A Gentleman Of A Certain Age - 30 Years of The Divine Comedy
Last month, the Barbican in London and the Cité De La Musique in Paris should each have played host to five nights of chronological full-album performances of almost all of The Divine Comedy’s remarkable catalogue. Designed to celebrate the release of a comfortingly substantial career-spanning 24 disc box set ‘Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time’, the gigs would have been quite the undertaking.
Lockdown prompted a postponement until next Autumn but frontman and sole official member of the band Neil Hannon describes the plan to Clash as “almost certainly impossible. It was a hare-brained idea. There is a small part of me that’s intensely relieved that we get another year to learn all the songs, so, in that regard, they’ll probably be better for it.”
The closest anyone has got to pinning a tag on The Divine Comedy’s music is ‘chamber pop’, but there’s plenty of variety across the twelve studio albums and assorted CDs of bonus material that are now collected together to mark thirty years of the moniker’s usage. Perhaps best known for 1998’s ‘National Express’ and ‘Songs Of Love’, which was adapted for the Father Ted theme tune, behind those almost cartoonish snapshots is one of our finest living melodicists.
Growing up in Northern Ireland, Hannon’s teenage years were shaped by the Human League, OMD and Kraftwerk, before an obligatory U2 phase. The box contains an exclusive double album entitled ‘Juve-Neil-ia’, which collects many of his earliest performances, including the sort of home recordings that many artists would keep well-hidden.
While he’s quite willing to critique later songs with which he now struggles, the approach to compiling all of the extra material was actually quite straightforward: “More often than not I said ‘screw it, put it on, it’s part of the process’. For most of the things I didn’t put on in the end, it was because they were just boring.” From a very youthful reading of ‘Pie Jesu’, past a near a capella doo wop track ‘Who’s Afraid’ and on to the whole of 1990’s mini-album ‘Fanfare For The Comic Muse’, the early recordings set is a treasure trove for the fans.
Each studio album has been freshly remastered at Abbey Road and is now presented with an accompanying bonus disc. The box set is one of the most beautiful deluxe editions you’re ever likely to see, using uniform slipcases around the reissues to create an ornate library of records. To mark this vast and spectacular undertaking, Clash spoke to Hannon from the home he shares in Country Kildare with Irish singer-songwriter Cathy Davey to discuss a variety of aspects of life as The Divine Comedy.
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How was lockdown as a songwriter? Did it feel particularly different to a normal period of crafting songs?
To begin with, I noticed no difference at all. That’s easy for me, because I live in the country and I’m generally pretty anti-social anyway. After a month or two, I suddenly noticed I’m not meant to be here; I’m meant to be communing with the outside world and going to studios or having meetings, which takes up a little more of my life that I’d want usually.
So, it gradually got weirder, as I’m sure it did for everybody. You get to read and watch the news too much and the news in America is particularly disheartening. You get yourself into a bad cycle, a kind of echo chamber, and you get more and more depressed. It’s good to snap yourself out of that, do something stupid and leave the news behind for a while.
Every now and again, one thinks “Oh my god, I just want to make some new music” and so I go and make some new music and then when I think “oh, that’s a bit shit” I go and watch the telly.
The music industry has been hit hard, especially the live performance scene. How did the postponement of the shows affect you?
It’s kind of deflating when you’ve got something in your head, a shape to the year, and then it all goes out the window. I should say, it’s not too bad for me. It’s a hell of a lot worse for the musicians in my band and the crew and all of those people. They’re royally screwed. The industry was in a sorry enough state before all this and this is really just putting the boot in.
When I was starting out we used to refer to the dole as the musician’s allowance and it was very helpful to just sit on the dole while you were trying to make things happen. I don’t particularly see anything wrong with that. It’s the same argument behind the universal living wage idea. Obviously, there will be a lot of Conservatives who think “that’s just bloody money for nothing for sitting around,” but the truth of the matter is more or less everybody wants to do something they love, wants to be successful and, if you can give everybody a liveable base from which to start, it’s more likely that it will happen. So, I’m all for it.
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When you were preparing for the subsequently postponed live shows, did it make you rethink any of the early records?
It was very interesting going back and the abiding kind of feature, especially with the very early songs, was thinking “well, that doesn’t make any musical sense, why did I do that?” And it worked precisely because I didn’t know what was musically sensible!
When I started out, you’re working from a “well, that sounds good” platform and then as you go on you see how other people make things work and how one chord leads to another and how certain structures really help things. But it’s a double-edged sword because, as you get better at those structures and chord changes, you also start to fall into generic traps and it giveth and it taketh away.
Eventually, you have to chuck it all out again. You start to give yourself really difficult challenges or problems in songs, just so that you come up with a new solution – it’s fascinating.
You run your own label now, Divine Comedy Records. Has that changed your approach to making a record?
It’s changed it in one regard, in that you’re very aware of the mechanics of making and selling records and so that is never far from your mind but it’s hard to describe. I was never one to listen when they tried to tell me what to do anyway. To be honest, I was so odd that I don’t think anybody knew what to tell me to do, so not much changed there, but you become very aware of how much money you’re spending. In the old days you never had a clue what the figures were and it was only a decade in that I realised “hang on, I pay for everything?” That’s what bands don’t understand these days: you pay. It doesn’t matter how much they say they’ll fund; it all comes out of your earnings in the end.
Obviously, the nice thing is you can’t spend money you don’t have. Natalie – my manager and co-record company operative – is always insistent that I just do what the music dictates and think about the money afterwards.
Did that combination of looking for new problems to solve and having the freedom to release your own music lead to 2019’s wonderfully varied double album ‘Office Politics’?
I think the success of ‘Foreverland’, in terms of both the album and the tours, gave me a certain licence that “yeah, I can do whatever I want.” You get to the point where you think “I’ve been around this long. I’m not going to not do something because I’m scared of what people will think.” They know what I’m like by now and they either like it or they don’t. I also blame the second decade of the new century for being so fucked up that my anxieties all poured into that record.
On the subject of what people expect, your willingness to imbue your songs with humour has sometimes attracted criticism, but it always seemed to me like a natural reflection of life being a near-permanent mix of light and shade.
I always think of the Howard Jacobson quote when he said he didn’t trust novelists who had no sense of humour, because it’s missing a huge element of life. Partly, it’s a defence mechanism because you don’t want to think about how awful things are so you make a joke about it and, partly, it’s a way of saying difficult things without being really doomy. Like ‘The Complete Banker’ (from 2010’s ‘Bang Goes The Knighthood’) is sort of funny whilst being outraged and that’s a good mix.
I get rather bored with very preachy records which is a bit of a trap that I fell into on (2001’s) ‘Regeneration’. On certain songs on that record I thought “oh just stop moaning, stop whinging!” I mean ‘Dumb It Down’ for example: it’s a good tune, it’s straight down the line. It’s just saying what is wrong and I’m pissed off. Whereas I tried to avoid that afterwards. I prefer to couch things in some kind of slight angle so that maybe people don’t know instantly what I’m driving at, that it kind of dawns on them later. It’s more interesting that way.
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While the box might not be the obvious purchase for the more casual fan, the 2CD editions or vinyl reissues provide more affordable options for getting to know the full extent of Hannon’s work. The timeless first two albums, 1993’s ‘Liberation’ and 1994’s ‘Promenade’, established The Divine Comedy as a cult act by blending literary references, French cinema, plenty of harpsichord and nods to Mr Benn into some of the most beguilingly nimble but often sweepingly orchestrated pop music ever known.
While it was 1996’s ‘Casanova’ that catapulted the band into the indie spotlight, that early pair are incredibly realised for an artist in their early twenties and Hannon was protective of their magic during the process of assembling these releases: “Frank [Arkwright – renowned mastering engineer] came back with something where I thought actually I can see why you did that but it’s not good for the record. I sent him back on a different path on those albums and they end up sounding better but not losing what they had.”
Whatever the instructions were, they worked and ‘Liberation’ and ‘Promenade’, along with the rest of the catalogue, have been remastered with care, opening up the sound whilst preserving the dynamics that are so important to complex instrumentation. The debut’s bonus disc includes a blistering bilingual live take on ‘Europop’, some charmingly ramshackle demos and the much sought-after curio ‘Christmas With The Hannons’. This stately festive meditation is bathed in cassette fuzz, but the purists will be happy.
The additional ‘Promenade’ material includes a Yann Tiersen collaboration, several instrumental outtakes and ‘Assume The Goldsmith’, an evolution of ‘Juve-Neil-ia’ track ‘October’ which represents a second attempt at using a tune that would one day go on to be ‘Assume The Perpendicular’ on ‘Bang Goes The Knighthood’, some sixteen years later.
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How do you get from ‘October’ to the eventual finished version so many years later?
‘Assume The Perpendicular’ is basically the same chords because the music of ‘October’, while awful in terms of the instrumentation at the time and the playing, just kind of stuck in my head over the years and I always thought “I really like those chords for some reason.” They do a weird thing and I’ve never really worked out what it is doing. When I came to writing again, 2007-ish or 2008, I just played around with them.
There was another song before ‘Assume The Perpendicular’, another lyric, which is hilarious. But I just thought it was too personal for what it was talking about at the time, so I changed up again. And I’m really happy with ‘Assume The Perpendicular’. It’s funny when you can have two different completely different songs based on the same chords, but then Oasis did it over and over again.
Are there lots of unfinished song pieces like that floating around in your head?
Not many. When I was re-listening to the very, very early stuff that I had avoided for years, I did occasionally hear things about which I thought, you know that could probably turn into a good song if you took it apart and put it back together. But then you think, what’s the point? Just leave it; let it be!
But I’m a recycler when it comes to music. Nothing I’ve written is usually wasted. If I do 20-30 bits of stuff and some of it turns into an album, whatever’s left over will generally see the light of day in some shape or form, whether it be in an opera or a cricket album.
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The bonus discs are really carefully curated. Not every cover or live version makes it, but it’s clear they’re meant to work as a collection of songs.
Hopefully. The one I like most is the extras on (1997’s orchestral masterpiece) ‘A Short Album About Love’. Because we put the film (of the live performance from the same day the record was recorded) on there, it meant that we didn’t have room for another bonus disc as such. But ‘A Short Album About Love’ is pretty short, so we could put all of the bonuses we needed to onto the one CD with the album and I really like it – there’s obviously a couple of things on there that are despicable but they kind of they work in context and I really like all the instrumentals I did around the time. It’s a really lovely thing, I think.
We had a few comments when we published the tracklists of the bonus discs of “but where’s such and such?” It didn’t really take into account that maybe that’s two thirds to three quarters of everything, but there’s a huge chunk that wouldn’t get anywhere near those discs. I make no apology for that because you’ve got to have some editorial control. It’s not so much to save my feelings or anything; it’s to save the public from trawling through hours and hours of shit.
One of the missing tracks is ‘Too Young To Die’, from 1999’s ‘A Secret History’ best of, in which you announced you were binning the suits and moving on. Is it missing because you dug them back out only a few years later, after the T shirts and long hair of ‘Regeneration’?
No, I just hate it! That was one of the few that I listened to and thought I am not putting that alongside everything else because it’s so up itself. It’s one of the moments where I really want to punch myself in the face. There are some ‘punchable’ moments where I was ok with it and I thought well, I hate that but it’s part of the story, whereas with that one, because it was on the best of and it wasn’t ‘Gin Soaked Boy’, I just thought “nah, I’m not having it.” And I’m sure some people will be annoyed by that, but they can go and bloody listen to it elsewhere!
Given how clearly that song was about moving on from the distinctive image you had in the Nineties, what are your memories around the era of ‘Fin De Siécle’, from which ‘National Express’ came?
I remember it all. I wasn’t out of my mind on drugs or anything, but it was hard to write about a lot of it (for the extensive and hugely entertaining new sleeve notes) because I don’t look back on the period with any sort of fondness. I was so driven, it wasn’t really about enjoyment. It’s about success and ambition and ego to a large degree. And I had no problem with how driven and how sure of myself I was, because it resulted in good music and good shows, but after a couple of years of it I was like that’s all well and good but I have this enormous hole in my life! I don’t know what would have happened if I’d kept going on that sort of trajectory. I guess I wanted my cake and I had wanted to eat it and have it and then wanted more cake.
With ‘Regeneration’, that’s why we got Nigel Godrich, the biggest producer in the world. We got on a major label and it was like “yeah we’re going to just get bigger and bigger.” But, I think the sound and the writing on that album is kind of telling in terms of my psyche at the time. It was a bit like I need to get off this crazy carousel but I don’t think I’d have admitted it at the time. It took a good few years to really calm down and get used to the idea that I [adopts mockingly self-pitying voice] wasn’t a pop star anymore and just be an entertainment entity.
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‘Regeneration’ marked the start of a trio of albums for Parlophone, although Hannon’s awkward relationship with that record was immediately evident as he parted company with his regular band and went solo once again, betogged in rather dapper threads once more. 2004’s ‘Absent Friends’ has matured wonderfully and possesses a very clear sense of purpose. Neil talks fondly of it, saying “sonically speaking I think it’s brilliantly all in the same sound world. I feel like it takes you somewhere and keeps you there.” This is evident when listened to alongside its accompanying disc of extras. Magnificent b-sides ‘Absolute Power’, ‘Girl Least Likely’ and ‘Anthem For Bored Youth’ are joined by a genuinely amazing Eurodisco take on ‘Our Mutual Friend’ and lost delight ‘Smiler’, about Neil’s then-infant daughter.
2006’s ‘Victory For The Comic Muse’ was (mostly) done in a fortnight at RAK studios in London, just prior to Christmas 2005. “I’d stupidly watched a making of Pet Sounds documentary and, for anybody who has ever made a record, there’s always a moment of ‘hey, wouldn’t it be cool just to get the old gear out and kick it live with the whole ensemble in one room’ and then you try and do it and it’s a fucking nightmare.”
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It’s a beautiful sounding collection of songs, though stylistically quite varied as evidenced by a bonus disc which includes excessively sombre anti-war song ‘Guantanamo’, a demo of ‘Home’ written for Jane Birkin (“after I’d thought she’s not having ‘A Lady of a Certain Age’ I wrote that”) and ‘Trafalgar’, originally created for a feature on how to craft a Eurovision smash for the BBC’s Culture Show. Of ‘Victory For The Comic Muse’, Hannon says, “I love a lot of the songs, but as an album I was surprised when it won the award (Choice Music Prize, the Irish equivalent of the Mercury) Surprised and delighted, I would add.”
Even the recent albums are given the deluxe treatment, 2016’s ‘Foreverland’ and ‘Office Politics’ arrive both awash with extras. As well as an array of intriguingly alternative demo versions, brief delights like ‘C’est Si Bon’ and ‘Your Lucky Day’ nestle next to charity song ‘One Ear Up, One Ear Down’ and joyous covers of ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ and ‘Pop Muzik’. Hannon’s warmth radiates from the unearthed delights, making for a genuinely special experience for the initiated. While the absence of a tiny number of songs may briefly exercise a few, it’s hard to imagine anybody feeling short-changed.
Not that his listeners are always entirely rational, as Clash found when reviewing ‘Foreverland’ upon its release. One track, ‘Other People’, took an original and rather brief voice memo and added orchestration. However, that initial recording ends abruptly after ninety seconds, Hannon having got his idea down and tailing off with a quick “blah, blah, blah.”
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How on earth did you decide to release ‘Other People’ like that?
The moment I decided to use the vocal I had sung at the very instant I was writing the tune into my phone, the moment I decided to do that: how could I possibly amend it? I couldn’t sing another bit on the end, you know? And I not only found it hilarious, but I also found it sort of weirdly profound. [Hannon giggles mischievously] In a way, it wasn’t just talking about my feelings, it was also talking about the way in which you try to form feelings into songs. You get to a certain point in the thought and then you just run out and that’s what happened, but it was in a very primitive state.
I just thought wouldn’t it be amazing to take the very initial thought that you had and impose that onto a full symphonic score? That’s the huge juxtaposition that makes the song work at all, I think.
I was irrationally angry about that at the time. Why can a creative decision have that sort of impact?
We all suffer from it. I’ve had that exact feeling with various bands that I’ve loved. It’s like “oh god, you’ve ruined it.” I knew when I did that that it might annoy some people. It annoyed whoever was in the studio with me at the time. I remember getting some funny looks and Natalie asking “are you sure?”
But it’s the same thing with ‘Philip and Steve’s Furniture Removal Company’ (from ‘Office Politics.) Various people listened to that and went “huh?” I know Cathy did. She came into the studio where I was making it and I said, “Listen to this! Listen to this!” and halfway through she just wandered off and said, “that’s music for boys.” It’s the story of my life really – you can’t please everyone and there’s no point in trying.
Obviously, I have tried to please a lot of people on various things that I’ve done over the years. I please because that means they smile at me when I’m playing live and they have fun and also I make a living out of it. But I think it’s important not to fall into the trap of always trying to do what people want because you become boring very quickly.
Finally, having now listened through everything again, is there one album of yours you hold up above the others?
In terms of pop music, it’s ‘Casanova’. In terms of artistry, it’s ‘Promenade’. In terms of an album that is great as an album for album’s sake, it’s ‘Absent Friends’. In terms of doing a really good debut album, it’s ‘Liberation’ [wry laughter.] I could probably come up with a category for each, but I’m not going to try and think of them all. It really is horses for courses. I would never pick one out as being better than the others full stop, because I just don’t think that you can have that criteria. I can’t – other people can, you can. Everybody can have their favourite album if they want but I’m not going to do that.
I know which one’s the longest! The nice thing is that the one that I would probably listen to least myself is ‘Regeneration’ and yet I still really like it. The few times I was made to listen to it for mastering, I was thinking Jesus Christ, that rocks, you know. But all these critiques of mine are meaningless. These are just my thoughts about records that I almost never listen to, so it’s much more important what the punters think.
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‘Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time – Thirty Years Of The Divine Comedy’ CD box set and individual reissues of all of the studio albums are out now. The Divine Comedy will stream a show from London's Barbican tonight (October 14th).
Words: Gareth James
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