a short site about The Divine Comedy

Regeneration

It isn’t easy being smarter than your average pop songsmith.

Ask Neil Hannon. In the latest lyrics from this erudite leader of The Divine Comedy, Hannon wrestles with the alienation that comes from being too brainy for the room.

“Everything’s mindless fluff / As if this world’s not dumb enough,” he grouches in ‘Dumb it Down’, an instruction he must have heard often.

Likewise, in ‘Mastermind’, Hannon addresses fellow thoughtful types with the warning: “We all need assurances / As we play life’s game of endurance / But don’t lean long on your crutches / Or you’ll fall into the clutches / Of those who see full expression as a threat.”

No wonder Hannon peppers his album with please like “Does anyone fell the same as me?”, “Is there anybody listening?” and “Where has everybody gone?”

Such questions capture Hannon’s vulnerability as clearly as his other lyrics display his condescension. Then again, Hannon earns the right to look down on the banal and average, simply by doing so with such panache.

Over the course of five albums, this songwriter from Northern Ireland, now 30 years old, has established himself as one of the few scribes of his generation to continue the literate pop tradition that began with Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell in the ‘60s, was maintained by Morrissey and Neil Tennant in the ‘80s and then nearly disappeared.

Last year, Hannon issued a 17-song best-of album, A Secret History, which novices should sue to play catch-up with his enormous talent and eccentric point of view. Who but Hannon would think to write a rousing anthem to an allergy attack or a salute to drunken driving?

On his latest work, Hannon not only continues to wield his pen like a rocket launcher, he matches his words to music of uncommon melodic grander. At root, he aims to continue an English brand of ‘60s lounge-pop that has gone all but unacknowledged. While American lounge-pop writers like Burt Bacharach and Neil Diamond have received full-scale revivals, there hasn’t been equal attention paid to their U.K. equivalents, like Tony Hatch (who penned Petula Clark’s hits) or Gordon Mills (who write Tom Jones’). Hannon’s songs have dashes of that Carnaby Street swing and tunefulness. There’s also a grandness to both his melodies and his well-enunciated baritone vocals.

Hannon is perfectly capable of making good on his promise in ‘Perfect Lovesong’ to “give you a song with a driving Beatles bass line / And a big old Beach Boys sound.”

Yet his greatest joy remains words. Bons mots burst from his mind like popcorn. “Weeks go by quicker / Than drunks swallow liquor,” goes one of his quips. Another one vows, “I’m going to abseil down my ivory tower / And buy a Jaguar”.

That promise of selling out seems most unlikely to be fulfilled. True, Hannon has said that Regeneration will be his last album with The Divine Comedy, but these final songs with the band just don’t work as career suicide notes or as bitter rebukes to conformism. In fact, they offer succor to other indigent outsider. No doubt Hannon will return soon enough with songs written under his own name, as sure to each a select following as they are likely to excite a lively mind.


Jim Farber
NY Daily News 25/11/2001