A YEAR IN MUSIC: SPLIT ENZ – Time and Tide (1982)

Review by: Nina A


Split Enz are one of my most favourite bands ever but for the uninitiated they seem to be perceived as what Neil Finn was doing before he got himself a new band, wrote “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and thereby reserved an eternal spot on vh1’s So 80’s or One Hit Wonders playlists for himself. By the way, Split Enz also had a hit in the US with “I Got You” from the 1980 album True Colours (another Neil-penned track), and although it only reached #53 it went to #1 in both their native New Zealand and current residence of Australia and made them known to the world as this poppy new wave band. Need I say, they were saaaw maaahch moaar!!!!
By the time Time and Tide arrived in 1982, the band had arguably reached their creative peak (or at least their post-1977 lineup had): in a year or two, frontman Tim Finn would become enamoured with his solo projects and disinterested with the band’s career enough to effectively break it up but for now he had a lot to say because he was going through a rough patch of his life. How do I know? Well…
Split Enz had always had “quirky” written on their business card, and the whimsical stage performances and elaborate costumes and stage make-up (courtesy to percussionist Noel Crombie) was what stood out about them but deep down they had enough charming personality to attract a devout fanbase – one that formed as an official fan club way back in 1976 and to this day spends time reminiscing about events, posting pictures and documenting every single detail of the band’s career online. It is obvious that to them (and me) every Split Enz album is special in a different way but the real question here is, if you are not really invested in Tim Finn’s nervous breakdown, or the story of Neil Finn meeting Sandy Allen (“the world’s tallest woman”, as the next line of the song proclaims likely because they had no Wikipedia back then) in New York, or how Noel took on the daunting drumming responsibilities after former drummer Mal Green left the band, does this album have anything to offer to you, listener, and is it really all that good?
In my opinion it is as good as the Enz (yes, fans and press really called them that) get. A significant chunk of the weirdness is gone here, and even the costumes and weird make up are severely toned down, consisting of fitting the subject naval attire, to make way for a somewhat more honest emotional journey. It is really the emotional arc of the three main compositions here – opener “Dirty Creature”, the epic of “Pioneer/Six Months in a Leaky Boat”, which is the centerpiece of this more or less conceptual album with a strong nautical undercurrent (he-he, puns), and Tim’s own autobiography in song format “Haul Away” – that makes the strongest case for this record. The main songwriters of the band post the major lineup overhaul of 1977 have been Tim and Neil, of course, with occasional sweeping instrumental contributions by keyboardist Eddie Rayner but this album is all about Tim and his emotional journey, so much so that it was called “Tim and Tide” by critics at the time. (Neil gets the spotlight on the next one, as fate would have it, but with the very different narrative of loving your wife and bringing a new life into this wide and imperfect world, which would probably be better appreciated by people aware of the joys of family life.)
Another thing this album has going for it is the tight playing on it – Noel Crombie, following his promotion to a drummer, brings a lot of taste and cymbal action to his energetic but steady druming and with Nigel Griggs’ super solid pulsating bass remaining a staple of the band’s sound, the rhythm section carry this album on its naval journey across the seas (more puns!). While Neil still hasn’t developed his trademark sensitive new-romantic vocal modulation that you can hear all over the Crowded House catalogue and his singing can get a bit flat at times, Tim does a fair bit of chewing the scenery on here and balances intimate and theatrical in a very entertaining way. Another good thing about Time and Tide is that despite this being the 80s and keyboard-wiz Eddie Rayner being still very much at the heart of the Enz’s wall-of-soundy sound, the record doesn’t sound dated or cheesy at all. The production and more specifically the arrangements bring out the best in each tune and succeeds in emphasizing the nautical theme – somehow achieving the sound of the sunset-lit sea on the cover. The final strength I wish to address is the pop sensibility, for despite the energy and wit and unconventional arrangements (well, for the world of pop) these are deep down straightforward catchy pop numbers.
“Dirty Creature” opens here with its driving rhythm and a world of metaphors about er… um… psychological struggle? Panic attacks, to be more specific, which are personified by the mythical Māori beast Taniwha. Binding and gagging Tim’s wits and doing other scary stuff. Next up is the gentler “Giant Heartbeat”, which was written on top of a bass line that Nigel Griggs had come up with, and I think it is here where Neil starts really developing his vague lyrical approach about whatever that somehow so sums up the human condition. Anyway, the song builds nicely and ends on a cool held vocal, leaving the floor for “Hello Sandy Allen”, a song about how we’re all really beautiful or appearance doesn’t really matter all that much or something that gets a pass here because it was written before this trope became widely abused, and also Neil seems to have been sincerely impressed by meeting Ms. Sandy Allen and really digested the event and come up with this conclusion on his own. Also, who cares, the song is so catchy and infectiously happy.
“Never Ceases to Amaze Me” is, on the other hand, super camp, and the video has become somewhat notorious with Tim wearing afro wig and the rest of the band dressed in Star Trek suits materialising in this… zoo… in which he apparently works and examining… these strange hu-man ways… yeah, I think the band have since said that this clip is somewhat embarrasing and they shouldn’t have done it. Despite all this however, the track is not a waste at all with some over the top vocal delivery, energetic drums and ascending bass lines. The following track “Lost for Words”, as well as the album closer “Make Sense of It” are a good use of your Tim Finn and his energetic and frantic stage persona, while the more basic Green Aesop midtempo “Small World” is brought to life by the really effective contrast of driving rhythm and shimmery synths and guitars.
This is followed “Take a Walk” – my favourite number on the album – which also rides an energy wave and delivers a coolish piano solo right after Neil shouts “Run. Boy. Forever AND EVEEEEEER”. Now, I think this song is somewhat prone to word salad moments such as “Funny when we move ahead // Never worry what we leave behind // Remember what a friend of mine said // You gotta be kiiiiind”. And have courage perhaps, then? Is your friend really Cinderella’s mom?
Slowly but surely we have made our way to the sweeping “Pioneer” – Eddie Rayner’s only contribution on this album – which does its best to evoke the ocean at night and with its final elated chord even flash a lighthouse’s welcoming flash of light. And then…
This has to be indeed the centrepiece of this album, not only in its emotional sincerity and a strong motif of overcoming but also because it approaches musical epicness with the glorious introduction of “Pioneer” and the wonderfully trailing coda (not to mention a small sailor song-like break in the middle). Apart from resolving to conquer and set free, the song also explores somewhat remoteness and isolation of the antipodean lands, namedropping the history book on Australia “The Tyranny of Distance” as a way to illustrate psychological isolation, I am sure. An interesting fact is that “Six Months in a Leaky Boat” was banned during the Falklands war in the UK because talk of leaky boats was concerning.
This epic is immediately followed by “Haul Away” in which Tim visits chapters of his life while the instrumentation builds from verse to verse. As an additional nice touch, right after he sings “ambition has lost me friends and time” there is a quick sample from “Split Ends” – one of the bands very first songs from way back when a bunch of friends in a quirky acoustic combo were trying to win some New Zealand tv contest for exposure.
A turn to the darker follows on the penultimate “Log Cabin Fever” by Neil, in which a claustrophobic menacing atmosphere builds up until it is released with the line “Time to break away from my condition // Rejoin the human race, see what I’m missing”. And then the song proceeds to rock out.
It is left to the jangly guitars and somewhat drunk bass on “Make Sense of It” to conclude this album.
As for our conclusion, Time and Tide may not be a milestone in any sense of musical development but it is one of those complete package albums. The sound of it is as delightful as the cover art. It is fun and quirky but also resonates emotionally, and not one second of it is filler or boring. With themes of overcoming obstacles and asserting yourself, and some nice nods to seafaring and adventure, all brought out to shine with some tasteful arrangements, I’d say the record even verges on timeless. While Split Enz’s debut Mental Notes is an exhibition artful quirk and offbeat music hall extravaganza, and the hit album True Colours brings you catchy shiny polished new wave, it is Time and Tide, in my opinion, that is the most complete offering in the Split Enz catalogue. But more than that, as I said in the beginning, the real charm of the Enz that won them over their cult following is perhaps not the whimsical presentation of their early days that must have so impressed people. No, I think the reason people still spin these songs and talk about the band fondly is that the Enz are deep down these straightforward kiwi lads, and while earlier albums painted them into this misfit deadpan snarker role, on Time and Tide they look much more like the protagonists of children novels who may have grown up a bit but still have not lost their thirst for adventure. And this is why I’d always recommend this album.