a short site about The Divine Comedy

A British Pop Songwriter Meets America Halfway

On a new album, Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy offers songs that are, unusually straightforward.

Neil Hannon, the singer and songwriter who leads the British pop outfit known as the Divine Comedy, is apparently not skilled at keeping tracks of his personal belongings. In one of his latest compositions, ‘Lost Property’, which appears on the Divine Comedy’s new album, ‘Regeneration’, he recounts various items he has mislaid over the years. Passports, mobile phones, a pair of tennis rackets, sweaters, asthma inhalers, ‘C-class narcotics’ – the list is long and governed by the laws of rhyme.

Crooning in a rich baritone, Mr. Hannon expresses bewilderment at the way so many possessions have slipped from his grasp. But toward the song’s end, he regains them all in a dream. “I found them,” he declared as the band builds to a climax, “all piled up into the sky / and I cried tears of joy.” To get so emotional about a bunch of random objects seems more than a little silly. And yet after the song stops, its underlying poignancy lingers in the listener’s mind.

This odd mix of the overblown and the affecting is typical of Mr. Hannon, 31, who has been a minor star in Britain for the last five years, composing half a dozen hit singles and the theme to a popular sitcom, Father Ted.On songs like ‘Becoming More Like Alfie’ (a reference to the 1966 film starring Michael Caine) and ‘The Frog Princess’ (which incorporates, appropriately enough, a quote from ‘La Marseillaise’), Mr. Hannon boldly walked the line separating art from schmaltz, dissecting modern culture with a good-natured yet biting wit that marked him as the 1990’s closest approximation of Noël Coward. He did so while cultivating the persona of a foppish playboy: overeducated, haughty, impeccably groomed but also keenly aware of his own ridiculousness.

Most Americans, of course, prefer their pop music free of cheek, and in this country Mr. Hannon’s fans have been limited to a scant few Anglophiles and songwriting aficionados. Excluding compilations, Regeneration (Nettwerk 30237) is the seventh Divine Comedy album, but it is only the third to be released in the United States. Still, the new album suggests thar Mr. Hannon, who will perform at Joe’s Pub on Feb. 12, may be ready to meet American audiences halfway. He’s changed his look: the hair’s longer, the well-tailored suits of yore have been replaced by baggy jeans and sneakers. And while his song remains droll, several are unusually straightforward, devoid of his customary layers of irony.

Although it may be tempting to see this stylistic change as transparent to gain new listeners, a brief examination of the Divine Comedy’s history proves that it’s simply the next logical step in the group’s evolution. Mr. Hannon, a Protestant bishop’s son who grew up in Derry, Northern Ireland, and attended Portora Royal School in Enniskillen (a distinction he shares with Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett), had already formed the Divine Comedy when he moved to London at 19. At the time the group was a trio of guitar, bass and drums whose music owed a substantial dept to the jangly college-rock sound of R.E.M.. It released one unremarkable album, Fanfare For The Comic Muse, in 1990 and promptly dissolved. Mr. Hannon retreated to his parents’ house and began to reinvent himself.

When the Divine Comedy re-emerged three years later, Mr. Hannon was its only full-time member, playing most of the instruments. Two remarkable albums, Liberation (1993) and Promenade (1994), established his new style: graceful melodies and sophisticated chamber-pop arrangements – equal parts Burt Bacharach, the American expatriate balladeer Scott Walker and the English minimalist composer Michael Nyman – offsetting lyrics that poked fun at, and shamelessly stole from, the products of high and low culture alike. (The verses of ‘The Booklovers’, on Promenade consist of famous writer’s names spoken portentously and accompanied by flippant sound effects, like a background yell of “Ahoy there!” for Herman Melville.)

Casanova (1996) a tongue-in-cheek look at the male libido, was Mr. Hannon’s first commercially successful recording and the first to employ a full orchestra, a tactic he used to greater effect on A Short Album About Love (1997). By 1998, and the release of the Divine Comedy’s sixth album, Fin de Siècle, Mr. Hannon was daring to write about unfunny subjects: the media frenzy surrounding Princess Diania’s death on ‘Generation Sex’, the prospects for peace in his homeland on ‘Sunrise’. But the music was no longer merely grandiose. Tracks like ‘Here Comes The Flood’, a bloated parody of Broadway show tunes, were downright grotesque. Scaling back seemed advisable.

And with Regeneration, that is just what Mr. Hannon has done. Thanks to the sonic expertise of the producer Nigel Godrich (who has previously worked with Radiohead and Beck) and the sympathetic talents of a six-piece band as well as several occasional guests, the album sounds properly vast, but the pomposity of Fin de siècle is absent. The general mood is autumnal, yet there are moments of pure pop ecstasy; the breezy ‘Perfect Lovesong’ for example, boasts and lightness of tone that Mr. Hannon hasn’t demonstrated in a while.

The comparative plainness of the lyrics of Regeneration is, in some cases, disappointing. Mr. Hannon’s target’s (organized religion, television, women’s magazines) have long been on the pop star hit list, and he hasn’t found much original to say about them – although “The cars in the churchyard are shiny and German / Distinctly at odds with the theme of the sermon,” from ‘Eye of the Needle’, does rank among his more clever couplets. But even the less distinguished lyrics are saved by Mr. Hannon’s true gift, which is for writing melodies that soar.

Perhaps the most striking example of this is ‘Love What You Do’. The song is more or less a pop talk – stop wasting your time, get over your fears, follow your bliss – and while the sentiments may be sincere, they’re also hackneyed.

But when they’re coupled with a chorus that takes Mr. Hannon to the peal of his vocal range, the effects is inspiring. ‘If you want it, you can have it / If you need it, go and get it”. Mr. Hannon sings, and for once he sounds entirely serious.

Mac Randall
The New York Times 20/01/2002