Imagine the 80’s pop music scene as if it were an old television set with a brightness dial. It was a bit murky at the start of the decade, but the brightness gradually increased with the MTV era until the set looked just right by 1984. Unfortunately, pop artists kept on cranking the knob until that old TV became so bright that the picture tube threatened to fry.
Into that glaring scene stepped Crowded House in 1986 with a self-titled debut album that cast a much softer, more flattering light. Two-thirds of the group, singer and guitarist Neil Finn and drummer Paul Hester, had plied their trade with the critically-adored but commercially-underserved power poppers Split Enz. With bassist Nick Seymour rounding out the Australian-based trio, the newly-formed Crowded House relied not on flash or sizzle, but rather on the tried-and-true combination of affecting melodies and clever lyrics.
They also boasted a debut single in “Don’t Dream It’s Over” that managed to soothe American ears weary of the bombastic emptiness that filled much of the Top 40 at the time of the song’s release. It shot to #2 in the spring of 1987, not bad for a track that came relatively easy to songwriter Finn. “I wrote that on my brother’s piano,” Finn recalled to Goldmine. “I’m not sure if I remember what the context was, exactly, but it was just about on the one hand feeling kind of lost, and on the other hand sort of urging myself on: Don’t dream it’s over. That one actually fell out literally, without me thinking about it too much.”
Instrumentally, the song is built on Finn’s trebly guitar work and producer Mitchell Froom’s spiraling organ fills. Meanwhile the lyrics don’t fall into any kind of linear narrative. Instead they’re a fascinating mixture of cosmic observations (“There is freedom within, there is freedom without”) and mundane details (especially in the second verse, which describes the narrator’s broken-down car.)
Although there is undeniable melancholy floating through both the lyrics and Finn’s delivery of them, there also persists a resilient streak that suggests that two people might just have a chance of navigating these various pitfalls. That streak is there when the narrator insists to his overwhelmed companion, “But you’ll never see the end of the road while you’re travelling with me.” And it’s definitely there in the us-against-them rallying cry in the refrain: “They come, they come/To build a wall between us/You know that they won’t win.”
For all of its soulful yearning, “Don’t Dream It’s Over” ultimately projects a calming and reassuring vibe. Maybe that’s what struck such a chord upon its release and what still charms folks today, especially those who know the feeling of “Trying to catch a deluge in a paper cup.” In this brilliant song, Crowded House suggests it’s OK if some of the flood spills over, as long as you have someone you love to carry you to higher ground.