a short site about The Divine Comedy

La Bourée Du Célibataire

Rise up little souls – Join the doomed army
Fight the good fight – Wage the unwinnable war
Elegance against ignorance
Difference against indifference
Wit against shit

‘Middle Class Heroes’ – Neil Hannon

In a Marseilles café, Neil Hannon sits wearing a battered Barcelona Olympics T-shirt and khaki shorts, an image that conflicts with the persona developed on his record covers. But later, like Clark Kent leaving the phone booth, he-who-is-the Divine Comedy emerges onstage garbed in his trademark shades and chic suit, the Last of the Famous International Playboys, the Casanova of your dreams.

The Divine Comedy’s third album, Casanova, is Hannon’s masterpiece, a dazzling chronicle of male sexual pathology told through an intoxicating pastiche of ribald comedy (both highminded and lowbrow), music hall orchestration and classic pop songsmithery. Released in the UK last spring and only now hitting the Colonies, Casanova has a timeless quality, a rare thing in the hustle-bustle of today’s pop scene.

The son of a prominent Londonderry bishop, Young Neil was sat down in front of the ivories at an early age, though he never became the classical music geek that was expected of him. “I was totally uninterested by anything that wasn’t Human League and OMD and Nik Kershaw,” he recalls with a grin.

Hannon seemingly knew his destiny early on. “I started the thought of a band when I was 14,” he says. “I was writing songs before then, just pretending I had a band, and gradually, as time wore on, it became more and more obvious I couldn’t do anything else. Every year I just became more persuaded that I was going to be hugely famous. It was a very gradual process and I never really noticed it until suddenly I realized that I couldn’t go to university.

“I completely flunked my A levels,” Neil recalls. “I must say it was all REM’s fault. Two days before that A levels, I saw REM, and I thought, ‘What’s the point?’, so I just turned it over and wrote a song on the back.”

With uni no longer an option, Hannon set out to live his dream. The first version of the Divine Comedy (circa 1990) was a spotty, relatively trad, Irish indie-rock trio. “We were just crap,” Hannon says, then amends his statement. “Well, we weren’t crap, no. We had potential because I was in it.”

After releasing an undistinguished mini-album, Fanfare For The Comic Muse, the band split up acrimoniously (“Now they’re fucking lawyers,” Neil sniffs). Left to his own devices, Hannon stumbled across the godlike of Scott Walker and began to conceive that louche pop crooner of today.

“In the last days of the previous incarnation,” Neil recalls, “I saw an advert on the telly with ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’, and it changed my life forever, more or less. I thought, ‘This is what it’s all about.’”

Such is Neil’s love of Scott that legend has him sending tapes of the Divine Comedy to the reclusive, notoriously nutty expatriate, a myth that Hannon confirms. “I was the most flattered man alive when I read in a Melody Maker interview, when they asked what he listened to, he said, ‘Well I listen to the Tindersticks and this little Irish guy that keeps sending me his records. He’s called that Divine Comedy and he’s really out there.’ I went, ‘I’m really out there?!?’”

The first two DC records, Liberation (1993) and Promenade (1994), respectively, were fine, often-brilliant, collections of clever melodramatic singer/songwriter pop, marked by Hannon’s fondness for harpsichords. Neither record, however, anticipated the garden of earthly delights is Casanova. Bursting with booming horns and lush strings, archly wry and witty lyrical stories and self-analysis, the record is equally inspired by its title character (the 17th Century archetypal Spy In The House Of Love, the original Italian Stallion), as it is by his hero Scott, as well as Walker’s main influence, the extraordinary Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel.

“I’m not a record collector,” Hannon says, “and it’s probably lucky, because anything I listen to automatically goes straight in and I accidentally find it coming straight out.”

Staying on an intellectual tip, literary references abound on Casanova, from Charles Dickens to Truman Capote (by way of Blake Edwards). “I’m so happy when I actually manage to finish a book,” laughs Neil, “that I have to put it in a song.”

The record in uncommon in that it is musically jokey – dig the ‘La Marseillaise’ lift on ‘The Frog Princess’ – though that’s not to say he’s some newfangled PDQ Bach. “The only sort of negative responses I’ve gotten is that maybe there are a few too many cheap gags,” Hannon says. “They may sound like cheap gags, but they’ve a very serious point behind them.

“I prefer to think they’re partially obscured,” he adds. “The jokes are always like doors. You can’t see what’s behind them, but they kind of invite you to open them.”

What one finds is a heartwenching honestly that permeates the often bitter humour. ‘Something For The Weekend’ – inspired by actress Kate Beckinsale, star of the very wonderful Cold Comfort Farm - sees just how much a man will risk to get a piece (alas, he end up bound, beaten and betrayed), while the epic ‘Charge’ find love to be a battlefield. “It’s the unthinking advance,” Hannon says, “the flirtation and the eventual victory, but without any feeling of who’s on the other side. In war, you have to forget that the other side is human to enable yourself to kill them. In a lot of ways, t be promiscuous, you have to pretend they’re subhuman.”

Hannon is aware enough to admit that truth of how men deal with the opposite sex, and honest enough to fess up to his own culpability in matters romantic. “How could I just say it’s shit, when I’ve done it so often myself?” he notes. “Not to make me sound like I’m Shagmeister Number One…

“Before the first two albums, I couldn’t get laid to save my life,” Hannon says, “Me teenage experience were universally awful and I just concentrated like a hermit on my career for four or five years, with two breaks for ‘experiences’, which is all that can be termed.”

Two songs ultimately define Hannon as an outsider in the battle of the sexes, or at least, his self-image as one. The retro-mockney delight of ‘Becoming More Like Alfie’ demonstrates Hannon’s desire to transform into “other guys/less smart than I/You know, the kind who will always end up with the girl,” while in the pastoral ‘Songs Of Love’ (which also serves as the theme to the hilarious Brit sitcom, Father Ted) je observes the hormone-wracked youth of today in their hunt for satisfaction, noting his own role in their hot pursuit: “While they search for a mate/my type hibernate/in bedrooms above/composing their songs of love.”

Those songs of love, not to mention the support of influential UK DJ Chris ‘Ginger Bollocks’ Evans, made Hannon a familiar face in the crazy landscape of British Pop. No less a celeb than Liam Gallagher even kissed up to him at a chance encounter at Gatwick, but Hannon sees success as but an opportunity to push onward as an artist, albeit a very busy one. “My life has only changed in one respect,” he notes. “I no longer sit on my ass for months on end. Every hour of my life is organized.”

By October of 1996, Hannon had achieved enough success to fund his dream gig. Neil and the Divine Comedy band – drummer Miguel Barradas; bassist Bryan Mills; guitarist Ivor Talbot; Hammond wiz Stuart ‘Pinkie’ Bates; and pianist/musical director Dr. Joby Talbot – were joined by a real live orchestra, the 30-piece Brunel Ensemble, for a performance at London’s Shepherd Bush Empire.

Hannon and Co. performed the DC’s greatest hits, plus covers of Mark Eitzel’s ‘Johnny Mathis’ Feet’ and the classic Burt Bacharach-by-way-of-the-Walker Brothers hit, ‘Make It Easy On Yourself’. So elated was Our Neil, he flung himself into the loving arms of his audience for the final encore rendition of Casanova’s magnificent closing ballad, ‘The Dogs And The Horses’.

Never one to waste an opportunity, that gig saw Hannon performing and recording the series of new material that serves as an ideal epilogue to Casanova. The just-out-over-there disc, dubbed A Short Album About Love, (after Franco/Pole directory Krzysztof Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Love) is a letter-perfect recreating of the swooning ‘60s sound he adores, fraught with a sweetness and longing not always present on the previous work. “It’s like Casanova in the big sense,” he says, “but then it’s completely opposite in terms of sentiment. It’s sentimental.”

All this talk of saw and love makes Hannon out to be some kind of priapic man obsessed, but he never intended to be a spokesman for the lovelorn loser Lotharios of the world.

“In a way, it’s a bit of a detour that I’m taking on the road to complete… I’m not gonna say ‘pop perfection’, because it’s like I’m the Lighting Seeds or something,” Neil Hannon muses. “In a way, it’s just me. Take Neil, then dilute with women, see what happens. What a strange concoction.”

Michal Krugman
Ray Gun, 1997