a short site about The Divine Comedy

Seriously sublime

Richard Cook is transported by The Divine Comedy

Even a modest exposure to the exigencies of Popstars would make any self-respecting lover of popular music despair. As an antidote, let us consider the stately Regeneration (Parlophone), the sixth album by The Divine Comedy. It is as self-absorbed and calculating as anything that Hear’Say will ever say and do; but at least it’s doing it in the name of pop art rather than pop-corporate commerce. The Divine Comedy’s principal figure, the vocalist/songwriter Neil Hannon, is probably as solipsistic and intolerant as every other would-be God of the Charts - of course he is - but, in Hannon’s case, he has the musical muscle and intellectual savvy to make good on every smart-alec couplet. Hannon wears his art on his sleeve, and everywhere else within sight and earshot. This is the man who once came up with a lyric made up of a list of authors’ names, and who orchestrated an entire album about the seaside (Promenade).

The Divine Comedy emerged at the beginning of the Nineties with an ambitious but callow sort of songwriter’s music. Hannon’s subsequent progress, however, bears the mark of a great auteur. Fin De Siecle (1998) was about as super-literate as pop was ever going to get, with the material melodious and handsomely orchestrated. It helped that Hannon has one of the best voices in British pop. Most singers of the past decade were still suffering from the hangover of the Eighties, a period dominated by vocalists who were, in the words of Elvis Costello, “running round in short trousers pretending to be homosexuals”. Hannon’s stentorian tones are more like those of a sinister matinee idol, a brooding baritone rising to a fearsome tenor. He was one of the few singers who could compete with Tom Jones, decibel for decibel, on the old man’s recent album of duets.

So to Regeneration. With the six other members of The Divine Comedy also taking more of a writing role, and a new producer coming on board, the omens for a change of direction did not look good. Yet the record is as finely honed and sumptuous as ever. You’re probably sick of every pop star’s asinine musings on the human condition, and rightly so. But at least Hannon makes it worth lending an ear, as in ‘Eye of the Needle’: “The cars in the churchyard/Are shiny and German/Distinctly at odds with/The theme of the sermon/And during communion/I study the people/Threading themselves through/The eye of the needle”. The organ parts are more Procol Harum than Bach, but that only underlines Hannon’s acute knowledge of where he comes from.

Or it could be a touch of the producer, Nigel Godrich, who is particularly clever at this sort of thing. Godrich makes the record dense, but not soupy. There’s a degree of connoisseurship involved in spotting some of the influences, such as the Joe Meek noises in the gorgeous ‘Dumb It Down’, which sounds like The Tornadoes and Telstar at some points. If there is cause for concern, it’s in the way that The Divine Comedy seem to be heading backward. As dance music has got faster and faster, rock is now consistently slowing down. If Radiohead (also produced by Godrich) are the new Pink Floyd, maybe this group will be the next Roxy Music - although, as the old model is coming back, maybe not.

At least Hannon has some sense of distance. Like such other great voices as the Liverpudlian Ian McCulloch and the Dubliner Bono Vox, he seems sniffy about the London-obsessed tone of modern pop. “Every nose is a vacuum cleaner/In the loved-up London arena”, goes ‘Mastermind’, over a weeping bank of cellos and accordions. Hannon is not tired of life, he’s tired of London, but that doesn’t matter: I can listen to music this crafted and ingenious and passionate anywhere, and it still sounds good. Let’s hope The Divine Comedy’s luck doesn’t run out too soon. If Hannon ever retreats back to a garret in Londonderry it would be a tragic waste.

Richard Cook
New Statesman 26/03/2001