As far back as his late-1970s material with Split Enz, then on into more thoughtful work with Crowded House, New Zealand composer Neil Finn has believed that art should please the artist first.
“I figured out a long time ago that it could be one of two things,” says Finn, who wrote the minor-chord smash “Don’t Dream It’s Over.” “Either I don’t want to apply formulas to pop music that would assist me in getting on the radio, or I’m not capable of applying those formulas. But either way, I’m quite happy with the outcome. And I’m still incredibly motivated and energized to play music, no matter what.”
Take, for instance, Finn’s groundbreaking new solo recording, “Dizzy Heights,” his seventh, which he’ll tout in town this week.
He’s at his most inventive, backed by his family on almost every track — his wife, Sharon, on bass and vocals, and sons Liam and Elroy on guitar and drums, respectively.
Co-produced by Finn and Dave Fridmann, it opens on the dreamy incantation “Impressions,” then swoops into a creepy calypso called “Better Than TV,” then Crowded-House-via-Beatles perambulator “Pony Ride” and the skeletal reflection “Recluse.” It closes quietly with “Lights of New York,” featuring just Finn, accompanying himself on piano.
One track, “Divebomber,” is one of the singer’s most experimental. It begins with whistling, fighter-pilot sound effects, then pits his delicate falsetto against Wagnerian orchestration.
“Everything about that song is different, especially its gestation,” says Finn, who has an Auckland studio dubbed Roundhead, plus a fully equipped home setup in his basement, where he and his wife recently recorded as the duo Pajama Club.
“I was watching a ’50s movie on TV called ‘Divebomber,’” and it had long periods of very intense aircraft engine noise. It was a very beautiful sound, so I wrote chords based on its rise and fall. Once I started adding strings to it, it took on a pretty strange atmosphere.”
Lyrically, says Finn, 55, the album revolves around age-appropriate topics such as living in the moment, and striving for balance, harmony and elevated consciousness.
But he’s not scrapping his trademark oblique-hook sound. “I’ve still got a lot of conventional songwriting on there. But there are quite a lot of departure points, as well,” he says.
Finn did disappear down the proverbial rabbit hole, creatively. “I hope I can go even further, and come out the other end in Wonderland,” he says. “So I’m going to go home and make two or three of the best records I’ve ever made, before I even play live again. I feel like I’m about to smash through a few more barriers.”
IF YOU GO
Where: Palace of Fine Arts, 3301 Lyon St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday