a short site about The Divine Comedy

Neil Hannon loses his divinity

As promised, I’m still chatting with Neil Hannon, the Irishman who has made six superb albums under the alias the Divine Comedy, all of which have been criminally ignored by the States.

Frankly, now seems as good a time as any to give him a promotional psuh, because he has entered a new phase in his career. After spending the Britpop ‘90s crafting one densely layered, idiosyncratic marvel after another – littered with bouncy melodies, Morrissey affectations and witty lyrics that have earned him obvious comparison to urbane writers such as Cole Porter, Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker and the Magnetic Fields’ Stephen Merritt. – Hannon decided to wrap up his foppish beginnings.

First, a heavily orchestrated enormity, 1998’s Fin de Siècle (which he describes as an “elephant of a record”): then a best-of, 1999’s appropriately billed A Secret History. Then he laid low, wondering what to do next.

He re-emerged in November with Regeneration - another apt title – and it was immediately apparent that this was a much different Divine Comedy.

Gone was the besotted bon vivant in tailored suits and shades, making cheeky about how’s ‘Becoming More Like Alfie’ or pondering sneaky scenes behind London’s closed doors in ‘National Express’.

In its place is a dressed-down Hannon presenting a bigger rock sound, with overtures to David Bowie and Elton John and some lush Beach Boys harmonies to boot. Anthemic stuff, produced by Nigel Godrich, known for his work with Radiohead.

Wit intact, irony checked at the door.

“I hear those early records now and sometimes they make me wince,” Hannon says. “In the last couple of months, since I had my minor nervous breakdown…”

Pardon me?

He explains the turmoil. Not knowing what creative direction to take next. His unhappiness in the studio during Regeneration (“I thought: ‘I ought to be loving this’, but I wasn’t at all”). The welcome complications that came with the arrival of his first child.

It led him to drastic changes – starting with the dismissal of his six-member band.

“It only happens a few times in your life: Everything’s wrong and you have to chuck out the baby with the bathwater. All of the irony, the dandyish persona – it was becoming an end in itself, which was wrong, and a lot of it at the time was just a reaction to the idea that I couldn’t do it. Just doing it because, ha ha, I’m invincible! I can make this sort of music and people will love me and buy it! You have no fear in those days. It’s only with success that you get fear.”

In England, at least, Hannon has had plenty of success, including Top 20 singles; not surprisingly, the fuller sound of Regeneration has left many fans bewildered. Across the pond, however, Hannon remains an unknown, though a seven-week trek this spring opening for Ben Folds may help spread the word.

Now, though ho doesn’t kid himself that this new direction will make it big here (“I’ve never had the money to crack America”), he seems to have reached a comfortable plateau.

“I feel like I’ve got that (past style) out of my system,” he says. “Every album to me is a purging of something. It’s a very negative way of making music. But it works.”

Ben Wener
The Orange County Register, 19/02/2002