a short site about The Divine Comedy

Embracing Melancholy as a Muse

In Neil Hannon’s songs, characters are always losing things: cigarettes, time, friends, lovers, dreams. “I just cannot seem to keep hold of anything,” Mr. Hannon sang when he led his band, the Divine Comedy, at the Bowery Ballroom on Monday night. One character wakes up after a drunken romantic tryst to find his love embracing someone else; in another, a couple end a blithe drive in ‘daddy’s car’ with it wrapped around a tree.

Mr. Hannon, who was born in Northern Ireland, specializes in the strain of urbane melancholy that runs through British pop. It may be held in check by drollery or pop craftsmanship, but it’s never far below the surface.

On his albums, Mr. Hannon wraps his doubts and yearnings in elaborate arrangements that can embrace the pomp of Britpop or the sardonic bounce of Berlin cabaret. He’s a skillful heir to David Bowie - his closest vocal model - as well as to Jacques Brel and Scott Walker, and he has an inevitable debt to the Beatles. But Mr. Hannon has ingenuity of his own; his songs tell their stories clearly and concisely without getting openly overwrought.

Onstage, accompanied by just two musicians playing guitar, banjo, piano and bass fiddle, the songs - many from his latest album, Absent Friends (Nettwerk) - dropped some of their artifice. Mr. Hannon was self-deprecatingly charming, complimenting the audience on the sophistication of its shouts between songs. For encores, he invited requests for songs he didn’t write, cheerfully rejecting more than he accepted.

His own music could still make its way between light-classical arpeggios, music-hall bounce and lounge-pop calm, with the plink of the banjo keeping them buoyant. Yet ‘Leaving Today’, about a man separating from his family - “I could stay if you asked me / So for God's sake don't ask me to stay” - became richly desolate with Mr. Hannon crooning above little more than a reverberating electric guitar. For all the whimsy Mr. Hannon has lavished on his songs since the mid-1990’s, they sounded even more immediate without the clever trappings.

Jon Pareles
The New York Times 16/09/2004