a short site about The Divine Comedy

A Secret History

A secret history no more, one hopes, after this album. The Divine Comedy, really Neil Hannon, has been around for almost a decade now, and have a half-dozen or so CDs behind out, which are all but unknown in the US. It’s true that this is the kind of music that could only come from the British, along with the likes of Baby Bird, Scott Walker and Noel Coward, all of whom I can hear in these lush, witty, wistful productions. I say productions, because Hannon plays the orchestra like an instrument -- but don’t run away scared! As in some of the over-the-top pop creations of the ’60s, orchestrated pathos is all part of the charm of this stuff -- musically, most of these songs could have been hits in that eclectic era -- yet anything pretentious in it is compensated for by Hannon’s frequently hilarious, always poignant lyrics.

In fact, this is devilishly clever stuff, as when in ‘The Frog Princess’, which is about an affair with a French girl with a case of ennui, bits of the ‘Marseillaise’ are played on a French horn in a multiple musical pun. Or take my own favorite here, a transformation of the Noel Coward tune, ‘I’ve Been to a Marvellous Party’, (originally from a tribute album) which starts off as a traditional piano croon, then veers into hefty electronica, and ends up as disco.

A Secret History isn’t, be advised, a greatest hits collection, though there are some UK chart toppers present (‘Something For the Weekend’, a hit song about someone lurking in the woodshed, amazingly enough, and ‘National Express’, for example), or even a thorough sampler (it omits, for instance, ‘The Booklovers’, an amusing early novelty in which the names of about 60 writers are recited, along with some comedic interruptions), but it’s a fine introduction to music that will come as a superb astonishment to most American listeners. And even if you’re already a fan, there are two tasty new tracks here, including the must-hear ‘Gin Soaked Boy’, that make the disc a handy assortment.

Like an Austin Powers experiment in which Jarvis Cocker gets mixed up in the laboratory blender with Burt Bacharach, A Secret History is an entertaining cocktail that mixes a past that never was with a garish, celebratory, and deeply observed present. Definitely shagadelic!

Don Share
Consumable 15/11/1999