Crowded House: Into Temptation
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
I grew up with Crowded House's Temple of Low Men, an album I will defend to this day because I can't pretend perspective. I loved all of it as a kid, the bank robber fantasia of “Kill Eye,” the poor-little-rich-band of “Mansion in the Slums,” the silly stomp of “Sister Madly” as well as the undeniable classics like “Into Temptation.”
But as I moved beyond playing the record to reading the lyrics as I listened, the songs crept under my skin. And, in the process, I grew to like Neil Finn. He wrote good songs, and he sang them well, and whenever I caught one of their videos on MuchMusic he looked and acted like a nice guy. He was smiling most of the time, or at least looking benevolent. In my seven or eight year old mind, he was one of the Good Guys.
Only... “Into Temptation” starts like a fairly conventional love song, Neil meeting his intended “in your new blue dress / Taking away my breath.” “The cradle is soft and warm,” he sings, “Couldn't do me no harm.” I'd heard weirder choices of phrase in perfectly benign love songs before. But there's a bitter undercurrent in Finn's vocals, one that combined with the protesting-too-much lyrics made me wonder what was going on. And then that chorus:
Into temptationEven at this young age I was broadly, theoretically aware of infidelity, but naturally enough I didn't understand it. It was something bad, which “Into Temptation” fully and freely admits... but Neil doesn't stop. The song makes it perfectly clear that he is the cheating one, not the cheated-on (my only previous experience being with you-done-me-wrong songs), and that furthermore he knows and regrets what he's done, as “the guilty get no sleep / In the last slow hours of morning”—the last words he sings in the song, so softly, are just “don't tell.” Neil was one of the Good Guys; how, why, was he doing this?
Knowing full well the earth will rebel
Safe in the wide open arms of hell
I wasn't, despite the impression I may be giving, horrified. I didn't reject Finn out of hand, get rid of his record, spend my childhood or adolescence paranoid of romantic and personal betrayal. As with every other contradiction I was given through the art I experienced, I just set about trying to figure it out. Ultimately it was easier than I expected: Maybe, I came to think, doing something wrong like cheating on your wife doesn't make you a horrible monster. Maybe the people who do bad things aren't outwardly unpleasant, necessarily. Before really listening to “Into Temptation,” I had known cheating happened, but hadn't the vaguest idea of why anyone would want to do it. Somehow hearing someone who broadly speaking I agreed with and was rooting for confess to his desire and willingness to do wrong, hearing the undertow of lust in his voice while he sang “As I turned to go / You looked at me for half a second,” made me see. Not only did I begin to dimly glimpse the forces that would make you want to cheat, I saw that Finn's rationales (“no way to break this spell”) were both true and untrue.
To this day, I know nothing of Neil Finn the man, as opposed to Neil Finn the narrator of Crowded House songs, and I've never assumed that the character who passed on so much about the insufficiency of our promises and the power of our desires, about the sad fact that good people do bad things and the comforting reminder forgiveness is still possible exists anywhere outside of my head. I've never quite trusted a singer the same way since, although there are still those I love, including Neil. Entering my twenty-fifth year I'm lucky, never having cheated or been cheated on. Neil sings, “Experience is cheap / I should've listened to the warning,” and for me “Into Temptation” was both the warning and a terrible promise, my first experience with an unreliable narrator and the seductive power of the possible. I still shiver a little every time I hear it.