Liam Finn, The Nihilist

ARTS, Music

img_liamfinn-thenihilistLiam Finn’s third full length album The Nihilist is a deeply personal creation, one that finds the New Zealander giving voice to separate facets of his own subconscious. Driven by the jarring grooves and unique melodies he is renowned for, it is a body of work that trumps his impressive back-catalogue with a meticulous eye for sonic composition.

Written and recorded in the depths of Brooklyn, New York City, Finn took inspiration from the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple. Gripped by the manic environment, and the knowledge that anything could be happening at any given time under the skyline of Brooklyn, different slices of his own psyche were captured finely at nocturnal hours and poured into the music.

Wielding 67 instruments across the album, Liam has, to a certain degree, formed a collection of tunes that share the same heart but voice a prism of different characters and emotions.

The dreamy, soothing ‘Ocean Emmanuelle’ begins the record, introducing with it an unnerving tension that lurks throughout. Segueing into the jolt-like groove of the title track, ‘The Nihilist’ bludgeons warped synths and bass over an untamed drum beat, as Liam paints an image of restraint.

“Officer, give me a chance, untie my hands, I never hurt no one.” he quips. “You feeling lucky punk? Don’t move.” The narrative continues as guitars tweak and digital keys bleep, chasing the schizophrenic percussive pulse until the instruments overtake the lyrics.

An abrupt stop before first single ‘Snug as Fuck’ and an entirely different chapter emerges. You see, the album flows with a cinematic quality; the lyricism that paints scenes and voices personalities at once, and the variations of instruments laid over another, blend together and lend an emotive shade to each tune, commensurate with Finn’s mindset of the time.

This isn’t to suggest the music is purely of dense conceptual quality, mind you. Each song can easily be listened to outside the context of the album, and there are many cuts throughout that are, by surface value at least, light hearted.

‘Helena Bonham Carter’ features a Bowie-esque piano track, shrieking synths and feedback that stings like barbed wire, and the fuzzed out rocker ‘Burn Up The Road’ is a definite highlight. “Fear will come, and tear me open/building up to wear me down, I’m scared of myself as I burn up the road,” he admits over the exhilarating pace and scorching guitar riff. ‘Wild Animal’ is perhaps the closest thing to a radio-friendly single, a mid-tempo rocker with a murky guitar that echoes FOMO and I’ll Be Lightning.

But this is a sonically evolved Finn, toying with a new aesthetic. Informed by the blaring hip-hop sounds of Brooklyn, the percussion in particular drives with an urban thump, and frames many tunes with a rhythmic swagger.

Captured on a four-track recorder, the aptly titled ‘4 Track Stomper’ is a gem that throbs bluntly. The four track beats stutter harshly throughout, only to be brought together melodically with piano and guitars, forced out through the gunfire outro. The bass and beats are distorted, carefully constructed to fit into the cinematic flow.

Again, what’s most impressive about The Nihilist, and what Finn has been playing with since I’ll Be Lightning, are the creative arrangements that give each track a distinctive flair. Only here, they are more refined and bold. The tension that lurks on each song is the sound of a man at breaking point, and The Nihilist is his war cry.

Finn touched on this when he spoke to Lumière’s Alexander Bisley in Brooklyn last year for a forthcoming feature: “Through nihilism, the one positive thing I grasped from this, it’s not the losing all hope and the negativity of not believing anything. It’s the man or woman’s journey to redefining what they believe again. And that’s what this record was.”

It sums up the record well. Existential nihilism has a heavy, depressive reputation of giving up. But by flipping it in a positive light, by looking at it from a different angle, there is room for redefinition and growth. Somehow, the maniacal man known for the wild beard has managed to translate the battle with his own creative muse into something lasting.

If redefinition is the name of the game, you’ll find yourself returning to The Nihilist, if only to be enveloped by a new sound or texture you misheard the first time round. A stunning album that keeps on giving.

‘The Nihilist’ was released on April 4.
Filed under: ARTS, Music

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James Manning is a music contributor. He also writes for other national music publications including Rip It Up, Groove Guide, and NZ Musician.