“The Climber” by Neil Finn

132. Song Nos. 1,899 and 1,900: “The Climber,” Neil Finn
One Nil, 2001; 7 Worlds Collide: Live at The St. James, 2002

There is something special when the album you’ve been impatiently waiting for makes all the time and agonizing anticipation worth it. Conversely, of course, there is nothing so disappointing as a long-awaited collection of songs turning out to be an abject disappointment, when all that misspent enthusiasm and long-delayed gratification wither away in deflating disbelief over one vastly underwhelming reality. But, I think like anything else in life, meaning comes from the inverse, and knowing just how much a blown payoff sucks makes it an even bigger deal when reality actually rises to meet lofty expectations.

And, apparently, when an album is every bit as good as you’d been hoping, that maelstrom of mingling delights has a way of imprinting on those tracks forever. I don’t play Neil Finn’s songs nearly as much as I used to but there isn’t another musician whose albums reach across the decades like his early-aughts stuff does to sound like infinite summers and hazy days and like a whole world wide open and waiting to be explored. It’s visceral music, even now: It’s just more of a nostalgic love than a contemporary one, though those first impressions are right there in easy reach every time to remind me just how much and why I loved every note within.

This is far from the first time a Neil Finn song has popped up here, so I don’t feel like I need to hastily rehash 20 years of listening history. One Nil, though, is the first album to come out after I discovered the former Crowded House frontman’s solo stuff, and with it came my first lesson in the vast frustrations of being an American teenager trying to secure a New Zealand import in the days before the long arm of the Amazon empire was a thing. But my emo-kid heart had inexplicably fixated on Neil Finn’s alarmingly catchy adult contemporary catalog and nothing was going to stop me from getting my grabby hands on this new CD. The specifics of how are lost to prodigious college drinking and whatever shenanigans were mostly limited to my 20s, and I think One Nil just barely predates the ancient LiveJournal account I’m not even interested in excavating and exploring anyway, but it I ultimately found the import, paid the exorbitant shipping fees, and waited for its endless global shuffle to guide it toward my CD player.

From this, the opening track, I was hooked. “The Climber” isn’t “Anytime,” the late-album epic that had a profound impact on how I see the world by virtue of falling madly in love with a song that almost immediately hooked me with lyrics nudging my daft teenage self into giving more thought to things outside myself. It’s not the buoyant assertions of “Hole in the Ice” and it’s not the torchlight anthem of “Turn and Run.” The introduction to this album I had been waiting endlessly for was comparatively quieter and softer, a stripped-down and dreamy first stop on a largely up-tempo album, but also the perfectly polar anchor at the other end of an album that winds down like its titular stroll into sunset.

By in large and despite all evidence to the contrary, I think understatement is one of the best ways to wring maximum emotional impact from just about anything, and “The Climber” is a really lovely example of that. It lyrics are the same wispy hints at bigger things as its music is, landing with any impact only because the two play against each other well enough to carry the whole thing to where it needs to get to justify its approach. The whole album is just as subtly hard-working as its introductory track: It’s charming in its earnestness, and actively sustaining that tone adds a warmth and authenticity that doesn’t happen all that often.

For reasons completely unrelated to its predecessor’s own warm-weather vibe, One Nil is forever bathed in the early days of spring and falling head over heels in love with an album as what would become favorite songs started to distinguish themselves from an already tremendous payoff of music. It sounds like pink buds on awakening trees and warming breezes and my favorite time of year, which I’ve found out hits a little differently at different times of year. A year of pandemic living and a sneaking suspicion that March 2020 really has been 12 times longer than any month before has kind of made me feel suspended in those muddy last months of winter that won’t end. I feel denied an entire year of the spring and summer I usually love, and I’m really more indignantly cranky about it than I should be about something I can’t control. This song that sounds like the promise of spring to come, happening on its own right now, had me diving into its whole album a few times to wallow in that sunshine for a little while. Which was exactly what I needed, apparently. Thinking about things getting greener soon is comfort enough, but the takeaway that really matters is that, much like an ever-evolving language, old favorites will always find new ways to prove they deserve all the extra love they get.

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