a short site about The Divine Comedy

A Secret History

17 track pick from the second to the sixth album (1993-98) plus two new songs.

Advocates regard The Divine Comedy’s knowing pop as among the decade’s most colourful and individual contributions. With his louche morality, intermittent preoccupation with sex and empathetic, ironic eye for the significance of the everyday, Neil Hannon’s position is somewhat equitable to that other bright-as-a-button misfit Jarvis Cocker, but the music operates on an entirely different level of sophistication.

Hannon’s well-documented, singular group of influences (Barry, Brel, Nyman, French cinema, Doris Day, Kraftwerk) have been smartly imported onto five shrewdly themed albums of finely-honed lounge-pop. For those that don’t get it, The Divine Comedy has all the resonance of Mike Flowers on a creative writing course, perhaps holding up moments like “I’m going crazy baby” from Everybody Knows as evidence of TDC being rather more Austin Powers than Scott Walker. But Hannon’s essential wit, his gift for unforgettable melodies (“I liked it in the ’50s when mothers and daughters were all whistling the same tune on the radio”) and arranger Joby Talbot’s ear for detailed orch-pop grandeur have produced some winning results.

Leading this farewell to Setanta (TDC are off to Parlophone) are the hits; the lush, amusingly overblown paean to Britain’s unlovely coach service National Express, the shaggy dog of Something For The Weekend, the brilliant outrage-as-soufflé Generation Sex. Those familiar with the devious, removed tone of these tracks (Cole Porter meets Paul and Barry Ryan) may be surprised to discover the open-heartedness of early things like the glorious, straightforward nostalgia of The Summerhouse and the persuasive melancholy of Your Daddy’s Car: “Can you feel the sadness in our love/It’s the only kind we’re worthy of.”

The two new songs approximate that early directness but find Hannon in an identity crisis. Gin Soaked Boy is a rootsy, repetitive, Dylanesque list of high-handed self-definitions (40 in all, from “I’m the darkness in the light” to “I’m Jeff Goldblum in The Fly”) after which the by now obligatory “Ba ba ba ba da” singalong conspicuously fails to alleviate the grim, self-regarding mood. The doomy ballad Too Young To Die appears full of regret and self-recrimination, “I must break free/From that part of me/That values the art/Over the humanity,” he moans. Perhaps he must, but let’s hope that this earnest rebirth doesn’t leave his lighter touch completely behind in his glitteringly arch past.

Chris Ingham
Mojo 09/1999