a short site about The Divine Comedy

Sea Change For Divine Comedy

Riverside Studios, London

“Tonight, we’re going to play all of the new album. After all, you’ve got to hear it some time,” smirks Divine Comedy’s leader, Neil Hannon. Since the album, Regeneration, is not released until March 12, it makes for a most peculiar experience, particularly as Hannon and his music have undergone a sea change since they raised eyebrows by signing to Parlophone after a decade in the indie wilderness and two years after their commercial peak.

Gone are the polo necks, the pipe-smoker’s haircuts and the overbearing smugness; in are Beck-style flowing locks, grubby T-shirts and canvas trousers, and a new, more heartfelt approach. Musically, the Regeneration material is far superior to previous work; yet for all his intelligence, a mildly self-deprecatory aura and occasionally startling way with a melody, Hannon is not an especially engaging performer. Nor are any of his six band members, who constantly bump into each other on the tiny Riverside stage.

Eleven unheard songs, leavened by just six more familiar ones, is clearly the fast track to audience bemusement. But aside from the dreadful Eye of the Needle, there is much to commend in Hannon’s new work. Bad Ambassador is as chunky and muscular of melody as the Divine Comedy have allowed themselves to be, while Lost Property features a xylophone - albeit an almost inaudible one - and is the evening’s prettiest melody.

Before the wistful Perfect Lovesong, Hannon declares: “I can see it being our first number one. These words will probably come back to haunt me. When it’s number one. Ha ha.” There is, of course, more chance of Neil Young having a chart-topping single than Neil Hannon, but at least the coy boy from Londonderry is finally showing his hand. Even if this performance felt more like a showcase than a proper concert, his new direction may yet arrest his decline.

Of the older material, the twee National Express and Becoming More Like Alfie are delivered solo and acoustic as part of the solitary encore. Hannon looks embarrassed, as well he might.

Oddly, the one moment of genuine emotional engagement came much earlier, with the distinctly less heralded Tonight We Fly, from 1994’s Promenade. With celestial backing vocals from Bryan Mills, a military drum tattoo and a spiralling keyboard melody closely related to Can’s I Want More, for once the Divine Comedy felt like a band rather than a singer and his backing musicians. There is much work to be done here, but the cause is not wholly irretrievable.

2/5

John Aizlewood
Guardian Unlimited 26/01/2001