a short site about The Divine Comedy

Absent Friends

Neil Hannon rediscovers his inner fop

A decade ago, Neil Hannon engineered a reputation for himself as a bookish young fogey on the periphery of Britpop. An awkward dandy whose self-consciousness heightened his appeal, it also helped that much of his music - romantic orchestral fantasias, mainly - measured up to his lofty pretensions. By 1998’s Fin de Siecle, however, Hannon’s archness had become overbearing. And, in an oddly successful attempt to have hit singles, his whimsical persona had been purposefully blown up into self-parody. Predictably troubled by all this, Hannon’s 2001 major label debut, Regeneration, found him dressed down, posing as one of the guys in the band and, to all intents and purposes, making a mediocre Radiohead album. The florid, expansive Divine Comedy, for all its faults, seemed to have been lost to posterity. Until, that is, Hannon dumped his prosaic bandmates, dusted down his corduroy suit and made Absent Friends. The best record he’s made since 1996’s Casanova, it’s one of those rare occasions when an artist retraces their steps and successfully locates what made them interesting in the first place. In Hannon’s case, this comprises a pathologically diligent study of the first four Scott Walker solo LPs, with particular attention to the glassy, entrancing ‘Angels Of Ashes’ on Scott 4. As he candidly admits, lavish homage and a fruity baritone suit him better than orthodox rock confessionals. So when he adopts the persona of a fleeing husband on the suitably ornate, lachrymose ‘Leaving Today’, his performance is more convincing than anything more overtly personal on Regeneration. For the most part, these remain sombre and reflective songs, but ones in which Hannon assumes various dispossessed and alienated character roles to address his life on the road, away from family and without a band. Such critical distancing clearly improves his work - though a tender song to his daughter, ‘Charmed Life’, is an audaciously contented way to end the album. Less appealingly, the quirks and ostentatious literary references that marked his early work return, too. What was once amusing now sounds gauche coming from a man in his thirties. But this is a minor distraction. ‘Our Mutual Friend’ is at once chatty and profound. A study of drunken sex and betrayal, it shows Hannon has recaptured his greatest trick: the elevation of brief, messy affairs into bombastic theatrical passions. When he takes his daughter for a walk, you suspect Hannon hears Morricone scoring his every footstep. We should be grateful that, once again, he is no longer ashamed by such grandiloquence.

3/5

John Mulvey
Uncut 05/2004