THE DIVINE COMEDY Casanova (Sentana)
The Divine Comedys (a.k.a. Neil Hannons) third album, "inspired by the eighteenth century gambler, eroticist and spy", is a treat: if youve ever harboured the suspicion that Pulp were peddlers of a tatty edifice then "Casanova" is the real deal. Where Cockers crew dwell on the self-consciously superficial, full of rinky-dink tunes and shock-horror topical lyrics (a bit like Carter USM with marginally better dress sense), The Divine Comedy swap stylophones for string sections, pimply adolescent angst for genuine longing, an insidious sense of humour and an attitude thats straight out of the dictionary definition of bittersweet. Besides being the closest were ever going to get to a dead ringer for Scott Walker, both in appearance and vocal talent (he even swipes one of Noel Engels song titles for "Through A Long & Sleepless Night"), Hannon fashions wickedly wonderful tracks such as "Something For The Weekend", "Becoming More Like Alfie" ("And everybody knows that no means yes/Just like glasses come free on the NHS/And the more I look through them the more I see/Im becoming more like Alfie"), "The Frog Princess" and "A Woman Of The World", home to the best rock whistling since Teenage Fanclubs "Mellow Doubt". "Shes a fake/Yeah, but shes a real fake" runs the call and response in the latter, and even if Hannon doesnt walk it like he talks it, "Casanova" still sounds like one of the most genuine releases of 1996.
THE DIVINE COMEDY A Short Album About Love (Sentana)
And indeed it is exactly what the title says - seven tracks extravagantly recorded live(ish) with the Brunel Ensemble at the Shepherds Bush Empire last October, "A Short Album About Love" has apparently been issued (four days before Valentines Day, coincidentally enough) to restore some sense of balance to Neil Hannons public persona following the brittle and bitter twistedness of his breakthrough masterwork "Casanova". On these terms its at least a partial success, witness the heartstrong headrush that constitutes the opener "In Pursuit Of Happiness" and the tinkly radiofriendliness of "Everybody Knows (Except You)". Elsewhere the fine line between being earnest and dreary gets thoroughly lambadad on ("Someone" and "Timewatching", which both tend to plod a bit) and the sense of wide-eyed wonder sometimes topples over into showbiz mawkishness ("If I Were You (Id Be Through With Me)" and "Im All You Need"). Maybe this much honesty isnt good for the soul - there are too many occasions when "Casanova"s crisp pop sensibilities curdle into rambling self-indulgence, but the mere fact that this album exists is wonder enough to allow the more sensitive to excuse its failings. As if we needed any more of a handle on where The Divine Comedy is coming from, Hannons choice of in-concert covers is reputed to consist of American Music Clubs "Johnny Mathis Feet", The Walker Brothers "Make It Easy On Yourself" and The Electric Light Orchestras "Mr. Blue Sky"! And if that isnt enough to guarantee instant deification, what do we find scratched into the runout groove of the limited edition vinyl pressing but "Better to have loved & lost than never to have loved at all". Is this what you mean by concept album, Grandpa?
THE DIVINE COMEDY Fin De Siècle (Sentanta)
Being the first Divine Comedy album to be recorded in the shadow of significant success (following the radio friendly unit shiftiness of last years "Everybody Knows (Except You)" single), Neil Hannons tactic for dealing with some pretty monumental expectation appears to be to fight it with some pretty monumental orchestration. "Fin De Siècle" is, by anybodys standards, a weighty, massive album, sadly not in the 180 gram audiophile pressing sense but in the massed ranks of orchestra and choir sense (The Brunel Ensemble and the Crouch End Festival Chorus respectively). Its a little like "Be Here Now" might sound if rearranged as the soundtrack to a royal wedding.
But only a little, as the opening tracks references to speeding limousines in Parisian tunnels would readily acknowledge. "Fin De Siècle" seems like Neil Hannons attempted to craft a Divine Comedy album for everyman, one where his acutely incisive lyrical wit and canny ear for a bittersweet melancholy melody becomes subverted by broad strokes of nudge-wink observations and tunes you can hum almost before youve heard them. Which isnt exactly a terrible thing, but...well, you may have read that one of the future singles contained herein is "National Express", a jolly ode to the coach company of the same name. Not exactly Scott Walker, is it? Other songs, such as "Commuter Love" and "Sweden", arent exactly shrouded in metaphor (although Hannon does shout stuff about Ingmar Bergman and Ibsen over the strangulating string and choral arrangements on the latter.)
"Fin De Siècle" is best when it isnt being quite so blatant, nowhere more so than on side ones hypnotic, lengthy closer "Eric The Gardener", which sounds like Michael Nyman playing chess with Kraftwerk, and the almost moving "The Certainty Of Chance" ("Tilt"-era Scott Walker giving a lecture on chaos theory, near enough). And you may have read about Hannons statement on the Northern Ireland situation, "Sunrise", which remains pretty stunning despite being almost submerged under the dread hand of overorchestration.
And thats whats not good about "Fin De Siècle": it seems to think that without a 52-piece orchestra and a 46 choristers scraping and hollering behind you nobody will pay any attention to what youre saying, and that those once charmed by the fumbling emotional honesty of "Everybody Knows (Except You)" will be similarly delighted by thigh-slapping, bier-keller rumbustiousness about coach companies. It doesnt make for a bad album, exactly, but more for the kind of over-egged listening experience that, superficially tasty as it may seem, you may not want to return to too often.
THE DIVINE COMEDY/MARK EITZEL Newport V3, 15 January 1999
The V3 Club is Newport's newest venue, apparently intended to straddle the vast gulf that separates the broom-cupboard ambience of The Legendary TJs and the Newport Centre's enormodome-for-visiting-megastars positioning. As such it's a tremendous success: future attractions include such popular recording artistes as The Bluetones, Terrorvision, Billy Bragg and - hopefully! - the mighty Mercury Rev, all of whom might otherwise be forced to avoid the principality. So little niggles like being kept waiting in the rain until 8pm whilst Mark Eitzel sounchecked (pity the poor damp masses who believed the line on the ticket about the doors opening at 6:30) seem irrelevant in context, especially when confronted by the club's centrepiece, a plastic model of a fire-breathing dragon - allegedly 55 feet high - that faces the stage. Another plus point for the discerning gig goer is that the stage itself is roughly at head height, so it's almost impossible to not see what's going on.
Anyhow, Mark Eitzel, former prophet of American Music Club, one of post-punk's greatest lost bands, slopes on wearing a black cap just like the one I'd been using to keep the rain off outside - respect! Accompanied by a keyboard player (who disappeared under his instrument during the last song in a doomed attempt to coax it back to life) and a drummer working with a ridiculously small kit, a la Stray Cats, he sings seven or eight new songs, a little like those featured on his last album, the snappily titled "Caught In A Trap And I Can't Back Out Cause I Love You Too Much, Baby", except a tad livelier. Some of the more memorable lines are stuff like "America would be a great country if it wasn't for the people", a sentiment that would probably go down even less of a desert storm in his homeland than it does in front of a frankly unappreciative audience tonight. Between song pronouncements are limited to the likes of "That was, uh " and "We're called ". He doesn't seem to be having a ball: in contrast to the troubled troubadour captured eight years almost to the day earlier at London's Borderline on the wonderful "Songs Of Love" album Eitzel tonight seemed to be wallowing in a hopeless bitterness, as if he's finally realised that the world really is too good for his elegant, fragile music and is at pains to return the compliment.
The Divine Comedy, then: Neil Hannon is clearly (another) star, if not of the same calibre as Cerys. He radiates charisma even in a small venue like this, a strange combination of Jarvis Cocker, Scott Walker and Michael Nyman. He is accompanied by two keyboard players, two percussionists, a guitarist and bassist with a line-up like that you half expect them to burst into "The Myths And Legends Of King Arthur And The Knights Of The Round Table" at any given moment, but they make a decent fist of reduced (and, as with the Manics, therefore more aesthetically pleasing) versions of "Fin De Seicle"'s grandiose architecture. Best bits - well, everything sounds good, even the Queen-style audience singalongs of the usually contemptible "National Express". But he plays the slo-mo Nyman-meets-Chaos Theory lecture that is "The Certainty Of Chance", knocks out a frenzied, whirling "In Pursuit Of Happiness" and delivers rollocking versions of the classic singles "Becoming More Like Alfie" and "Something For The Weekend", although the rest of "Casanova" (his bestest album, in my opinion) remains sadly untouched. (Also no "Tonight We Fly" (sob) or "Everybody Knows (Except You)", probably his most famous single). Unexpected bit: a high-octane punk rock thrash through The Magnetic Fields' "Famous". Best bit: Mark Eitzel appearing mid-set for a majestic, luxuriant reading of the old American Music Club wonder "Johnny Mathis' Feet" - stunning, The Divine Comedy upholstering the same kind of lush sound that AMC spread over their last Virgin albums an amazing moment for the handful of American Music Club fans in the audience. One reclusive and reluctant legend, one good band and one fine venue, an enjoyable evening.
THE DIVINE COMEDY A Secret History The Best Of The Divine Comedy (Setanta)
"A Secret History" collate the decade-long career of Neil Hannon a.ka. The Divine Comedy, a prospect that initially sounds extremely appealing when you consider the continuous stream of finely-polished toff-Pulp pop nuggets he's released since the fabulous 1996 breakthrough album "Casanova". Such hopes are immediately dashed when you discover that the first of the 17 tracks on this compilation is the punchably smug oompah no-brow sarcasm of "National Express". Things can only get better, as they must when the album also quite rightly revisits vintage "Casanova"-era gems such as "Something For The Weekend", "Becoming More Like Alfie", "The Frog Princess" and "Songs Of Love", all perfect examples of Hannon's James Bond sophistication laced with Scott Walker's voice and tunes and lanced with Morrissey wit. But nevertheless there's something about hearing all these great songs one after another that somehow diminishes their effect: on "Casanova" they worked perfectly within the elaborate conceit of the album's guiding concept; heard here out of context they seem unusually weak and vulnerable.
The inclusion of vast tracts of the earlier "Promenade" and "Liberation" albums might tempt the casual browser, but even those tracks seem annoyingly mannered and stilted here, childhood and teenage tales such as "The Summerhouse" and "Your Daddy's Car" sounding almost creepy with hindsight and Hannon's rakish later persona. For the completist the incentive to purchase is centred around a re-recorded version of the hayfever hymn "The Pop Singer's Fear Of The Pollen Count", the risible Noel Coward cover "I've Been To A Marvellous Party", originally to be found on the "20th Century Blues - The Songs Of Noel Coward" charity/tribute album, and a pair of interesting newies, "Gin Soaked Boy" and "Too Young To Die".
Nevertheless, after you're thinking disdainful thoughts after an hour or so of The Divine Comedy's jaunty fop pop you arrive at the final track, the frankly staggering "Tonight We Fly". Originally to be found on the "Promenade" album, this is Neil Hannon's finest three minutes, blessed with one of his best Michael Nyman imitation orchestrations and quite literally soaring lyrics, it's almost good enough to eradicate the memory of the album's worst sickening excesses. If you buy the album for this track alone, you wont be disappointed.THE DIVINE COMEDY Regeneration (Parlophone)
On their last long-playing outing, "Fin De Siècle", The Divine Comedy inflated their 'jaunty fop-pop' (ã just about every article written about the band ever, including this one) to parodic proportions, an approach which worked (the stately chaos theory lecture "The Certainty Of Chance") rather less often than it didn't (the risible lowest-common-denominator singalong "National Express", the preposterously overblown "Sweden"). The tellingly-titled album number seven - their major label debut, incidentally - finds them hooked up with producer Nigel Godrich, who has worked on albums by Radiohead, Beck, Travis and R.E.M, and the back cover photograph finds the band skulking around in cropped hair, leather jackets, jeans and trainers. Do we detect a slight change of emphasis here?
I think so. "Regeneration" is as raw and stripped as The Divine Comedy's music is ever likely to get - not exactly approaching Robert Johnson levels of primitiveness, of course, but a welcome respite from the strangulating arrangements of some of their previous work. Somewhat inevitably given their choice of producer, the cloud of "OK Computer" hangs heavy over this release: there's a background crackle of pulsing electronics and an air of wistfulness to the lyrics that suggests close attention has been paid to the works of the country's glummer songsmiths. All of which is not what you might expect from Neil Hannon, and sure enough there's something vaguely lumpen about "Regeneration", a sense at times of the music being forced in directions its reluctant to pursue that is absent from the best of The Divine Comedy's back catalogue.
Nevertheless there are many fine moments here. Sample the delicate wordplay and bubble-fragile melody of opener "Timestretched", observe the big-production number (and recent single) "Bad Ambassador", probably the closest the album flies to what you remember/imagine The Divine Comedy sound like. "Dumb It Down" and "Eye Of The Needle" examine the fractious state of education, media and religion in early 21st century Britain without sounding like a sociology course. Although it doesn't topple "Casanova" from its perch as The Divine Comedy's most exquisitely realised hour it's certainly their most satisfactory album since that 1996 gem.
THE DIVINE COMEDY Absent Friends (Parlophone)
The absent friends of the title might well refer to Neil Hannon's former bandmates as, following the unevenly received back to basics trainers and jeans approach of 2001's "Regeneration", The Divine Comedy is now essentially a solo concern. Given that Hannon never sounded particularly comfortable trying to front a conventional rock group and nobody else makes lavish Scott Walkeresque fop pop quite like he does (although if rumours that Walker has recently signed to 4AD bear fruit the competition could become rather more intense) "Absent Friends" offers some scope for reinvigoration and reinvention.
And, partially at least, it lives up to that potential. The title track gallops through a thousand Western film themes (and, rather more prosaically, that of "Black Beauty" as well) and breathlessly namechecks Jean Seberg, Steve McQueen and Oscar Wilde. The single "Come Home Billy Bird" is the kind of pearlescent gem that can have listeners singing along before the first play ends, jauntily charting the titular Mr Bird's attempts to return home in time for his son's football game (although if he's really the kind of experienced international business traveller the song suggests surely he would pack his luggage more appropriately, erasing a verse in the process). "Our Mutual Friend" is a flamenco-flecked dissection of the betrayal of a fast-burning near-miss relationship - "We sang a song that I can't sing anymore/And then we kissed" - a more socially responsible version of the exploits of the old "Casanova". "The Happy Goth" - "That music you play/I'm not saying it's bad/It just seems terribly sad" tickles the ribs, although it might have been even funnier 15 years ago.
So, when it's good "Absent Friends" is very good. But when it isn't, it's shruggingly so what. "Laika's Theme" is, at best, an incidental soundtrack instrumental and the languid orchestrations of "Leaving Today" don't appear to be in a hurry to go anywhere. "Charmed Life" might be the album's worst offender, coming teethgrindingly close to being insufferably smug, surely the easiest way to torpedo interest in and empathy with this most lavishly upholstered of musics. Even the Scott references can't save it. A mixed bag, there's almost enough enjoyable material here to balance the lengthy swathes of diminished inspiration, but not enough to suggest Hannon will ever make an album as picture-perfect as "Casanova" again.
THE DIVINE COMEDY / CATHY DAVEY Academy 2, Manchester 9 November 2010
From the back of the Academy 2 Dublin-born Cathy Davey looks a bit like the younger Joni Mitchell and Rickie Lee Jones, her voice reminiscent of Cerys Matthews’ glazed in honey. Playing guitar and foot-stomped tambourine, she sings pleasant if ultimately unremarkable songs that are appreciated by this attentive audience, which in itself is a heartening thing to witness.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a grand piano in this part of Manchester before; taking up almost half of the Academy 2’s stage, it’s the sort of instrument that would perhaps feel more at home further down Oxford Road in the Royal Northern College of Music or The Bridgewater Hall. Billed as “An Evening with Neil Hannon”, tonight’s sold-out show seems reconfigured for our current age of austerity, Hannon, being the only representative of the b(r)and present, oscillating between piano and guitar.
Material from this year’s “Bang Goes The Knighthood”, which can sound dangerously close to paper-thin parody listened to at home, undergoes something of a minor transformation in performance. Hannon’s no Cole Porter, but nevertheless he winkles sly observational humour out of subjects such as visits to stately homes (“Assume The Perpendicular”) and the economic crisis (“The Complete Banker”). The audience reaction to “At The Indie Disco” is particularly heartwarming, a song that’s barely six months old being greeted as a timeworn classic, and in the face of these stripped-down renditions it’s a lot easier to grant Hannon the benefit of the doubt and conclude he’s writing with affection rather than sarcasm. In honour of the location he even morphs it unsteadily into an intentionally ham-fisted sliver of New Order’s “Blue Monday”. (Other covers include The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me”, on which he struggles a bit with the falsetto parts, and an Art Garfunkelesque “I Only Have Eyes For You”, performed as a duet with Cathy Davey.) Even the Gilbert O’Sullivan-influenced “Can You Stand Upon One Leg” isn’t terrible, enlivened by inviting an audience member to tell a joke and Hannon’s virtuoso party trick of holding a note for approximately forever – he might still be singing it as you’re reading this.
The man’s rich back catalogue offers up delights such as “Becoming More Like Alfie” (in which he’s forced to sing his guitar solo, to much merriment), “Father Ted” theme “Songs Of Life” and “The Frog Princess”, delightfully augmented by an audience singalong of “La Marseillaise”. Songs from the “Fin De Siècle” album, including “Sweden”, “The Certainty Of Chance” and patronising public transport anthem “National Express”, aren’t quite so overblown when scored for a single instrument, and “Tonight We Fly”, perhaps Hannon’s single greatest musical achievement, retains a goodly proportion of its swooping Nymanesque grandeur when played on just a piano.
Given Hannon’s bowler-hatted and besuited appearance, the dingy student union environs of the Academy 2 seems an unusual location for a show that would easily find itself at home in either of the plusher venues mentioned earlier. Nevertheless, suffused with wit, elegance and a fine line in self-deprecating charm, the solo Neil Hannon show scores an unexpected victory; to say that it’s a far better night out than I thought it would be makes me almost ashamed of my modest expectations.