a short site about The Divine Comedy

Just like starting over

After years of trying to dazzle the world, The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon is finally chilling out. He talks to Andrew Mueller about Regeneration and turning 30.

“Generally,” sighs Neil Hannon, “it’s around the fifth day of interviews that you start wondering if you really want to do this job. But you talk to yourself of that.”

Hannon smiles, rather weakly – he’s only half-joking. The softly spoken Northern Irishman has spent the previous week being relentlessly interviewed elsewhere in Europe. He is giving this interview in the basement bar of the BBC’s Bush House prior to doing a webcast elsewhere in the building, and appears to be approaching that stage of promotion-induced catatonia that renders any mention of the record you’re supposed to be selling almost repellent. In the coming hour, Hannon will seize on any half-glimpsed tangent: Formula One, Popstars, U2, his new home in Muswell Hill, his Labrador. Anything but the record.

“The internet has made a huge difference,” he observes. “You could spend your whole life doing interviews for websites, if you felt like it.”

He readily acknowledges, however, that it could be worse. The real worry is when you release a record – a brave and audacious record, at that, one that represents a significant shift in your artistic course – and you fall to excite the interest of a single Belgian rock columnist or German website. Neil Hannon’s group, The Divine Comedy, have just released their sixth album, called Regeneration. Their previous album, nearly three years ago, was called Fin de Siècle. The most indolent armchair psychiatrist could not fail to spot the connection.

“I only really noticed that about a month ago, when I started doing these interviews,” claims Hannon. “Oh yeah. End. Beginning. Or new beginning. It’s basically a happy coincidence, but then the titles do always seems to mirror the larger picture. Although I don’t remember doing a lot of walking while we were making Promenade…”

It has become conventional, when writing about Neil Hannon’s work, to depict it as a maddening combination of its creator’s contradictory impulses. On one hand, Hannon has appeared a worthy heir to a lineage including Cole Porter, Scott Walker, Leonard Cohen and Paddy McAloon: a dazzlingly gifted singer, lyricist and tunesmith capable of exquisite ballads (‘The Dogs & The Horses’, ‘Sunrise’, ‘Everybody Knows’, ‘Timewatching’), eloquently sarcastic pop vignettes (‘Becoming More Like Alfie’, ‘Generation Sex’) and of holding his end of collaborations with Michael Nyman and Ute Lemper.

On the other hand, Hannon has resembled nothing so much as the missing link between Jonathan King and the Fast Shows office jester Colin Hunt: a perception crystallised for most by the insufferably jaunty singalong ‘National Express’, The Divine Comedy’s biggest hit to date, and a record that moved one reviewer to suggest of Hannon that “it is difficult to think of a single person alive today in more desperate need of a good kicking”.

Happily Regeneration is exactly what is says on the label. “There were so many reasons that I couldn’t go on forever,” explains Hannon, “but it all springs form an article I read, I think, in Mojo. It was a review of our Best Of album, and it was quite a good review, you know, but part of it said that The Divine Comedy will always be known as the slightly eccentric side order of Britpop… and it froze the blood in my veins. The very idea that we could be written off as such an inconsequential thing. I wasn’t angry about it. I just realised that maybe it was true.”

Hannon set about rebuilding The Divine Comedy both inside and out. The band signed with Parlophone after than more than a decade on independent label Setanta. The hitherto characteristic dandyish suits and snappy haircuts were ditched in favour of jeans, T-shirts and fringes. For the first time, the other six band members contributed ideas to the songs, rather than acting merely as hod-carriers to Hannon’s sonic architect. Most crucially, as Hannon tells it, Nigel Godrich was brought in to produce the new album.

“It was quite obvious to me,” says Hannon, explaining what may seem an incongruous choice, “that he had a large impact on how the bands he worked on operated. We really needed someone to take charge of the whole band and make it work. If you listen to the second Travis album as opposed to the first, you can hear the difference he made. Beck’s Mutations, as well – it’s my favourite Beck album because it’s without all the eccentricity that sometimes got in the way of the incredible songwriting…”

Hannon pauses long enough to make it clear that parallel between Beck’s reputation and his own has already occurred to hum.

“…and he happens to have made two of the greatest album ever with Radiohead.”

The result is an album that is certainly The Divine Comedy’s most cohesive to date – for the first time as Hannon acknowledge, The Divine Comedy sound like a band in their own right, rather than purveyors however adept, of pastiche. Lyrically Hannon has at last learnt to temper his formidable wit to the needs of the songs. Until now, the opposite has been the case too often for comfort, but the barbs planted in the songs on Regeneration are the more effective for their acarcity.

“I tried to get to the point,” says Hannon. “All the previous albums were a young man in his twenties desperately trying to impress the world. That article in Mojo, or wherever it was, brought home to me that maybe all this proving what I could do was getting in the way of any sort of emotional contact.”

The lyrical preoccupations of Regeneration, appropriately for an album that has followed such a comprehensive spiritual stocktaking, are mostly concerned with time, and its merciless passing. The album starts with Hannon ruing that “There’s not enough hours in the day”. In’Lost Property’, he mourns the ephemera that drifted through his possession (“Passports and parkas/Mobiles and chargers”). The single, ‘Love What You Do’, is a mantra chanted in the face of mortality; Even the gorgeous ‘Perfect Lovesong’, which is what it says it is, sound underpinned by a terror of death-us-do-parting. Neil Hannon has recently turned 30

“Yessssssssss,” he laughts, sounding faintly embarrassed that it might be that obvious. “I remember when we started to get recognised in France with Liberation and Promenade, and for the first time people wanted to interview me, and I’d tell them that I wanted to write an opera, and rite three novels, and make a movie, because I really through I could do all of that. But, as you get older, you realise that you do whatever it is because it’s one of the few things you’re any good at.”

It may have taken a glimpse of the Reaper on the distant horizon to get him here, but Neil Hannon is, at long last, playing to his strengths.

“You know, I used to be really worried, and swear that I’s keep myself radical, and all the rest of it, because otherwise, what’s the point? But I was missing the point of what actually happens, which is that you chill out. You realise you’re not quite as clever as you thought you were.”

Andrew Mueller
The Independent, 14/03/2001