Album Review: Liam Finn – The Nihilist

By on Tuesday, 6th May 2014 at 12:00 pm

Liam Finn 'The Nihilist' coverI always enjoy finding unexpected connections among my favorite musicians; it’s like validation that my taste in music makes some sort of rational sense beyond pure fangirl idolatry. However, in the case of Liam Finn, the connection is fairly obvious and somewhat sycophantic—I’m a huge fan of his father, Neil Finn, whom I’ve written about recently here at TGTF. I’ll admit that I was initially drawn to Liam Finn’s music by that association, but recently I’ve been puzzled about which Finn really influences which. Liam Finn’s newest album, ‘The Nihilist’, only serves to further confuse that issue.

It’s well documented that the Finn family makes a practice of musical collaboration with one another, and while Finn père doesn’t appear on ‘The Nihilist’, hints of his recent album ‘Dizzy Heights’ weave through several of the songs. The point of connection between the two albums is small but readily apparent. ‘Dizzy Heights’ is an examination of euphoria, its giddy ebullience characterized by echoing falsetto vocals and ambient sound effects anchored on heavy bass grooves. ‘The Nihilist’ uses the same palette of musical effects to create an entirely different emotional atmosphere, almost the direct antithesis of euphoria.

Nihilism is defined as the rejection of religious and moral principles, often in the belief that life is meaningless. ‘The Nihilist’ explores the emotional havoc wreaked on the psyche by that idea. The entire album has a sense of dissonance and discord about it, ranging from mild unease to painful anxiety. It brings to mind visual images of bloodshot eyes, twitchy movements and erratic hair, suggested perhaps by the photo of Liam Finn on the album’s cover.

The opening track, ‘Ocean Emmanuelle’ is a deceptively easy introduction; its bass melody and synth intro lead into softly echoing vocals and a vaguely memorable but meaningless chorus: “I don’t know / Under the blue / Under the Ocean Emmanuelle”. The underlying menace of its music is fully realized in the more intense and intentional title track, ‘The Nihilist’, whose rhythm section provides a sense of motion even while the edgy lyrics and contorted instrumental sounds twist and disorient the song’s progression.

‘Snug as Fuck’, the first teaser released from the album, is ironically mellow, its hypnotic groove belying the almost sinister cynicism in its lyrics: “I was snug as fuck / In a Sunday suit / Like I’m all wrapped up / In the innocence that you’re getting over so quickly”. The accompanying video gives an even more vivid taste of the song’s subversive temperament.


‘Helena Bonham Carter’ is another sardonically humourous track, much along the lines of Neil Finn’s Crowded House cult favorite ‘Chocolate Cake’. Indeed, the lyric “We won’t date girls with hairy arms” brings to mind the “Mrs. Hairylegs” line from ‘Chocolate Cake’, which is said to have been coined by Liam Finn as a young child. But where ‘Chocolate Cake’ was flippantly mocking, ‘Helena Bonham Carter’ is darkly contemptuous; at one point, the younger Finn even muses, “If I’m lucky I’ll deliver a satirical line.”

‘Miracle Glance’ and ‘Wild Animal’ could have fit easily into the context of Neil Finn’s ‘Dizzy Heights’. The emphasis on the bass groove and the falsetto vocals are particularly similar; indeed you could be forgiven for mistaking Liam’s voice for Neil’s, they sound so alike. Final track ‘Wrestle With Dad’ seems to address these inevitable comparisons; though its lyrics are presumably about working in his father’s shadow, Liam Finn seems to have deliberately obfuscated them behind a thickly textured wall of sound, distancing himself from the song’s message even as he sonically illustrates the emotion behind it.

After recently released single ‘Burn Up the Road’, which I’ve reviewed here, standout tracks on the second half of ‘The Nihilist’ include the literally titled ‘4-Track Stomper’ and the harmonically exploratory ‘Arrow’. ‘4-Track Stomper’ employs beats from a 4-track tape recorder alongside brother Elroy Finn’s drums to punctuate its forcefully succinct lyrical phrases. ‘Arrow’ uses a pentatonic plucked string melody over a tribal rhythm to build an ominous suspense behind the menacing lines, “Twenty-fifth floor, you’re assuming I’m a nice guy / Drawing back my arrow too tight / Defenseless, I revel in your senses”.

Listening to ‘The Nihilist’ turned out to be more thought-provoking for me than I expected. While I liked Finn’s two previous albums, 2008’s ‘I’ll Be Lightning’ and 2011’s ‘FOMO’, I didn’t engage with them quite the same way as I have with this album. Some of the reason for that is undoubtedly down to my own listening context, but ‘The Nihilist’ distinguishes itself on its own merits. The idea of nihilism seems both philosophical and musical here, as Finn explores its emotional effects and the sonic expression of those effects outside the expected confines of his previous melodic pop rock. Even if the songs on this record aren’t strictly autobiographical, Finn has captured their nervous energy, the intensity of being right on the ragged edge of sanity, in a very intuitive way. ‘The Nihilist’ might not remove Liam Finn from his father’s sphere of influence, but it does mark a very definite change in depth and velocity for his own songwriting.


‘The Nihilist’ is available now on YepRoc Records.

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