a short site about The Divine Comedy

It's Not Funny Any More

Adam Sweeting sees the Divine Comedy abandoning their arch puns and jauntiness for the deeper pleasures of melancholy

With their first decade behind them, The Divine Comedy have made the great leap forward to a new deal with Parlophone. Regeneration is also noteworthy for the presence of producer Nigel Godrich, co-mastermind of Radiohead’s most recent adventures in hi-fi. While it’s probably unreasonable to attribute it all to Godrich, particularly when the ’Comedy are already armed with the bespoke services of writer/arranger Joby Talbot, there’s no denying that the disc bristles with subtle layers of instrumentation, painstaking tonal washes and 1,001 tiny devices to tease and deceive the ear. “It was a big step for us to admit that someone else could improve on our sound,” commented Neil Hannon, the band’s tour guide and strategist. “In the end it was the best decision we ever made.”

Of course, you would hardly expect him to say anything else, though the less partisan listener might be forgiven for wondering if the finished product sometimes sacrifices the pith of Hannon’s songwriting for the baroque luxury of the arrangements. For instance, Perfect Lovesong begins with a brief and illusory snippet of minimalist drum machine before embarking on an odyssey of massed strings, choral effects and sundry percussion devices beneath a canopy of pipe organ (or an electronic facsimile thereof). Hannon’s somewhat one-dimensional vocal talent doesn’t really have the power to stamp its authority on the mass of sounds boiling up around him. What’s worse, the infuriatingly jaunty rhythm calls the fearful words ‘Gilbert O’Sullivan’ to mind.

Sometimes it seems as if Hannon and his backing tracks are at cross purposes, where neither of them is quite sure what the other wants to say. The concluding piece, The Beauty Regime, features a spry lyric about the gulf between ‘real’ life and the version portrayed in advertisements and the media, but the mournful tone of the music doesn’t sit comfortably with the barbed but eventually optimistic content of Hannon’s words.

But maybe these expectations of jollity are just a hangover from the old, comical Divine Comedy, a unit responsible for such facetiously top-heavy titles as The Pop Singer’s Fear of the Pollen Count or Fanfare for the Comic Muse. The fact must be faced that on Regeneration, while Hannon hasn’t entirely lost his passion for punnery, the overriding tone is sombre, with many songs reaching for the same kind of crumbling, compromised grandeur familiar from the Godrich/Radiohead nexus. The title track, a fraught little item about (apparently) evolution through taking risks, could almost have been smuggled onto OK Computer, with its morbid, stalking beat and distant, eerie orchestral colourings. It even sounds like Hannon has been brushing up on his karaoke Thom Yorke-isms, especially that nihilistic drone Yorke has worked so hard to perfect. Dumb it Down seems equally indebted to the Oxford conceptualists, with its limpid beat, remorselessly downward-dragging tonality and sarcastic lyric - “Your concentration span’s too long; it’s longer than this song, that’s not allowed”. Then again, they could have fitted these words to a lighter, brighter tune and concocted an entirely different result, suggesting defiance instead of sullen resignation.

Thus, it’s logical that the tracks that work best should be the ones where words and music sound as though they belong in the same universe. In Mastermind, Hannon’s lyric is an existential rant about free will versus social conditioning (or something similar), dressed up in full-scale Epic Ballad clothing. Strings sweep overhead in plangent layers as piano and acoustic guitar sob quietly to each other, while Hannon’s voice cracks under his burden of world-weariness - “Every tongue will wag if you want it, every lung has a shadow on it, every heart comes apart at the seams”. Almost equally unreassuring is Love What You Do, even if it is the ’Comedy’s current single. Hannon purports to be urging listeners to seize control of their lives (“If you want it, you can have it”), but the remorselessly cyclical nature of the tune seems designed to illustrate the part of the lyric that runs “Everybody’s running round and round in circles. What is it they’re trying to prove?” What the tunesmith giveth with one hand, he taketh away with the other.

So, an album that can leave you impressed and depressed, and probably yearning for a few more throwaway one-liners such as “Even the barmen know extracts from Carmen” from Timestretched. I suppose there’s a hint of drollery in Bad Ambassador, and Hannon’s tongue seems wedged firmly cheek-wards in Note to Self. But on the whole, it’s uneasy listening.

3/5

Adam Sweeting
The Guardian 09/03/2001