The Divine Comedy at 30
The Divine Comedy will be playing a concert at the Barbican on 14 October to celebrate Neil Hannon
On Wednesday evening, the band The Divine Comedy will be playing a concert at the Barbican. Under normal circumstances, this would be an unexceptional development, but now, with live music a threatened species, it is a remarkable and even brave occurrence. The show itself will be played to a socially distanced, and therefore sparse, audience, but aficionados will also have a chance to pay £10 and watch it from their homes via streaming services. In any case, it represents one of the few chances that anyone will have to see an old-fashioned, live gig this year, and is therefore likely to be hugely popular. That it celebrates the 30th anniversary of one of Britain’s most consistently brilliant singer-songwriters and his band is merely the cherry on top.
The band was bizarrely roped into the Britpop categorisation of the Nineties
Neil Hannon is not a household name, and he would probably be quite happy to remain that way for all perpetuity. Arguably his highest-profile endeavour, including his music, was to win Celebrity Mastermind in 2012, with Frasier as his specialist subject. His band – which has in fact always been an ensemble of hired musicians, and which has changed personnel at least twice – had their greatest commercial success in 1999, when his song “National Express”, an easy-listening novelty paean to that most unloved form of transport, the long-distance coach service – reached number eight in the singles charts, when such things counted for something. After releasing three albums on the EMI subsidiary Parlophone, with limited commercial success, Hannon now has his own record label, DC Records, for the sole purpose of putting out his own recordings. These sell surprisingly well – his last album, 2019’s Office Politics, peaked at number 5 in the UK charts – albeit mainly to a loyal and partisan audience who are also to be found at his sell-out concerts across the country.
What makes Hannon, and the Divine Comedy, so remarkable is that they have continued, and hopefully will do so as long as people buy their music and attend their shows, while virtually all of their peers have either vanished altogether or disappeared into obscurity, only surfacing at irregular intervals. The band was somewhat bizarrely roped into the Britpop categorisation of the mid to late Nineties, largely because of the unexpected popularity of their song “Something for The Weekend” from their 1996 album Casanova. Chris Evans, then at the peak of his influence and popularity as a Radio 1 DJ, championed the song on his show, and so it became the Divine Comedy’s first top 20 single, peaking at number 14 in the charts.
Its nudge, nudge, wink-wink lyrics – “I’ll go all the way with you, if you’ll only do the same for me, go and see/If it’s nothing like you say, then you can have your wicked way with me” – appeared to chime with the contemporary vogue for laddish humour and crude sexism with only the most fig leaf-like covering of postmodernism and irony. That the song’s references to “something in the woodshed” were based around a famous quote from Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm, or that it ended with its boorish protagonist getting his come-uppance did not unduly bother the record-buying public, who could be heard singing its catchy chorus in the streets, pints aloft in arms.
Such a development must have amused the then-25-year-old Hannon, who had already released three albums by then. The first, 1990’s Fanfare for the Comic Muse, was heavily influenced by R.E.M, did nothing commercially and was subsequently disowned by its composer. Hannon regarded 1993’s Liberation, a collection of songs he mostly performed himself, with limited instrumental backing, as his debut proper. At a time when British music largely consisted of old rockers releasing hoary seen-it-before records and where the interesting talent – Blur, Radiohead – was only beginning to emerge as a commercial force, its delicate literary sensibilities marked it out as unusual. Its lyrical influences included everything from Chekhov to the children’s TV series Mr Benn, via a song about Hannon’s hay fever that alluded to Wim Wenders’ film The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty Kick, and it ended with Hannon singing a song based on Wordsworth’s poetry, “Lucy”.
Of course, it sold virtually no copies. When the record label manager heard it, his first thought was to attempt to organise some sort of tie-in with Penguin Classics to see if there was any potential in offering the album as a giveaway if one bought a certain number of books. Yet its release established Hannon as a fascinating, unusual figure. He was the son of a Northern Irish bishop who had attended Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett’s alma mater Portora Royal School, flunked his A-levels and had then lurked in his parents’ attic, writing songs heavily influenced musically by Michael Nyman and Burt Bacharach and lyrically by EM Forster and Romantic poetry.
His second album proper, 1994’s Promenade, refined the formula more successfully, as Hannon told the story of a pair of friends or lovers reunited after many years and musing on the past. Its songs revolved around minimalist arrangements for piano and string quartet, with such heavy debts to Nyman that Hannon jokingly asked the composer not to sue him when he gave him the album, and its achingly tender sensibilities, best expressed on “The Summerhouse”, “Tonight We Fly” and “Don’t Look Down”, made it one of the year’s, even decade’s, most remarkable musical accomplishments. Again, of course, nobody bought it.
And then, if it hadn’t been for Edwyn Collins’ “A Girl Like You”, Hannon’s career might have stuttered. However, Setanta, his and Collins’ record label, had had a substantial hit with the single in 1995, and so they granted Hannon a considerably larger budget for Casanova. It was here where he finally brought his arcane, unusual sensibilities into the mainstream, complete with lush string and brass arrangements that channelled his heroes Bacharach and Scott Walker. Just as Damon Albarn, also a Walker admirer, channelled his influences into Blur’s ‘To the End” and “The Universal”, so Hannon found himself unexpectedly thrust into the zeitgeist. The album’s second single, “Becoming More Like Alfie”, a wry look at male philandering and consent (“Everybody knows that ‘no’ means ‘yes’/Just like glasses come free on the NHS”) even helped to establish him as a New Lad, somewhat to Hannon’s bemusement.
Hannon seemed unduly engaged with the darkest aspects of love and life
A clearer idea of his artistic intentions could be found on “Middle Class Heroes” on the album, in which he set out his credo, exhorting his listeners to “Fight the good fight, wage the unwinnable war”, expressed by a series of contrasts: “Elegance against ignorance, difference against indifference, wit against shit”. This noble struggle has largely dominated his recorded output ever since. His next Nineties albums, the impossibly gorgeous A Short Album About Love and the lavishly orchestrated, doomily millennial Fin de Siècle, both had their lighter moments, most notably “National Express”, but for a young man, Hannon seemed unduly engaged with the darkest aspects of love and life, gloomily envisaging a world in which disease and war ravaged society, even as its denizens were left weeping on their own after the end of soul-consuming brief romances. In this, as in much else, he looked forward to twenty-first century life with visionary elegance, wrapped around sumptuous arrangements by the composer Joby Talbot.
There then followed a brief misstep, 2001’s Regeneration, in which Hannon misguidedly decided that he was another Thom Yorke and hired Radiohead’s producer Nigel Godrich to strip down his inimitable sound, imbuing it with then-modish whirrs and beeps. The album, which is not without its charms, but which feels considerably more dated than the rest of their work, halted the Divine Comedy’s commercial progress. As a response, Hannon fired the band he had worked with since Casanova and recorded his next album, 2004’s excellent return-to-form Absent Friends, as essentially a solo artist. It established a pattern that has continued since in his later recordings: the records are self-produced, contain everything from light-hearted novelty songs (in some cases, rather irritatingly self-indulgent ones) to baroque sweeping epics and make for hugely enjoyable live shows.
He swapped Talbot for the composer and arranger Andrew Skeet – a vital part of both his touring band and studio wizardry – and continues to produce the kind of orchestral pop that has apparently fallen out of fashion decades ago. And yet he continues to fight the good fight with humour and that rarest of things in music, nobility. Like his contemporary Jarvis Cocker, Hannon remains the most entertaining of showmen, managing to make the loyal audiences feel that he is both friend and mentor to them. Which explains, in part, why he continues to play the Barbican – even in its socially distanced incarnation – rather than, say, Bush Hall. And when he touched on his own personal life for once, in the mighty “Down in the Street Below”, he revealed a rare talent for autobiographical writing, simultaneously touching on his divorce and his minor-league fame: “well look around the place, something’s not quite right/Yours is the only face that you don’t recognise”.
The Barbican concert is a partial replacement for a postponed series of career-spanning gigs that were to have seen Hannon and his ensemble perform the entirety of his back catalogue, covering two albums a night, which leads the fanbase to make all kinds of carefully weighted decisions: do I want to see the Divine Comedy perform Fin de Siècle enough to sit through a second half of Regeneration? The 30th anniversary is being celebrated with a series of reissues, including obscurities, B-sides and demos, and the entire shebang is collected in a 24-disc boxset called Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time, which is not cheap at an eyebrow-raising £125, but includes a signed letter from Hannon and the exclusive “Juvenilia” album, which features the first officially sanctioned reissue of Fanfare for the Comic Muse. For the hardened aficionado, it will be cheap at the price.
I speak as one of these aficionados. I bought my first Divine Comedy album at the age of seventeen and will continue to take pleasure in buying (or, in these more mercurial days, streaming) every album that Hannon writes and records. Not all of them have been as wonderful as I might have hoped, but the final two songs on Office Politics, “After the Lord Mayor’s Show” and “When The Working Day Is Done” – respectively, a wry meditation on his perennial state as one of music’s commercial second-raters and a “Life on Mars”-esque meditation on the soul-crushing nature of modern office life – are as good as anything that he has ever produced, showing that his talent remains undimmed. It does not seem too much to ask that there will, in three decades time, be another retrospective reissue, and that a then-78-year-old Hannon will be continuing to perform and delight his audiences. I can only hope that I, by then approaching my 70th year, will still be amongst them.
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