a short site about The Divine Comedy

A Secret History

You can take him anywhere, Neil Hannon. Pretty manners. Impeccable wit. A sure way with the ladies. The latest word in gentleman's tailoring. A lightfooted spin around the dancefloor here, a glittering little bon mot there - what a pleasure it is to have him around. Society likes Mr Hannon. Society requests his presence at its next soiree.

Look a little closer though, and you can see how this debonair man is sweating slightly, how the knuckles are white, the fists clenched with the effort of it all. For suave though The Divine Comedy's ascent into the gilded pop demimonde has been, this compilation of their finest moments again exposes a talent born of watching and waiting, emulating and calculating, memorising every move of the greats. The way they wear their hats. The way they drink their tea. You can't take that away from Neil, because if you did, he would melt into nothingness like a Ferrero Rocher chocolate in the sun.

It's easy to see how this band foxtrotted into so many imaginations in the post-Pulp, Britfop aftermath, yet unlike the unapologetic Jarvis, sticking to his seedy Sheffield worldview while seducing ambassadors' wives, Hannon is always looking self-consciously over his shoulder, worrying which songwriting cutlery to use. These songs are an embarrassment of nouveau riches, and if that sounds patronising, the fact that 'A Secret History' opens with the sneering 'National Express' reminds you exactly why they deserve it.

It's infuriating that this should be the case - after all, literate wit and elegant ambition are the very things prayed for at the end of the long rock week. The best songs here are worthy of hosannas - 'Something For The Weekend' touching cane-twirling music hall with uncanny atmosphere, the oddly poignant 'Becoming More Like Alfie' hitting the wit bottle hard, 'Everybody Knows (Except You)' proving Hannon isn't made entirely of waistcoat but actually has a heart. They even rejuvenate the classic list song with the new 'Gin Soaked Boy' - "I'm the twinkle in her eye", sparkles Hannon, "I'm Jeff Goldblum in The Fly" and you can't help but be impressed.

Yet listen to the unctuous brass of 'The Pop Singer's Fear Of The Pollen Count', the bilious theatrics of 'The Frog Princess' or the tongue-swallowingly smug voyeurism of 'Generation Sex', and you see all too clearly the stolen genetic material grafted onto these songs. A Mini-Me clone of Scott Walker. The dummy from Noël Coward's failed ventriloquism act.

The invitation to the fin de sihcle pop heroes' ball at the Algonquin Hotel is still in the post.