a short site about The Divine Comedy

Walk on the mild side

Rock star? Pshaw! Axe-wielding metal personage? Definitely not, Neil Hannon, solitary member of The Divine Comedy, is an artiste and justifiably proud of it. Liberation contained some of the most sublime and original pop moments of last year, and the follow up Promenade has just been released. “Rest assured, it’s brilliant”, says Neil. Lorraine Freeney agrees.

Egotists are boring bastards. Rarely blessed with even the same creative vision and flair as, say, a lobotomised Mr Bloody, they nevertheless shout about their paltry successes, and believe implicitly, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, in their own incomparable attractiveness to all members of both sexes. They leave doors open. They never buy a round. They have personal hygiene problems (I’m generalising a bit here, but so what? Egotists generalise all the time). they’re more irritating than jack hammers going off on the street outside on the morning of a bad hangover, and invariably louder.
They are talentless scum, egotists.
Most of them.
Ask Neil Hannon if he is an egotist and he replies “Absolutely” without missing a beat. But – sing hallelujah! – he has ample reason to be. Neil Hannon is unbelievably talented. He is also frail and beautiful and speaks, despite his Northern Ireland upbringing, with a soft, bubbling, vaguely English accent. He often sounds as if on the verge of a chuckle, and is probably slightly uncomfortable talking about himself because, to be honest, he could never be one millionth as interesting as the music he makes. He’ll have a go, though.
“I’m sure people have so many misconceptions about the music,” he ponders, “so maybe by talking a bit about it you can handle that.”
Does he imagine that people have misconceptions about him personally?
“They tend to… well they probably don’t, but perhaps they think that I’m a pipe-smoking croquet player, which I am obviously not. I just wander around aimlessly, doing nothing much and dreaming up these quaint little scenarios for my songs.”
Tell him that you think the new album, Promenade, like its predecessor, takes a while to, well, grow on the listener and he will shift a little uncomfortably and murmur, “I’m sure it does. I play it just every now and again, to remind me of how brilliant I am.”
There’s a danger that some of this could be plucked out to make a very unflattering headline.
“Oh don’t do that,” he moans. “People do that all the time. I do have this ego problem definitely. It’s not a problem,” he backtracks quickly, with a smile. “I don’t think I am a complete genius. I just think I am a partial genius.
“The problem is that it’s very easy to become defeatist in this business, so you have to keep telling yourself you’re brilliant or else you’d just stop. People take it the wrong way sometimes. I don’t want to be terribly self-effacing. That’s just dull.”

We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again for the benefit of those who were too busy playing with second-hand grunge to pay attention, but Liberation was undoubtedly one of the finest albums of last year. More than that, it was a work of art, and there are very few albums you can say that about, stone cold sober, without subsequently having the urge to hide under your duvet of shame. Of Liberation, you can say it and be proud. It was blissfully original, highly self-indulgent, and determinedly off-kilter. It utilised sources like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Wordsworth and Mr Benn (Mr Benn! Now that is fucking genius), was recorded with a blushingly modest budget, and written and demoed in Neil’s parents’ attic.
“I felt like it ought to retain that atticy feel,” he recalls. “It’s not exactly the most expensively produced, lavish album in the world, but it has its little idiosyncrasies, and I like it. It’s funny because it’s exactly the sort of debut album I’d like to have, because it’s got lots of little ideas, lots of things stuck together in a glorious hotch potch. The second one is definitely more of a whole.”
Promenade is undoubtedly more structured. It’s actually a concept album – no wait, come back! Neil means that in the very broad sense of the world, not in the ‘tired old progressive rock band dredging out seventy minutes worth of songs about the adventures of a Viking warrior called Smorg’ sense.
“Each song is a moment during one day, by the sea, with these two people,” he explains gently. “I think it would take the average person several months before they actually worked it out, so I’ll give everybody a head start. It is slightly conceptual, but, oh god…” (flinching as if in some embarrassment) “there’s no particular reason why it as this story. It’s just a method of making a nice rounded album that has a meaning all of its own, and it also gives me something to hook my ideas onto. I don’t like just having a song about seafood, and a song about drinking here and there for no particular reason.”
“It was written slightly differently in that a lot of the music was written before I’d even recorded Liberation because I had so much time on a little typewriter, which I’d never used before, but it sort of inspired me because I enjoyed… hitting it. It just flowed easier, and I got all the lyrics done in three weeks. I was amazed with myself, because I’m usually a slow lyrics writer. Maybe I’m getting better, or,” he mutters, with typical perversion, “maybe it’s worse that I don’t take as long.”
The songs about seafood and drinking (called ‘The Seafood Song’ and ‘The Drinking Song’ appropriately enough) are the most obviously whimsical, and are joined by a paean to French actresses (‘When The Lights Go Out’), the delicate and yearning ‘Summerhouse’, about lazy holidays long past when it never, ever rained, and ‘Ten Seconds To Midnight’, a gorgeous lullaby for all trembling romantics. Then, there’s ‘The Book Lovers’. A list as lyrics, this one features a role-call of famous authors. As each author is called out, Neil, or Setanta chief Keith Cullen, or Sean Hughes, or whoever else wandered into the studio at the time, is called upon to adopt the persona of sai author and say something, ranging from the basic ‘hello’ to the inspire “I’m a bloody boring writer” for Joseph Conrad; the predictably pervy “Hello little girl” for Nabokov, and the Kia-ora slogan “Too orangery for crows” for Iain Banks.
But hang one, Neil was reported as saying it his last Hot Press interview that, (quote) “I’m actually a very bad reader adn the reason there are some many literary references in my songs is that when I do get round ploughing my way through a book, which is usually once every six months, it makes such a profound impression I have to write about it.” So isn’t this a bare-faced attempt to foist on the general public the perception of Neil as Horace Bookworm Esq, the last of the red-hot intellectuals?
“Did I say that?” he asks, all wide-eyed innocence. Pah, you’re not getting away with it that easily. “I like contradicting myself in interviews, so yeah, I read all the time,” he says. Just like a cheeky schoolboy. “Um, yes, I have that song there. Some people have called it ‘Endless Authors’. I don’t care, it’s quite funny. I was just apologising to Mr Couse last night. He says it’s alright.”
Didn’t it occur to you that people were going to assume this was the librarian’s remix of ‘Endless Art’?
“It did cross my mind, but the guy in Melody Maker said it was the bastard son of ‘Endless Art’ which is quite pleasing. It depends what you want it for. As far as a pop song goes, ‘Endless Art’ is one and ‘The Book Lovers’ isn’t but I mean, to be perfectly honest, the real reason I did it is because I couldn’t think of any damn lyrics,” he laughs, “and it’s intrinsic to the plot of this album.”

Startled bunny enthusiasts will be saddened to learn that the fruits of the long-planned collaboration between Neil and his ‘golf-playing show-biz chum’ Sean Hughes have yet to reach the ripened stage.
“I just haven’t got round to it really. It’s very difficult when I’m desperately doing my own stuff and he’s thoroughly into his own stuff. I’ve done for songs of his poems, and there’s quite good, I think, but I don’t know if they’ll ever see the light of day. To get him to sing them, that’ll be a laugh.”
Ahem. Even the most ardent startled bunny fans weren’t bargaining on Sean actually singing the songs…
“He’s got a reasonable voice,” insists Neil. “He has sung on his show, but it’s always in a sort of jockey way. If he actually put his mind to being serious he could probably pull it off, because these aren’t really very jokey songs.”
Promenade has really been lauded with rapturous reviews. Does Neil care? Well, yes and no. he obviously does read his criticism, but maintains an air of shrugging indifference.
“I wasn’t exactly frightened about what they were going to say about the first one either. I think people are sensible enough to know that is it’s a well made album with good songs, then it’s a good record. And I think it’s down to pure craftsmanship, to use that horrible word.
“I don’t see the song as an end in themselves. They’re leading on. They’re little exercises. I’m just building up to my masterpiece. Who knows when that’s going to happen though.”
Se he wished he could reach huge audiences and…
“I don’t wish I could reach huge audiences,” he corrects, “I’m just working towards it. These things will happen in their own time. I don’t want to be an overnight success. I feel that as long as I’ve got a living wage and I’m selling slightly more than the previous one, then I can’t go wrong really. I don’t want to stand still.
“I do want to be famous. You can probably tell. But to be properly famous. There’s no point in being hyped up to it because you’ll hyped back out of it. You just have to let it grow of its own accord, and one day, click, I’m famous.”
Is life going to improve dramatically when international fame does come begging?
“Not really,” he conceded. “It just means that more people will hear the music which is of course all that matters…”
There is a short pause. A heavily pregnant one.
“Rubbish…” he grins. “I just want a big house in the country.”
An artist, and a master of comic timing. Bravo, sir.

Lorraine Freeney
Hot Press 04/05/1994