The 11 tracks on Lightsleeper, the new album from New Zealand music giant Neil Finn and his talented son Liam, are soft and lush and lovely. That lines up with the album’s overarching goal, according to Liam Finn in a June interview with Variety: “A lot of time I was kind of trying to conjure up that feeling of that sort of almost half-state you’re in as you’re about to go to sleep.”
On that front, Lightsleeper is successful. But in terms of impact and memorability, it falls short. As a whole, it’s light on substance, like harmony-flavored cotton candy: tasty and easily consumed, but without much nutritional value. And while it’s not irredeemably boring—these two have too many melodic gifts and too much studio aptitude to make a boring album—it does ooze a consistently sleepy vibe, and not necessarily in a good way.
The Finns set the pace with a prelude, “Island of Peace,” that Neil wrote for Liam’s wedding as a gift. It’s beautiful piece, with a choir of voices singing “Together! Together!” over stately piano playing and squiggly synth noises. It also works well as an intro to track two, “Meet Me In the Air,” a pillowy number that recalls the Beach Boys’ prettier moments or, more contemporarily, the mellow chamber-pop of High Llamas.
Stretched across nearly five minutes, however, the unchanging pace of “Meet Me In the Air” overtakes its prettiness, and the song loses momentum. The opposite is the problem on “Where’s My Room,” an ambitious tune that takes three different shapes in seven minutes and never really coalesces. Stuck in the middle of the tune between pallid attempts at funk is a punchy piano-pop song that shows promise, but it comes and goes within about 60 seconds. Poor thing never had a chance.
That’s a frustrating theme throughout Lightsleeper: It regularly pushes an interesting idea into your mind, but reliably recedes shortly thereafter. “Listen” is a nice tune underpinned by cool, undulating piano work from Neil and laced with feathery father-son vocals. “Any Other Way” seems like it’s building toward beauty, but never quite wiggles out of its stupor, despite a pulse provided by Neil’s new Fleetwood Mac bandmate, Mick Fleetwood. “Back to Life” roars to life (very relatively speaking) in its chorus, a spike in dynamics that’s not just welcome but startling. But then along comes “Hiding Place,” which strikes more or less the same drowsy dream-pop note for nearly six minutes. At that point, it’s feels more like a sheet of musical wallpaper than a song.
Later, Fleetwood’s rhythms bring a bit of pointed, playful flavor to “We Know What It Means,” but by then, Lightsleeper’s vibe is well-established: Father and son, both skilled musicians with time to spare, write and record together for posterity’s sake…and not a whole lot of motivation beyond that. The younger Finn acknowledged as much in that Variety interview: “In the end,” he said, “it’s kind of more of an art project for us.” And that’s fine! At least they’ll enjoy these songs for years to come, even if few others do.