a short site about The Divine Comedy

Goodbye to all that

You could be forgiven if you’ve never heard of The Divine Comedy. Well, not forgive,… but oversight is understandable. Of the six albums released by the U.K. ensemble since 1993, only a couple received even halfhearted stateside release. While the septet has sold out venues like London’s Brixton Academy and the Olympia in Paris, American dates have been limited to a handful of acoustic shows by the leader Neil Hannon and pianist Joby Talbot. The aptly titled Regeneration (Nettwerk), the group’s latest full-length, aims to change all that.

But perhaps you’re one of the lucky Yanks who did catch wind of British hits like ‘Something for the Weekend’ and ‘National Express’, and cottoned to The Divine Comedy’s timeless mix of swinging arrangements full of brass, woodwinds and strings, and Hannon’s mellifluous baritone and wry, literate lyrics. One of the rare U.S. passport holders smitten with, as Hannon summarizes, the “suit-wearing, little man with big voice, trying to be Burt Bacharach”. Part of the devoted cadre that swooned when the nattily attired Hannon stepped before a 30-piece orchestra to record A Short Album About Love (1997), and cheered when he transformed Noël Coward’s ‘I’ve Been To A Marvellous Party’ into a techno barnstormer.

Alas, Regeneration might be the end of that, too.

On the seventh Divine Comedy full-length, Hannon discards his dandy image of yore, introducing the world to a guy who, biting wit or no, just wants to “put his feet up in front of the football [match] and drink beer”. Gone are the Saville Row suits and dark glasses, replaced with jeans and T-shirts (today’s emblazoned with a skull-and-crossbones, reads ‘Punk Metal Bastard Rockers’) and a shaggier approach to grooming. As he sings on ‘Bad Ambassador’, “I’m gonna abseil down my ivory tower and buy myself a jaguar / I’m a bad ambassador for that elusive place you’re searching for.”

But more importantly, Regeneration represents a serious effort to solidify the group’s musical identity. “With this one, we felt it was really time to work out just what The Divine Comedy wanted to sound like as a band, rather than how many other genres we could pretend to do,” Hannon explains. “Stop trying to be Wagner, and try to be ourselves.”

Due to being between homes for an extended period, Hannon composed the bulk of Regeneration on the acoustic guitar, rather than keyboards, which prevented him from being preoccupied with peripheral concerns – like when the flugelhorn should come in – or baroque embellishments. “It stopped me from suddenly getting down to arrangements, and concentrated my mind and what the song was about and whether it did its job properly, with a nice beginning, middle and end.”

Regeneration also marks the first time the band has submitted to the yoke of a well-known, outside producer. Yet in Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Travis, Beck), the band – which also features bassist Bryan Mills, guitarist Ivor Talbot, drummer Miggy Barradas, percussionist Rob Farrer and keyboard/trumpet player Stuart ‘Pinkie’ Bates – found an ideal foil. “He won’t let anything past that reminds anybody of anything else,” says Hannon.

“It was a bizarrely liberating experience,” the singer continues. “We used to resort to clever musical things because we could, not necessarily because the songs always needed them. For this record, I was writing much more straight-down-the-line songs, so they couldn’t stand up to over-icing the cake.”

Fostering more band participation in the early stages of the creative process turned out to be simpler than Hannon has imagined, too. “To being with, I found it very easy to surrender all that control, because I’m naturally lazy,” he confesses. “As time went on, I started to go, ‘Well, maybe it would be better if I suggested…’ But I bit my tongue. Nigel was doing enough of that anyway.”

For all this talk of change, Regeneration definitely isn’t The Divine Comedy’s attempt to (in the words of one of the disc’s finest numbers) ‘Dumb It Down’. Hannon happily recalls an era when pop was more than just the title of an ‘N Sync single, and brainy acts like Elvis Costello and the Clash were frequent U.K. chart-toppers. “The lyrical end of it has definitely gone downhill,” the ardent fan of Cole Porter and humorist Tom Lehrer observes. “And there doesn’t seem to be much room for having fun with it; all lyricism seems to be very serious, very righteous at the moment.”

Not is Hannon ashamed of his previous successes. But the time to move on was at hand. “I was afraid that I was forever going to be the man in the cravat and the frilly shirt,” he concludes. “When I look back on it, I don’t mind any of that. But I can only say that now, because I’ve managed to get away from it. Whether the general public has come with me is another matter. But, to be harsh, that’s their problem.”

Kurt B. Reighley
Pulse! 11/2001