a short site about The Divine Comedy

He wants to be Noël Coward. But he’s more like Neil Diamond

You have to be a little suspicious of someone who wears mirror shades, a fuzzy beard and a fringe that descends to his brows. What does he have to hide? With his shiny grey suit and white cravat tied up at his neck, Neil Hannon leaves only his dainty nose exposed to the glare of the audience at Wolverhampton’s Wulfrun Hall – and, if it didn’t hinder his singing, he would probably pinch that in mock revulsion.

Hannon, a young Irish singer-songwriter who trades under the name The Divine Comedy, likes to give the impression that he is too grand for all this: for the scummy venue; for the bejeaned fans (“I knew that spotty second-year English students from Wolverhampton would go nuts over – and they do,” he said recently); for the lame-brained vulgarities of modern popular music in general. Hannon’s spiritual progenitors – Scott Walker, Noël Coward – belong to a nobler, older tradition of songwriting, unafraid of eloquence, wit and grandeur.

Until last year, The Divine Comedy were a critics’ band, considered too literary and ‘difficult’ for the charts. Then they had hits with three stunning singles – ‘Something For The Weekend’, ‘Becoming More Like Alfie’ and ‘The Frog Princess’ – which boiled down Hannon’s wordy intelligence into crisp, three-minute, euphoric tunes, and suddenly the nation warmed to this chilliest, most revily ironic of performers.

Last year’s Casanova was a darkly sardonic, daringly melodic album about what a bitch love was. This year’s A Short Album About Love was less spiteful and more sentimental; recorded live with a 30-piece orchestra and released on Valentine’s Day, it was a musical chocolate box – indulgent, enticing and ultimately rather sickly. Only a dry, juvenile wit rescued it from Neil Diamond country. As Hannon sings chivalrously on ‘If…’: “If you were a dog, I’d feed you scraps off the table / If you were a horse, I’d clean the crap out of your stable.” You smoothie, you.

Hannon is touring with his usual five-piece band plus that 30-piece orchestra, and it seemed reasonable to expect a show of some magniloquence. The visual effect of the orchestra is somewhat diminished, however, by a battered perspex screen which separates them from the band, like a giant cabbie’s partition. You can see a few bare female arms sawing violin bows, and the entertainingly hysterical conductor, but that’s all; the band themselves, all togged up in the same wedding-guest outfits, are an inert bunch, and Hannon is a stiff, immobile performer. You can have some fun tracing his imaginary genealogy – is he the love child of Abraham Lincoln and Mark Owen (the cute one from Take That)? – but even when he takes his shades off three songs in, the evening still seems frozen in an irritating formality.

The music, for most of the concert, is similarly stilted. Orchestras are used in pop to provide an overtone of epic ambition, and usually the effect is clichéd and incongruous. The Divine Comedy’s songs do at least seem suited to orchestration, but using it all the time, for every song, just thickens the sound, filling in all the finely written breathing spaces and quiet moments in the song with shrill bombast. Hannon’s voice doesn’t help: given a variety of backgrounds, his mock upper-class baritone is fine, but when the sound is unalteringly loud and lush, his monotone singing really grates.

There is also a definite sense that, having lavished so much attention upon the arrangements of the new songs, Hannon didn’t leave much time for the tune; tracks like ‘In Pursuit of Happiness’ and the Nat King Cole pastiche ‘Timewatching’ are basically dirges, monotonous and linear, next to the delightful melodic finesse of ‘Becoming More Like Alfie’ and ‘A Woman of the World’. The most tuneful of the new songs – the current single ‘Everybody Knows (Except You)’ – is pure slush, straight Radio 2 fodder.

Only during the encores does Hannon let down his guard. He does not shave off his beard, not even loosen his tie, but he does at least smile and sip a half of Guinness during ‘A Drinking Song’. At the end, the band take a theatrical bow, a show of disdain for pop conventions – but in what way is theatrical convention any less dumb? Being a good pop songwriter and despising pop is not clever, just self-defeating. I suppose it takes courage to be so utterly pretentious, but you can’t help wishing that Hannon would be more of a coward and less of a Coward.

Sam Taylor
The Observer 16/03/1997