a short site about The Divine Comedy

The Divine Comedy of Neil Hannon

At CB’s Gallery, a tiny Manhattan nightspot frequented by folkies, country pickers and conversational locals, two thin young men take the stage to stirring applause. Strapping on his acoustic guitar, Neil Hannon rubs his goatee then adjusts his tie, which matches a natty blue cotton suit. To his left, Joby Talbot looks equally sharp, and begins to coax an orchestra of sound from a single keyboard. Funny, these guys don’t look like folk singers.

Over the next 90 minutes, the two principals of the Divine Comedy will satisfy this rapt audience’s appetite for songs from Casanova (Setanta/ Bar None), Hannon’s third installment as Britain’s leading bon vivant, a witty tunesmith equal parts Scott Walker, Burt Bacharach and Maurice Chevalier. Casanova’s clever, string-filled arrangements and memorable songs have rocketed Hannon far beyond UK cult status, where his tales of female seduction, lecherous behavior and overblown romantic distress have led leagues of Britpop-hating youth to raise their martini glasses in salute to the frail- looking, but heartily-talented songwriter. The songs roll out: ‘Alfie’, a tribute to the Michael Caine character who tempted females; ‘Something For The Weekend’, a reference to the lost barber’s custom of providing customers with condoms; ‘Through A Long And Sleepless Night’, a final tale of bitter defeat and rejection. Like ’50s actor James Mason in Nabakov’s Lolita, Hannon seems a man of lust and charm conquering women everywhere. But he’s really as sad as we lesser, mice-like men.

“Women usually want to know if it’s real,” he jokes, via phone from his label office. “Not if it’s real…’cause it is. They want to know if I am what the papers say and of course, they always find out that I absolutely am not. It’s embarrassing for me and frustrating for them. But does any of it mean anything? It’s all very awkward.”

But hasn’t Hannon’s fame brought him more female attention and romantic escapades?

“No, it’s just like any job,” says Hannon. “The more women you meet, the more they’re willing to listen when you dribble on. You’re bound to find someone who is willing to go to bed with you. But the Love God is so incredibly not me. But I’m willing to go along with it if it gets me press.”

Hannon’s modesty is offset by the boldness of his music. In the full-blown sense-o-rama that is ‘Middle Class Heroes’, Hannon foretells a woman’s future, culminating in a Wagnerian delivery of the Casanova credo over surging horns and strings: “Elegance against ignorance! Difference against indifference! Wit against shit!” Such valiant honesty seems unusual in pop music, but Hannon is no typical pop star.

“That’s a bit of a manifesto,” says Hannon. “But I don’t go ’round the streets of London wearing a three-piece suit with a cigarette holder in my right hand. It’s just a basic sentiment that [most music] is all a little too mundane.”

And Hannon’s entreaty to “join the doomed army” smacks of revolt against rock’s status quo, though he seems a pacifist at heart. “There is a machine somewhere that is manufacturing these bands that have the post-punk style down perfect, and some good songs come out of it. But it doesn’t matter how the good song is, how it’s played is totally pastiche and it doesn’t do anything new or different. A lot of American music is shit – but a lot of British music is unadulterated turd as well.”

Raised as a cherubic choirboy in his father’s church, Hannon seemed the stereotypical child repressed under the weight of religion, only to give vent to his hormones as adulthood turned him into a sex-craved singer-songwriter.

“I wish that romantic image of the oppressed young man was true, but unfortunately there wasn’t that much religion around me. It was a very liberal upbringing. I did whatever I wanted, it wasn’t a moralistic household. I even espoused socialism on the school playground because everyone was espousing extreme fascism. You do anything to stand out from the world really. It’s a constant struggle against anonymity.”

Citing influences as diverse as Cole Porter, Kraftwerk and My Bloody Valentine, Hannon has followed Casanova with a more willowy, love-soaked release, A Short Album About Love (import only). Sweepingly emotional and without the jaded cynicism of Casanova, the album finds Hannon praising love’s rapturous qualities. Now, perhaps Hannon knows the answer to the ultimate question all men ask. What do women want?

“I deal with the subject brilliantly in the art form, but I haven’t got a clue in real life,” says Hannon, without a witty retort anywhere in sight. “Maybe with the new album I was trying to inform myself as much as anyone else. Damn sorry about that, mate.”

Ken Micallef
Launch, 22/08/1997