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Absent Friends

Absent Friends

>>> See history (releases, charts by countries)
29th March 2004

  • Notable rankings
    Les Inrockuptibles Chart Position:
    #77 (December 2004)
    Q's Tracks of the year:
    #92 (Our Mutual Friend)

>>> See credits...

Absent Friends is the second album The Divine Comedy released on Parlophone, in the 2000’s. After the indie-rock turn of Regeneration, it saw Neil Hannon going back to the orchestral sound of The Divine Comedy that made the band’s signature in the 90’s, and this time would target a much larger audience. This is also the first album Neil Hannon produced himself, and this would be the rule for all next albums. Although, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Neil didn’t get on well with Nigel Godrich, Neil recall his experience of working with him on Regeneration as very rewarding [1], and Nigel would be involved on Absent Friends on a technical level (mixing).

The CD design of the album emulates a blue plaque ‘The Divine Comedy Absent Friends Written and Recorded 2001-2003’. It was, at the time, quite a long gap for The Divine Comedy between two albums, and this was caused by many personal and professional changes. First of all, after Regeneration the backing group that was set up since about Casanova was disbanded, and the album title, Absent Friends, can be interpreted as a reference to this. The eponymous song in fact refers to some historical figures who left too soon; but more generally it’s about changes and celebrating the past. In a certain sense, the songs ‘Leaving Today’ and ‘Charmed Life’ may also be about facing changes in life. As Neil said: “Most of the songs employ stories and characters as a framework within which are discussed the loose themes of coming, going and not quite being where you want to be.” [2]

Regarding changes in life, two major personal events occurred in Neil’s life between the two albums. The first was the birth of his daughter Willow in December 2001. And the second event was moving to Dublin in 2003. Married at the time to an Irish wife and tired of London, Neil also stated he didn’t want her daughter saying her first words with the English accent [3]. Those events may have led Neil to write songs about relationships, particularly within a family. This is the case of songs such as ‘Charmed Life’ (about Willow’s birth and facing personal hardship), ‘The Happy Goth’ (dealing with the relationship of an introverted teenager and her parents), or ‘Come Home Billy Bird’ (a running business man attempting seeing his son’s football game).

Another major event in Neil Hannon’s life was a long US tour during the year 2002. The Divine Comedy signed late 2001 with the label Nettwerk which released both Regeneration and later Absent Friends in the US. The Divine Comedy would be doing a few tours in America, including a large solo tour supporting Ben Folds (in solo too). The two of them would be hitting the roads of United States.
During those tours Neil Hannon played many of the songs that would end up in Absent Friends, some of them may have been written before like ‘Come Home Billy Bird’, ‘Our Mutual Friend’ or ‘The Wreck Of The Beautiful’, and others were written during that time such as ‘The Happy Goth’ and probably ‘Freedom Road’.
And during that period, Neil Hannon was full of doubts, and considered re-inventing himself as a ‘solo’ artist. Finally, after some thoughts he’d go back using The Divine Comedy (“Neil Hannon is a sucky name for a pop-star” [4]) which was actually what he did in 1992.
It was also at that time that the band would get a new recruit, bass and double bass player Simon Little, and a four-piece line-up of The Divine Comedy with Ivor Talbot and Rob Farrer would be touring in Autumn 2002 with Ben Folds in the UK to try the new songs and a new sound. That sound was captured on some demo recordings at Intimate Studios at that time, but was far from the orchestrated result of the album.

Back then, the thematic of ‘Friends’ was already hinted as a major theme for the future album since both ‘My Imaginary Friend’ and ‘Our Mutual Friend’ were played during live shows. ‘Our Mutual Friend’ has evolved from many forms: electronic experiment first, solo acoustic track then, band version, synthetic orchestrations. It is now regarded as one of the most essential Divine Comedy numbers for its luxurious orchestrations.
The orchestrations were arranged by former band member Joby Talbot and recorded at Abbey Road with the Millennia Ensemble. These orchestrations reveal the heavy influence of Scott Walker on Neil Hannon’s production of the album.

Another key figure on the album is sound engineer Guy Massey who would be working later on other Divine Comedy albums, on the Beatles’ remasters, and also The Divine Comedy’s anniversary reissues. For Absent Friends he recorded the band in RAK, Abbey Road and Konk studios.
Former drummer Miggy Barradas contributed to a few recordings; and special guests were also involved for the album: BBC presenter Lauren Laverne gives her voice on ‘Come Home Billy Bird’, and Yann Tiersen plays accordion on ‘Sticks & Stones’.
As in many Divine Comedy’s albums, the second last song is an instrumental piece: ‘Laika’s Theme’ refers to the first dog sent in space who actually died, and is also evoked within ‘Absent Friends’.

After the album recording a new band would be set up: Neil Hannon would be introduced to Millennia composer/arranger Andrew Skeet who’d get the role of musical director / keyboard player in the band. He’d then introduce new musicians like drummer Tim Weller, guitarist John Evans and accordionist Ian Waston, who would tour, alongside the Millennia Ensemble, with The Divine Comedy and form the new definitive line-up.

[1] Alapage 2001
[2] Absent Friends press release
[3] Rock & Folk 2004
[4] Muse 10


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