songwriter and inventive arranger who has taken cues from other musicians who could be described in the same way. Over the 30 or so years that he has been a public figure—as a member of Split Enz, as the leader of Crowded House and, over the last decade, as a solo artist—he has produced a number of pop gems. Perhaps the most famous of them is the first hit by Crowded House, “Don’t Dream It’s Over.” All of his work rewards close listeners, revealing sonic nuances and surprising structural twists and turns.
“Souvenir” is perhaps one of the best exemplars of his approach (although “Secret God” from One Nil which features contributions from Wendy and Lisa—yes, that Wendy and Lisa—is on the same level). After listening to it for over ten years, I still can’t say with any certainty what exactly the narrative arc of the lyric is. As was the case with “Don’t Dream…,” the focus shifts at least every couple of lines, with few sets of them following logically upon what preceded them. The second verse and chorus are a good example:
Prison color blue
It’s a uniform of choice
Count yourself lucky
That you don’t write the software
Where the guests like souvenirs
They play with you till you’re all worn out
Back where the guests like photographs
They hope you had a good night
What really makes the song work, though, are the sounds and formal deviations, devised by Finn and co-producer Marius de Vries, about whom I wrote in a post on Rufus Wainwright a while back. (There’s a link in another post to an interview in Sound on Sound where de Vries describes his approach in more detailed, technical terms.)
The song’s verses have four basic elements: a cello panned to the left, a distorted guitar riff panned to the right, a bass/drum groove in the center, and the main vocal (also in the center). The choruses replace the cello with another guitar, playing in counterpoint with the one on the right. The cello returns, also playing in counterpoint with another one and other strings, in the bridge. But those are just the basics: the arrangement builds as the track proceeds with elements being added and subtracted on each repeat of a section. I especially love the tambourine that appears in the second verse, panned hard left and placed low in the mix. And the form is elastic, serving the arrangement and the lyrics rather than being forced to comply with a rigid form. Thus, while this is ostensibly a verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus, bridge, instrumental verse, coda form, the elements have differing lengths. The first two verses are roughly identical while the final one is eight bars shorter. The first chorus is twelve bars, while the other two are sixteen bars long. And the bridges, while the same length, are strikingly different: the first flips the rhythm around, almost commenting on the groove that sustained the first part of the song, while the second—starting around 2:33—is sparse, consisting mostly of strings and high, multitracked vocals by Finn. When the drums re-enter for the final, instrumental verse (around 2:55), it’s a bracing, dramatic and satisfying moment.
Indeed, this is a track that makes a virtue of simplicity and of nodding toward convention, all the while disguising the ways in which both simplicity and convention are being tweaked. The rest of the album proceeds similarly, with tracks like “King Tide,” “Sinner,” “Twisty Bass” (what a perfect title), “Truth,” “Astro,” “Dream Date,” “Faster than Light,” and “Addicted” being ones I could just as easily have discussed here. If you scan the album’s tracklist, you’ll see that I’ve named nearly every song. So, if you dig this, you should spring for the whole album. And keep your eyes peeled for the second Seven Worlds Collide release from Finn, a project that in the past featured Johnny Marr of the Smiths, Lisa Gennaro, Phil Selway and Ed O’Brien of Radiohead and Eddie Vedder as well as other musical luminaries, and will in its second iteration also feature contributions from Jeff Tweedy and other members of Wilco. I can’t wait to hear it…