a short site about The Divine Comedy

Getting It Down To A Divine Art

The Divine Comedy, Southampton University

Neil Hannon’s group, the Divine Comedy, have always been a band that polarises opinion. For every critic prepared to praise their cultivated eccentricity and knowing lyrics, another could be guaranteed to dismiss them as a group mired in the worse kind of art-school pretension. Indeed, Hannon seemed to have one eyebrow permanently arched. Cockier than Jarvis Cocker, Hannon was the Britpop antidote to Britpop.

Easy-listening pastiches such as ‘National Express’ and ‘Becoming More Like Alfie’ delved into the national stock of kitsch and, as a result, were sprinkled with more pop-culture references than the average sketch show.

The navel-gazing and postmodernist malarkey made the Divine Comedy an easy target, but they have changed. They moved from indie label Setanta, signed to Parlophone and recruited Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich to oversee their latest album, Regeneration.

The result is a triumph of melancholy and wonderfully textured guitars held together by Hannon’s songwriting gifts. Some of the songs are meandering, and few are ripe for audience participation.

Live, it’s clear that Hannon and Co are no longer pop’s dandies as soon as they launch into their first song, a speeded-up version of their current single, ‘Love What You Do’. Hannon, thin, pale and lank-haired, may look like a callow pop star, but he is an assured performer.

Hannon sacrificed little of his lyrical inventiveness. In the absurdist ‘Bad Ambassador’, he sings: “I’m gonna abseil down my ivory tower and buy myself a Jaguar.” But even stripped of Godrich’s rich production values, these songs stand up, despite the best efforts of the dodgy acoustics to dampen the set.

The audience sings along to old favourites like ‘Sweden’ but it’s easy to see some of the newer songs usurping it in the fans’ affections. The bad sound obscures the occasional witty flourish but we still get the gist. On the languid ‘Eye of the Needle’, Hannon, the son of a bishop, laments bourgeois Christianity: “The cars in the churchyard are shiny and German/ Distinctly at odds with the mood of the sermon.”

Hannon lifts the meditative ‘Mastermind’ into a magnificent showpiece: “Tell me that I’m normal and tell me that I’m sane,” he implores. Under the spotlight and with scant musical accompaniment, Hannon is the lonely balladeer and it’s enough to provoke the person in front of me to express regret that he’d forgotten to bring a lighter to wave aloft. No irony intended, I’m sure.

The Divine Comedy provide that themselves with their customary rendition of Status Quo’s ‘Pictures of Matchstick Men’ accompanied by swinging guitars and hips. Then, in the encore, Hannon segues into Robert Palmer’s ‘Addicted to Love’ and can’t resist a little smirk. He returns on his own, armed with an acoustic guitar to perform ‘National Express’ and ‘Frog Princess’; both songs benefit from the simplified treatment.

If the new songs and direction bemuse the audience, it doesn’t show. The Divine Comedy have jettisoned much of what made them so distinctive, which is no bad thing. No longer fops, the Divine Comedy really have undergone a regeneration.

Akin Ojumu
The Observer 18/03/2001