When musical families unite, volatility can often come to the fore. You need only look as far as the Gallagher twins to appreciate how damaging these unions can become. However, on Neil and Liam Finn’s conceptually cinematic album Lightsleeper, there’s a clarity and creative depth that allows them to transcend the novelty of being a father-son duo.
Whilst Neil Finn remains a household name for his work in Split Enz, Crowded House and more recently as Lindsay Buckingham’s replacement in Fleetwood Mac, son Liam’s achievements may have passed some punters by. Over four sonically sparse albums he’s carved out an eclectic alt-rock aesthetic very much his own. A lack of hits may have inhibited his reach, relative to his father, but tours supporting Pearl Jam and The Black Keys speak for his rising profile.
The catalyst behind the pair’s debut itself came from having played shows together over the last four to five years without a body of work to call their own. Lightsleeper thus reflects the two coming together on equal footing as accomplished musicians and creating a diverse, cinematic soundtrack to the adventures our minds take us on when caught between reality and sleep.
There’s a dramatic entrance-march feel to album opener “Prelude – Island of Heaven”, after an organic synth arpeggiation implodes spectacularly into a pulsating kick. The heavy synth and choir similarly hint at a grandiosity fit for the journey ahead. The hypnotically wistful “Meet Me In The Air” induces us further into the dreamland. Slinky drums laid down by Mick Fleetwood, who plays on half the album, underscore a tranquil two-chord progression whilst reverbed guitars and harmonising falsettos add an element of psychedelia.
The seven minute wild ride “Where’s My Room” feels like a lively lucid dream, constantly transitioning between colourful soundscapes. A drum machine intro calls back to Neil’s often overlooked Pajama Club (2011) album before a twangy guitar lick takes over. Neil’s playful lyrics, “I walk on water to cover my tracks,” meander over perfectly constructed realms of alt-funk, piano passages and a 70s disco section with the potential to awaken your inner Bee Gee.
Ballads “Anger Plays A Part” and “Listen” are a nice pacing against the energetic opening with both Liam and Neil fronting each track respectively. Whilst Liam grapples with the confusion of emotions that motivate his actions, Neil takes an unanticipated turn when singing of a “season of forgiveness” and “Magpie’s carolling”. Whilst peculiar at first, the perfect pairing of voice with piano on the sparse arrangement commands a presence that makers the Christmas aesthetic transportive and in keeping with the dream-like state of the album.
“Any Other Way” sees Liam broach a heavy subtext with grace when seeking to redeem trust from the one he loves. His falsetto runs along a nice melody in the chorus, however an inability to explore beyond the primary chord progression makes it one of the least memorable songs on the record. This thematic depth remains front and centre on first single “Back To Life”. A relaxed industrial percussive groove transitions into an uplifting, albeit slightly overpowering chorus which sees vocals being shared between the two front men.
“Hiding Place” is very much a track of two halves and the only major hiccup on the album. Heavy strings and twinkling pianos reintegrate the cinematic Christmas-y soundscape introduced earlier, as Liam pines “everybody’s life could be a movie”. Surprisingly, the stories of two characters’ lonely lives in the song work well with the melodramatic style making for an unexpected treat. However, with the second half moving in a completely disparate direction, you’re left wanting for the initial motif to be more fully realised.
Liam appears to somewhat attempt a Tom Waits in “Ghosts”. His raspy vocals contrast nicely against the high-pitched backing vocals, creating a fun Motown feel. It’s a track exemplary of the variety of styles offered on the record, all of which are executed with attention to detail whilst adhering to the overarching nature of the collective album.
The strongest track comes second last with “We Know What It Means”. A combination of Wurlitzer keys and thick bass marries perfectly with a relaxed tempo to create a genuine and uplifting groove about reprising your youth into your adult years. Neil’s vocal range and a rhythmic bridge help to offer enough diversity over its six smooth minutes, while synth keys create an ambience suited to the lullaby of closer “Hold Her Close”. A heartfelt love letter to his newborn, Liam tenderly coos “see myself in her eyes”. The verses take some nice turns melody-wise and strings add a symphonic depth before white noise delivers us back unto ourselves.
Neither Liam nor Neil rest on the laurels of their titles on Lightsleeper. The album itself is both parts groovy and grand in establishing a cinematic dreamlike aesthetic few have attempted before. The duo traverses a variety of styles that are all well composed and interconnected. Though devoid of any true hits and with some unnecessary diversions and melodrama, there’s enough hooks, textures and satisfying vocal melodies to warrant return listens. It’s furthermore a testament to the prowess of each artist by being impossible to pick who’s influencing who here. To create a work truly distinct from either of their past projects shows that both Finns remain as creative as ever.
Lightsleeper is released Friday 24th August via Lester Records/PIAS/Inertia Music.