a short site about The Divine Comedy

Fin De Siècle

First of all, it's best to get one thing clear. Fin De Siècle was always going to be a good album. The Divine Comedy, in a six-year existence, have got better and better with each album, with Casanova and the live mini-album A Short Album About Love the jewels in an already sparkling back-catalogue. What wasn't clear - obviously - was just how good Fin De Siècle was going to be. Well, now we know. Very, very good indeed.

On a purely sonic level, you won't have heard a pop album like Fin De Siècle for quite some time. There's more ambition and vision on here than on just about anything else released this year, particularly in the arrangements. Unlike almost every band ever, Neil Hannon (who is, essentially, The Divine Comedy) and Joby Talbot (Hannon's partner-in-crime) don't just assume that simply sticking a hastily scratched-out string arrangement on top of your already completed recording will add anything at all bar an air of desperation ("Please take us seriously: we've got violins and everything…"). These songs are, or at least appear to have been, written around the orchestral possibilities, possibilities that are brilliantly realised by Talbot in some of the most inventive arrangements heard on a pop record in years, which take in everything from the thunderous Broadway stomp of Here Comes The Flood to the album's highlight The Certainty Of Chance, which ends up owing as much Debussy as to more standard pop balladry. Easy listening this is not. Compelling, vibrant, moving, thrilling? Sure.

And then, of course, there's Neil. Little Neil. It constantly amazes how such a rich and powerful voice can come out of someone who, in the flesh, is so fragile. And Hannon's never sounded better than here. But then again, he's never had such fantastic material to work. With. Nor such varied material, for that matter. Granted, Fin De Siècle is a pop record, but is smarter, more astute, more sussed. Hannon's love of Scott Walker and Jacques Brel is well known, while Talbot isn't afraid to bring his classical background to the party, as he did on  A Short Album About Love, but that's not even the half of it. The effervescent pop of Generation Sex, the playful Carmina Burana swoon of Sweden, the gorgeous, driving 5/4 classicism of Eric The Gardener, the joyous song-a-long of National Express, the wrenching autobiography of Sunrise (for all his wry asides and droll jokes, Hannon's lyrics have never been as honest here)… Fin De Siècle is an album of highlights.

Fin De Siècle could send The Divine Comedy two ways. It'll either get the critical and commercial acclaim it so richly deserves and take the group stellar. Or it'll get slated by the critics for what they see as its over-ambitious and pretentiousness, sell about a dozen copies, and, if the list of credits on here is any indication of the cost of the album, send the small indie label it's released on (Setanta Records) stony broke. In terms of its potential to be either hailed as a masterpiece or instantly trashed by all and sundry, it's a similar record to Radiohead's OK Computer and Spiritualised's Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, both so-called difficult albums and both - hurrah! - critical and commercial hits. But OK Computer and Ladies and Gentlemen…, while unarguably great albums, both had their faults (an occasional lack of focus not least among them). Fin De Siècle, even after non-stop listening for a month or so, is nigh-on flawless. Seriously.
It's albums like Fin De Siècle that reaffirm your belief in pop music, in its practitioners' ability to move, to amuse, to invent, to reinvent and, above all, to entertain. Fin De Siècle does all these and, of course, much more besides. The most staggering thing, though, is that Hannon is only 28, and Talbot even younger. God only knows how they'll follow this. Album of the year by a mile.

Will Fulford-Jones