Something triggered in me last week to listen to Split Enz again, which, as I seemed to have forgotten, was a band I really loved for a time in the early ’80s. Let me rephrase that: I still love them, I just somehow let them fall well off my radar at some point. But as I relistened to their great 1981 album, Waiata (which I only recently learned went by the title Corroboree in its Australian release — the band is from New Zealand), I was reminded how frequently I listened to that album for a time, along with what could be considered its companion album, 1980’s True Colours. And for good reason: Split Enz was one of the best and most interesting of the new wave power-pop bands of that era, not too far removed from (although overall not quite up to the standard of) my favorite, XTC. Frankly, their earliest years of clownish makeup and ultra-quirky theatricality is a bit off-putting, but by the time I got into them, they’d dropped most of that, which allowed me to focus better on the great music. Neil Finn, co-leader of the band along with his brother Tim, went even farther mainstream later with Crowded House, but this early ’80s period of Split Enz finds a good middle ground of quirkiness and power-pop directness.
There are scads of great Split Enz songs, but one stands out above the other for me: the Neil Finn-penned “One Step Ahead.” It was a pretty big hit for them, although I don’t know that I’ve heard it played anywhere for years, so it sort of seems to have become a lost gem, at least in America. (On an interesting side note, the video for it was among the first 30 videos ever played on MTV.) If you hear Split Enz here, it’s nearly always their even bigger hit, “I Got You” (“I don’t know why sometimes I get frightened…”). But the wonderful soundscape of “One Step Ahead” is unparalleled: a literally stepping, minor-key descending bass line and spooky carnival organ are sonically captivating, but then, much like “I Got You,” the chorus breaks it open into pure pop catchiness. Do yourself a favor and listen to this with your headphones/earbuds/etc., because up close and without any distracting sounds, “One Step Ahead” will transform your world for all of its 2 minutes and 52 seconds, like only the best songs can truly do.