As I said at the outset of this list, the top few songs are pretty fixed--that is, I can't imagine not including them on any list I would make now or in the future. These are songs which, each time I hear them, surprise me anew with the minor miracle of their existence. With "Distant Sun" we're now solidly into that territory.
I've always liked songs which achieve a kind of aural onomatopoeia--where the music fits the images suggested by the song title and lyrics. "Distant Sun", with its dreamy, lightly pyschedelic sound, is a case in point, and includes several touches which are unique and perfect. The lead guitar line which weaves it's way between the opening chords with a light tremolo which shimmers like stardust. The bass riff between the end of the first chorus and start of the second verse--a long slide up to the fifth and then descending notes which sound as if they're dropping off into space.
While many of the songs on this top 10 list are about lusting after the impossible and the idealised, the protagonist in "Distant Sun" is older and wearier, trying to deal with real relationships, asking:
Tell me all the things you would change / I don't pretend to know what you want
I've always assumed that the singer is half addressing these queries to himself. He's a poet and a dreamer, but has now grown up, had some of his bubbles punctured, and is in reflective mode. It's hard to believe that the "you" in these lines from the second verse is not self-directed:
Still so young to travel so far / Old enough to know who you are
Wise enough to carry the scars without any blame / There's no one to blame
While there's an elegaic sense of lost innocence here, on another level the song is a celebration of the richness and mystery of life. Neil Finn has said that the "dust from a distant sun [which] showers over everyone" suggests the strange and random connections which exist across time and space. This is the song of someone who's been gripped by youthful wanderlust, stumbled through his share of problems, still doesn't know what it all means, but accepts that the world forms a many-threaded tapestry.
One night in New Plymouth a couple of years ago during a road trip I saw Wellington band Hobnail Boots at the local pub. In the same set they played "Distant Sun", Dave Dobbyn's "Whaling" and Bic Runga's "Sway", all embellished with their trademark harmonies and Jo Moir's gently persuasive violin. Hearing all these songs together played by the same band made me realise there was something shared by their yearning melodies which made me feel a particularly strong connection with them.
The next morning as I walked along the New Plymouth waterfront and looked out at the Pacific Ocean, I wondered if I hadn't stumbled across an emerging cultural identity. Nothing represented by swanndried blokeishness, nor rugby, black boats or buzzy bees, but
rather something to do with living in what poet Allen Curnow called "a small room with large windows"
If the New Zealand psyche has inevitably been shaped by the claustrophobia of being stuck in the small room of a frontier society, it is also affected by staring out through the large windows of the sky and sea. On the surface, New Zealanders are dour, depressive, reticent and crushingly prosaic. But, though no one would ever admit it on public, it turns out we are actually also a nation of dreamers. There's a naiive, questing quality to a lot of New Zealand music driven by a lyrical response to the physical space around us and a desire to know what else is out there.
I've only recently begun to understand this, as I've noticed that I seem to have a far better chance of feeling directly, personally connected to music from New Zealand than from other places. And it's hard to imagine that songs quite like "Whaling", the Muttonbirds' "Anchor Me" and Goldenhorse's "Maybe Tomorrow" could come from anywhere else. Which is something of a revelation, because I've never felt particularly comfortable or at home in the culture here. Yet, people have written these songs which seem to express something about who I am - and they've even become popular, which means other people must have similar feelings.
Just a pity we can't talk to each other about it.
Categories: Crowded House, Distant Sun, New Zealand Music, Top 10 Songs