Perfect Pop Forged in Tim Finn and Dorothy Porter’s Fiery Maze

Good songs are both clear and complex. Musician and composer Peter Farnan reflects on this after seeingThe Fiery Maze at Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne. With lyrics by poet Dorothy Porter, and music by Tim Finn, Farnan ponders the perils of poetry set to music.

I first saw Tim Finn perform live in 1975. Split Enz were opening for Ayers Rock at Dallas Brookes Hall in Melbourne. I was a teenager. As the first synth glissando slid into a rich soup of proggy strings I was hooked. The songs were dense, kooky, otherworldly, dark, whimsical and complicated; spread out for five, six or seven minutes, arranged into jagged sections; movements, if you like.

Back then Tim collaborated with Phillip Judd, a dark, brooding onstage presence who seemed to have the aura of moody poet-in-residence. Within two years Judd had left the band. No matter. By then Tim had risen to write songs the calibre of Charlie.

Split Enz’s early prog leanings were seared away by commercial realities and the advent of punk. All that sprawling, imaginative energy was compressed into tight songs brimming with effervescence. I Hope I Never and Six Months In A Leaky Boat, amongst many memorable songs, followed.

Tim’s work became notable for melodic elasticity – melodies that climbed, swooped, and leapt about – and for precision-wrought, smart, tart lyrics; a man clearly attuned to language. While continuing to intermittently collaborate with others (most notably his brother, Neil), Tim built a formidable catalogue of songs as a sole songwriter.

Poet Dorothy Porter appears to be the perfect pop lyricist.

Years later, in 1994, Tim read Dorothy Porter’s verse novel, Monkey Mask, and sought her out as a collaborator. The established songwriter, no slouch as a wordsmith, surrendered the domain of lyrics to a poet. The resultant songs, sung by Abi Tucker, accompanied by Finn and formidable guitarist Brett Adams, and presented by Malthouse (until September 4), are a revelation.

Poets writing song lyrics? Perhaps a dangerous proposition. While Porter brings the depth of a poet’s sensibility to bare in The Fiery Maze, she also appears to be the perfect pop lyricist. She makes clear, bold statements about love, longing and appetite, and follows them with a rich image, an imaginative leap, a stark, complex, original utterance.

This is the art of the pop writer: to say something accessible, nay familiar, and then enrich it with the utterly original. A writer has to earn the right to say ‘I love you’ by lighting a poetic bonfire that complicates, elaborates upon and blasts the ‘relatable’ into orbit. Dorothy Porter does this. If it’s all banality and generalities then there’s no texture, no specificity to lock you in; think dull power ballad. A listener might be manipulated by the music (or the singing) but who cares about what’s being said?

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Porter’s imagery clearly shows the dab hand of a poet; images of ‘fiery mazes’ and ‘black water’. While her energy is wild and unfettered, her use of language is crisp, clear and restrained. Often poetry does not suit setting to music (with notable exceptions – WH Auden for example). There can be too many musical effects already built in. All that rhythm and alliteration; all those polysyllables cluttering up the place. It’s better to let the melody and the mood of the music do the heavy lifting. Porter seemed to understand this (Thom Yorke from Radiohead is all slurred vowels).

While sensitive to the brevity and economy required for songwriting, Porter’s lyrics occasionally present problems for the songwriter. Stanzas are of uneven lengths (say five lines where a songwriter might prefer four or eight) and patterns of scansion (line length and rhythm) are not necessarily duplicated from stanza to stanza. Usually the more irregular each musical section is, the more ‘through-composed’ a song has to be. With less repetition there is less for the listener to ‘hang on to’. You move away from the idea of ‘song’ towards ‘art song’ or ‘tone poem’.

Think of the later work of Scott Walker. This is where Tim Finn’s skill comes in. He bends these irregularities into familiar shapes – verses and choruses – while retaining and making a virtue of their asymmetry. Sections are recognisable repetitions but never carbon copies of their predecessors.

These songs have grunt. They are messy with sensuality and guts spilling and oozing out of them.

Maybe all that proggy fiddliness back in the ‘70s indicated a natural facility for accommodating irregularities. In the end each song is clear and digestible with a defined character. Finn is careful not to get too tricky with melodies when the words need to be front and centre. At the same time Finn’s characteristic loopy, melodic elasticity kicks in when it there’s room for it, sometimes providing little counter melodies and hooks that evince memorability and bind the songs together when the structure gets unwieldy.

And these songs have grunt. They are messy with sensuality and guts spilling and oozing out of them. Tim Finn might be known as a pop writer but he draws on tropes from the ‘60s and ‘70s – the occasional bluesy swagger and thumping groove to kicks things along.

Ultimately a good song has a clearly presented core idea but also depths that suck you in. Dorothy Porter’s lyrics have this enriched clarity of intent and Tim Finn has created music that is similarly clear and bold in character but with subtle complexity.