One by one and over and over, the figures leap from the cliff, through the clouds, and melt into the ocean.
Neil Finn had been playing on the computer with some images collected from the window of an aeroplane as it peeped above the clouds, when they abutted with footage captured in Greece, of boys jumping into the sea.
“I had an accident, where I put this keying effect on there, and suddenly saw these kids jumping through clouds, and I thought I’ll just use that. It was a bit of good luck.”
These grainy, absorbing images play over the exhilarating whirl of “Divebomber”, a song inspired by the World War II film of the same name, and one of several on his new album that evoke a sensation of sharp ascent, of giddy height, the free-fall thrill.
“It’s a rush, if you fly fast enough. With a rush of blood, you can bet you forget everyone.”
Finn did not set out on his third solo album with a theme in mind. But by the time he came to call it after another track on the record, “Dizzy Heights”, it had become inescapable. “It crept up on me. I started noticing it in lots of places.
“You start off with a number of different threads and angles and demos, and they dictate the terms of the record. It’s only in the course of the process that you maybe get a feeling there’s a type of song emerging, or an atmosphere.”
The cloud jumpers epitomise, too, the Finn creative process: an attachment to a work-ethic and prosaic rigour – “a willingness to be disciplined, punctual and focused” – but designed for the arrival of something more, “to capture the little flashes of complete happenstance or good fortune that come your way – often from a mistake”.
An indirect inspiration for the height motif is mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary, who was the first to reach the peak of Mount Everest in 1953, five years before Neil was born. “Hilary had a huge impact on my generation of New Zealanders,” says Finn. “There’s something in the New Zealand DNA about trying to scale impossible heights. It’s something that can be very positive, but also has its downside.”
Amid its vertiginous, richly melodic swirl, Dizzy Heights contemplates love (“Better than TV”), loss (“Flying in the Face of Love”), ageing (“Recluse”) and allure (“Lights of New York”). It peeks, too – in “In My Blood”, for example – into the abyss.
Neil Finn was 18 when he was invited by his older brother Tim to join the trailblazing art rock band Split Enz. His career since might be measured as a series of bounds, the best-known being Crowded House, which he founded with Paul Hester and Nick Seymour after the breakup of Split Enz in 1984. Four albums, among them Crowded House and Together Alone, brought the group popular and critical acclaim around the world.
Along the way, there have been a host of collaborations, including with brother Tim and wife Sharon, and an array of names from Johnny Marr, Ed O’Brien, Eddie Vedder and most of Wilco. There have been two solo records, Try Whistling This and One Nil (or One All). And yet Dizzy Heights unmistakably marks a fresh leap.
With wife Sharon (bass) and sons Liam (guitar) and Elroy (drums), Finn travelled in two bursts to producer Dave Fridmann’s Tarbox Road studio in upstate New York, to record songs composed at his Auckland studio, Roundhead. With Fridmann (Mercury Rev, The Flaming Lips), and in collaborations with young New Zealand musicians Connan Mockasin and SJD, Finn has assembled a textured, heady sound, furnished and elevated by woozy strings and soaring vocals.
“I didn’t want to make it a solo record in a stripped back singer-songwriter sort of way,” says Finn. “I had a feeling Dave would be good at adding some odd shapes to the music. Which I always welcome – making things a little more expansive … He is good at subverting things, and making things sound a bit messed up and not as obvious, rather than being too tasteful, which is always a temptation.”
Finn remembers an important English teacher, from four decades ago at his high school in Te Awamutu, a small rural town in New Zealand’s north island. His name was Ron Martin, and he raced them through the School Certificate syllabus in a matter of weeks, to clear space for reading, writing, arguing, making films (“He [later] gave me a Super-8 movie I’d made in his class, and I’d done a kind of dramatised version of the song ‘Aqualung’ by Jethro Tull … I was dressed as a tramp with an old coat”).
Says Finn: “We had a very spirited debate one day in class about whether having big aspirations, big dreams, was a good idea given it can ultimately lead to disillusionment and isolation and at worst bitterness. There was quite a lot of variance of opinion, and I definitely came out for the, yeah, you’ve got to have the big dreams and big aspirations and it doesn’t matter, what the hell.
“I think of that sometimes when ambition, or having big dreams, seems slightly shallow and vain. Because the motivations they shift – imperceptibly sometimes …
“It’s a bit like those boys, jumping off that cliff. I keep thinking back to the one who runs to the edge and stops twice, before leaping off. Life carries on being like that.”