Understated Classics #1: Together Alone by Crowded House

This week Arcade Fire released their hotly anticipated third album “The Suburbs”. I loved “Neon Bible” but critics found it preachy, as overbearing as the religious folk it sought to satirise. I disagree and think it was an impressive continuation from an exciting debut. “The Suburbs” steps on from their previous two albums, both in subject matter and tone. It’s sad, thoughtful, resigned, angry and tetchy - among other things. “The Suburbs” isn’t the understated classic that I want to discuss though: with all the praise and plaudits, it may never suit this new thread of posts. I want to write about Together Alone by Crowded House.

When I first heard The Suburbs, and especially the title track, I immediately thought of Neil Finn’s voice and Crowded House’s Together Alone album from 1993. Together Alone was the first Crowded House albums to work as a whole. It contributes a large number of tracks to their “best of”s for good reason. I think it deserves wider praise.

On re-listening, I realise that it bears no resemblance to the Arcade Fire album but I won’t let that deter me from my nostalgia trip. When we hear a really good new album, it drives us back to something as brilliant that we have lived in. Together Alone supports this theory because I can’t think of an album that I have ‘lived in’ more.

So why do I believe that this album is a classic?

  1. It’s full of singles. They released six and had at least three more to choose from. It’s easier to pick out the obvious non-singles.
  2. “Together Alone” hangs together as a whole in a way that no other of their albums does. The production by Youth and Greg Hunter helps. It’s unfussy and uncomplicated for the most part (e.g., “Locked Out”), but it’s also deep and delicate when it needs to be - for example the magnificent and creepy intro to “Private Universe”. The songs flow together one and the sounds used throughout feel consistent, it sounds great on headphones even seventeen years later.
  3. The content: dark and sexy. At this point the band were best known for “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and “Weather With You”, songs that tread a line between earnestness and whimsy. “Private Universe” at the start of its journey to a strange inner place even states: “no time no place to talk about the weather”. Everywhere oddness abounds: “we spilled a little dust on his Persian rug”, the entire lyric of “Pineapple Head” and “Walking On The Spot”. And what’s “Skin Feeling” all about? Your guess is as good as mine!

Singles, spot-on production, sexiness, and darkness: that’s a recipe for a classic to me.

I discovered the album when I borrowed the cassette version (remember those?) from the library (remember those?). I’d listen to it while wheeling around my village on my paper round (Newspapers? Remember those?). I can’t say I felt the same way about it then as I do now. I think its qualities and hidden depths have slowly revealed themselves to me over time. I know (a little) more about life than I did back then and life courses through the veins of these songs. And isn’t an album that grows with you the definition of an understated classic?

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· Understated Classics, Crowded House, Music, Pop, Rock, Ten

⇠ J. G. Ballard

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