a short site about The Divine Comedy

A Decade Of Divinity

Neil Hannon, the main face, voice, and brain behind the Divine Comedy, is definitely up on his rock-journo clichés. When I ask him just what happened to bring about the dramatic stylistic change between his first release, 1990’s Fanfare For The Comic Muse, and his second, 1993’s Liberation, he responds with a laugh. “You sounded just like – who was it? – Phil Joanou in [the U2 concert film] Rattle & Hum there,” he says down the phone from his London home. “Remember?” He adopts a clipped tone of voice, measured to the point of silliness: “What happened between The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree?”

I confess I don’t remember the scene, and Hannon cracks up. “Well, you should go back and watch the movie,” he says between chuckles. “I just thought it was funny. Sorry.”

Well, consider me humbled by this link to overdramatic interviewers of the past. Still, the question remains: What did happen between Fanfare and Liberation? The former, recorded by Northern Irish preacher’s son Hannon and a two-piece rhythm section, is an undistinguished collection of indie guitar rock bearing the heavy (and obvious) influence of R.E.M.. The latter, masterminded principally by Hannon with the help of a few session players, is an elegant, witty, staggeringly literate, and supremely melodic piece of orchestral pop, on which what one might call the ‘Divine Comedy persona’ (foppish and ironically detached on the surface, brooding and desperately emotional underneath – or is it the other way around?) comes into being full-blown. It’s one of the most stunning turnarounds in ’90s music; there must be a story behind it, right?

The answer is yes, sort of: The Divine Comedy’s original bassist and drummer said so long shortly after Fanfare’s release, and Neil was left to forge his own style. “Although I wrote all the music for [Fanfare],” Hannon recalls, “the fact that I had other musicians in there locked me into that mindset that we were going to be the new R.E.M. or something – not a bad aspiration, but still trying to be somebody else, basically. And when they left, after I’d gone home with my tail between my legs because the band had split, I just thought, ‘F--k this, I’m really going to get to the bottom of what I want to do.’ The first record hadn’t done anything much – although it had sold 3,000 copies, and I thought that was pretty cool – and no one was expecting a record from me, so I had a lot of time on my hands. I was free to take each tune that I’d written and try and find its ultimate context, what it wanted to be in arrangement terms.

“It took a lot of thought,” he continues, “in fact, about two years of thought, and re-evaluation and listening to an awful lot of different music. I had a wonderful time in the attic of my parents’ home just becoming more and more introverted, demoing the songs ’til they couldn’t take any more, and I knew exactly what I wanted on everything before we even went into the studio. Also, Keith Cullen [of Setanta, Hannon’s label at the time] wanted [the Lightning Seeds’] Ian Broudie to produce the record. It might have worked, and Ian wanted to, but he never found the time. So while waiting around for this to happen, which took up nearly another year, I wrote all of [1994’s] Promenade as well, ’cause I had nothing better to do.”

Hannon’s deep voice, over-the-top performing style, and love of lush orchestration led many critics to compare him to existential balladeer Scott Walker, and Hannon acknowledged the debt, even admitting that he sent copies of all his records to Walker upon their release: “You give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” he explains with a chuckle. Yet in truth, the results of Hannon’s approach were utterly distinctive, even when he engaged in outright thievery; take ‘Bernice Bobs Her Hair’, which weds a storyline taken straight out of F. Scott Fitzgerald to a beguiling lite-pop melody complete with Beach Boys ba-ba-bas, or ‘Timewatching’, which combines a tacky riff on the words to the Heyman/Young standard ‘When I Fall In Love’ with a chilling string-quartet arrangement to form a completely absurd yet somehow moving torch song.

Over the seven years and four albums since the release of Liberation, Hannon’s ambition has only grown (aided significantly by the addition to the fold of ridiculously talented keyboardist/ arranger Joby Talbot). And here’s a surprising development: His record sales have increased as well. Casanova (1996), an hilarious dissection of the male libido, was the Divine Comedy’s first major hit in Britain; Fin De Siècle (1998), featuring the services of a full orchestra and choir, took Hannon all the way into the U.K. top 10. Still, Neil respectfully shies away from calling the recent Divcompilation A Secret History a ‘greatest-hits’ album. “We prefer best-of,” he says, “just because a lot of those songs weren’t hits – they weren’t even released as singles.”

For all Hannon’s notoriety in the U.K., his music remains a cult phenomenon Stateside – “very cult,” he quips, “because nobody knows who we are.” But British success alone was apparently enough to bring the majors calling; the Divine Comedy’s next album will be recorded for corporate giant EMI. Which reveals the principal reason for A Secret History’s existence: namely, a contractual obligation to indie label Setanta (distributed by Red Ink in America). Even so, the best-of is valuable for its collection of a few Divcom rarities, most notably the melodramatic ‘Too Young To Die’ and a decadent techno update of Noel Coward’s ‘I’ve Been To A Marvellous Party’.

Looking back on his first decade of work, Hannon is pleased, more or less. “What I set out to achieve, to begin with, was to make records that nobody else was making. And I think I achieved that.” He pauses for a brief guffaw. “There was one review over here [in England] of the best-of that said the Divine Comedy will always be an interesting sideline in the ’90s but never a major player, and it made my blood boil to read that. I can see where they’re coming from, but I’d like to go beyond that, to be honest.”

As to what the next Divine Comedy album will be like, Hannon predicts the music will be less ornate; he has little desire to be pigeonholed as part of the ork-pop ghetto. “Liberation was the start of a period of megalomania,” he says, “and the history of the Divine Comedy since then has been one of stripping back my control-freak tendencies, because they’re not healthy. I’ve always loved the orchestration element, but I think it’s become a bit of a millstone. Fin De Siècle was pretty ridiculous; we just wanted the biggest sound we could possibly achieve, but there’s only so far you can go with that. So I think it’s back to the drawing board for the next one. I decided to write on acoustic guitar this time, so it might turn out like Oasis, or Bob Dylan. [That was a joke, people.] The lyrics are a bit more personal, a bit less cheesy; I want to get away from the cheese factor. I don’t mind clever lyrics, I get off on writing them – it’s like a crossword without any clues. And I like trying to make something that can exist on its own, where you don’t need to know anything about the artist to understand what the song’s doing. If I could marry that approach to something that is really important or of some use to somebody, then that would be good.”

Mac Randall
Launch 04/01/2000