a short site about The Divine Comedy

The Empire Music Hall, Belfast

Divine Comedy are the new Radiohead! Exclusive. Well, for about three minutes on stage at the Empire we could be fooled. The band on stage are going for it big time, rocking out like the best of them, and there's not a suit in sight. Neil Hannon's grown his hair out, and is looking like a fledgling Thom Yorke. The rest of the band look like they could be in any one of a hundred indie bands. Can this really be the Divine Comedy that we know and love?

Well, yes, this is the band that we know, love, cherish, and adore. But they have changed. On a shallow level, the suits have gone, the hair is not quite so well groomed, and the look is, well, normal. But the music has changed too. The songs are deeper, more mature, and the sound is more cohesive. The Divine Comedy have stripped themselves of all Hannon's characters, of all the pretension, of all the aloofness and the wit. The Divine Comedy have bared their soul on this record, and it takes a while to get used to.

The band come on stage at the Empire, say a brief hello and launch into Timestretched, the first of the eleven new album tracks played tonight. It is a beautifully sad tune, and the audience are enraptured, carried away on the melodies coming from the stage. Next is 'Bad Ambassador', the most obvious song on the album, and it provides the audience with a chance to bop up and down to it's chuggy rhythm. Neil then takes the time to let the audience in on the fact that they're going to hear the whole of the new album tonight, interspersed with a few old friends. He hopes we'll be kind, that we'll listen to the new material without complaining too much, and then he tells us that we'll love it. He sounds confident, but you can tell that he's nervous. He wants us to love this album as much as he does.

'Tonight we Fly' is the first 'oldie' that the audience have to grasp on to, and it's one that is seized upon by the devotees squashed against the front of the stage. It's followed by 'Dumb it Down' and a brilliant version of 'Lost Property', in which Neil encourages us in a spoken monologue to think of all the things we've lost, and all the good times we had with those things. It's an ode to lost sunglasses, car keys, and that odd sock that always seems to go missing during the wash, and it ends with a plaintive question - just where do all these lost things go? It's classic Hannon songwriting, picking up on those little odd things that we all know about but rarely question, but it's unusual tonight, as most of the other songs are about something else. They're about being in love, being contented, being happy. 'Love What You Do' is a classic example of this - it's simply about living for the moment, not wasting your life doing something you dislike, but loving what you do instead. Neil Hannon thinks it's a 'difficult' record to work as a single. Everyone at the gig seems to disagree. Even though it's not released until the end of February, a lot of people here seem to have picked up on the words already, and are singing along. The sweeping 'If you want it, come and get it' line is echoed by a large portion of the crowd, and even though he messed up the intro to the song, Neil Hannon seems to relax and realise that the Belfast audience have got the hang of this, and want to hear his new music.

The gig continues in the same vein for an hour - two or three new songs, then an old one. 'Sweden' reminds us all of what a superb voice Neil has, and 'Generation Sex' only serves to show how much his writing has moved on. Towards the end of the gig, Neil introduces new track 'Perfect Lovesong' with the line, 'This is our first number one' and a laugh. But as the crowd jump up and down to it's lively beat, smiling along to it's happy lyrics, you have to consider that sometime in the future, that might be a serious introduction to this song.

The payoff comes in the encore. Neil comes back on stage almost apologetically, and when he gets a huge cheer, says 'I wasn't sure if you wanted me to come back out here or not, but now I know'. He lifts his guitar and launches into a ridiculous acoustic solo version of 'National Express'. The crowd, as they say, go wild, and bopbopbopbop along wildly, joining in on every word. Neil enjoys it so much that he decides to do 'Something for the Weekend' even though he can't remember the words, and rounds up the mass singalong with 'Alfie'. The rest of the band join Neil on stage for the final number, 'The Beauty Regime', Neil's favourite song on the new album. It's a glorious tune, and a great way to finish a great gig.

Not many bands could get away with playing a whole set of new material, but this time it seems to have worked. The silly singalong section keeps the punters happy, but shows how much The Divine Comedy have moved on. We've seen Neil Hannon grow up over the past 8 albums, we've seen him go through loads of different phases in his life and deal with them all in his own inimitable way. It looks like it's going to be interesting to watch this phase.

Across The Line 21/01/2001