a short site about The Divine Comedy

You have to dress down if you want to grow up

The Divine Comedy’s ironic, witty music used to match the band’s foppish image. Neil Hannon tells Michael Bracewell why it all had to change.

An enduring image of Neil Hannon, the founder and frontman of the Divine Comedy, is of him performing dazzling interpretation of Noël Coward’s ‘I’ve Been to a Marvellous Party’ as port of Neil Tennant’s Twentieth Century Blues concert for the Red Hot Aids Trust/ Looking like a choirboy who has spiked the sherry, Hannon’s mimicry of Coward’s gossipy delivery of the song was eerily accurate, while the musical arrangement – suddenly intoning the chorus in the style of Iggy Pop over boom-box beats – seemed to make neat connection between different generations of Bright Young Things. It was, the critics all agreed, a masterpiece of clever pop and foppishness – the qualities with which Hannon had become synonymous.

Three years later; Hannon and the Divine Comedy have made a determined changed, emerging with a new album, Regeneration, and a whole new sound and image which shows Hannon out of patience with his reputation as a pop dandy. “All along we’ve been making very unusual records,“ he says, “but they have just been a series of genres. Now we wanted to make something of our own – something which was precisely not like anyone else.”

Such self-criticism may come as a surprise to many of Hannon’s admirers, who are long-term believers in his originality, about all else. In a manner not dissimilar to Jarvis Cocker – but without the iconic Britpop status – he is a singer and a songwriter who emerged during the 1990s as both witty and stylish in a era of laddish anti-intellectualism. While British rock had acquired an anthemic, guitar-driven conservatism – the like of which had not been seen since about 1975 – Hannon and Cocker, along with Brett Anderson of Suede, seemed to represent another route. Lyrically clever, opinionated rather than dogmatic, and clearly in love with the power of paradox and irony, here was a dandified configuration of pale and interesting pop stars who sang about love, loss or loneliness from the position of the chic geek.

With this in mind, Hannon’s latest evolutionary leap seems to take him from the eternal adolescence of seductive art pop romanticism, to a kind of muscular engagement with musical and lyrical maturity. With their new album, the Divine Comedy (to quote from one of the songs), “want to play ith the big boys”. Gone are the Wagnerian crescendos and luxurious orchestrations which typified their earlier work, gone are the hymns to Sweden, National Express coaches and the fate of white middle-class liberals; even Hannon’s homage to Scott Walker, as a vocalist, has been overlaid by a slightly transatlantic, laid back lilt. It is rather as though the whole presentation of the Divine Comedy, as a package, has gone from naturalism – the rock equivalent of a food chain going organic.

“In a way we’ve been trying to escape from the irony trap for the last three years,” says Hannon, “and this is very much a clean break for us. It’s not so much trying to get rid of any particular way of communicating, but of trying to communicate better. Irony’s useful, but not all the time. I think that in the old says I was too busy making quaint puzzles and layers of meaning which people has to treat as an assault course, sometimes, and it was getting silly.

“I saw a programme on the painter Otto Dix, and he said ‘All art is exorcism’, which makes a lot of sense to me. That you are always talking to yourself when you’re writing; that you’re just trying to persuade yourself of what you believe. On the new album, the song ‘Note to Self’ is me trying to remember what I think.”

It is tempting to see Regeneration as describing the classic romantic trajectory of rejecting youthful caprice in favour of a more rugged and mature sincerity, and preferring the solid ground of convictions to the lavender labyrinth of maxim and aphorism. The wit remains, (“Even the barmen know extracts from Carmen” Hannon sings on its opener) but the tone and the phrasing is less poised, less exquisitely stylised.

“It’s a matter of evolution, and you’ve got to changed to survive, really. We don’t want to denigrate our back catalogue in any way, but I just can’t listen to it. And that’s like looking at old photographs of yourself – you wince. So I’ll leave those records for a couple of years, and then they’ll make perfect sense again.”

Reflecting the drive towards authenticity over artifice in the music of the Divine Comedy, even the image of the group has changed, away from regulation Neurotic Boy Outsider Black (to borrow Peter York’s term) and into civvies – another step away from ironic theatricality.

In many ways, the ‘new look’ Divine Comedy would seem to find a welcome in the current pop climate which has seen the phenomenal success of Back and Radiohead – both of whom worked with Nigel Godrich, who has produced Regeneration. There is a sophisticated simplicity to Hannon’s latest work which does break free of the dangers of dandyism yet preserves his brilliance as the commentator on his own emotional development. Musically pared down, the arrangements, in texture, more denim than velvet, the record may well suit the temper of the times. “We didn’t shrink the record to fit or anything,” says Hannon, “but we did try to make music in a contemporary fashion – for a change.”

Michael Bracewell
The Independent on Sunday, 11/03/2001