The sigh of relief comes four tracks into Time On Earth. That's about how long it takes to realize that Neil Finn's decision to reopen his long-abandoned Crowded House was no calculated effort to boost album sales, but the result of a genuine need to record with a group that would understand his frame of mind—a one-track mind absorbed with mourning the loss of original drummer Paul Hester, who committed suicide in 2005.
Text, context, and subtext, Hester's passing seems to color every line, even those generic enough to be about anything. "Everyone's tiptoeing 'round Nobody wants to talk about it," from the opener, "Nobody Wants To," lays the groundwork of grief, reckoning, and memorializing to come. Even the bounciest track, the Kiwi-country "She Called Up," posts its note straight to the dead-letter office: "She called up and gave me the news / It made me so sad, sad, sad / There was nothing I could do."
Far from weighing down the music, the lyrical impetus propels the album with thoughts that require expression. The tunes never veer far from Finn's characteristic just-left-of-center pop, but they always offer enough subtle innovations and treble-clef hooks to get it right. Thoughtful, warm, and endlessly hummable even in its moodiest moments, Time On Earth is a sweet epitaph.