‘The Nihilist’ might sound like a dark title for a record, but Liam Finn begs to differ. “There’s an idea of nihilism as being quite a negative or macabre concept, but it really isn’t at all,” the New Zealand native says excitedly. “I like the idea that maybe everything we think we know about this reality or have come to believe is potentially untrue.”
The truth is, Liam Finn’s music has always existed in its own distinct reality of other-worldly arrangements and blissfully catchy hooks. His debut album, ‘I’ll Be Lightning,’ earned Artist to Watch accolades from The Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, Spin, Stereogum and more, along with performances on Letterman and Ferguson. Entertainment Weekly hailed his “effervescent choruses [and] swooning harmonies,” while Billboard called the record a “charmer.” He toured the world, sharing stages with the likes of Eddie Vedder, The Black Keys, and Wilco along the way, and in 2011, he released his follow-up, ‘FOMO,’ to further critical acclaim, with SPIN saying the album “blends sophisticated melodies and wistful vocals with masterful authority.”
‘The Nihilst,’ his third solo record, builds on all those strengths, pushing his songwriting and arrangements into more refined and mature dimensions, a notion he attributes as much to geography as anything.
Finn found a studio space not far from his new home in Greenpoint, Brooklyn with windows overlooking the Manhattan skyline. “As soon as I found my own space to bunker down, the songs started taking shape,” he says. “There was a surreal feeling created through the energy of where I was and looking over at Manhattan and seeing it as a subconscious dimension, an entity in itself where every story under the sun was happening all at once. Any fantasy or fear you have in your own mind is probably playing out in reality in Manhattan at any one time.”
Finn used the inspiration to explore new perspectives and deeper levels of his own psyche. Playing 67 instruments, he maniacally assembled the album along with frequent bandmates/collaborators Eliza Jane Barnes (vocals), his brother Elroy (drums), and fellow New Zealand songwriter Jol Mulholland (bass) in sessions entirely between the hours of sunset and sunrise.
“It turned into this very weird existence,” he explains. “I worked myself up into a frenzy to be able to inhabit the character that was created in each of these songs. They feel more personal to me than ever before, but they’re written out of the idea of being someone else.”
The album opens with “Ocean Emmanuelle,” a dreamy, collaborative effort with Mulholland that sets a tone of troubled beauty. “Snug As Fuck,” a melodic and fantastical duet with frequent collaborator Barnes, bridges the gap between Finn’s work as a teenager in the acclaimed New Zealand band Betchadupa and his current solo career, while “Burn Up The Road” is an infectious fuzzed up rocker. “4 Track Stomper” builds a distorted beat on an old four-track tape recorder into an off-kilter masterpiece, and the album’s eerie, percussive title track was actually born as an a capella arrangement during a jam with Elroy.
“There’s quite a groovy, irreverent swagger to it,” Liam says, “but there’s always this slight element of unhinged tension.”
It’s a fitting description for the record as a whole, which, much like the city that captured Finn’s imagination as he watched from across the river, balances moments of triumph and anxiety as he channels its countless characters’ inner workings through his own musical prism to reveal his finest, most sophisticated work yet.