At the end of July, Neil Hannon took to the stage during the strangely sombre Bowie prom and delivered fine renditions of both ‘Station To Station’ and ‘This Is Not America’. His rich, emotive vocals rather suited the great man’s work and served as a reminder to many that the bearded chap in a suit is quite the singer himself. Upon spending time with his eleventh album, it becomes clear that he has paid tribute once again, but in fairly unfathomable fashion. ‘Napoleon Complex’ opens the record, rehashed from life as a digital-only bonus track on 2010’s ‘Bang Goes The Knighthood’ with improved orchestration but a chorus indebted to ‘The Laughing Gnome’. The titular condition referring to aggression in shorter folk apparently necessitates a pitched-up squeaky vocal and so we must suffer.
It’s a truly bizarre way to open an album, as if gleefully succumbing to all of the accusations of trite novelty that have dogged Hannon across the years. Whereas such talk was previously largely unwarranted and based mainly on ‘National Express’, it now feels like a mission statement. Take first single ‘Catherine The Great’, loosely pitched as a history lesson but essentially a limp device for praising his partner, and collaborator on several tracks, Cathy Davey. It jangles along pleasantly enough, but the lyrics are soul-itchingly awful. The worst part might well have been “she looked so bloody good on a horse that they couldn’t wait for her to invade” but for the tediously cheesy descriptions of her as “a crazy, spontaneous girl” at one point and “a sensitive girl” on another. It’s beamed in from early Seventies light entertainment and it stinks.
Hannon’s music as The Divine Comedy has drawn a small but adoring audience over the years, pairing grandiose string arrangements with classic pop licks to often majestic effect. A change of label at the turn of the millennium, having been courted by Parlophone, ushered in a new era that was to begin with ‘Regeneration’. Produced by Nigel Godrich and with a reduced reliance on bombast or irony, it was an understated masterpiece. Sadly, neither enormous sales nor mass critical acclaim were forthcoming and, rather than persist with the new direction, Hannon engineered a rapid volte-face and sought solace in the company of an orchestra for 2004’s ‘Absent Friends’. It marked the first time that his music wasn’t evolving so much as retreating. It’s not a bad record, but he was no longer invincible. Intermittent excellence has been the order of the day on each subsequent release, hinting at what might have been.
The pattern continues with ‘Foreverland’, which certainly has its moments. ‘The Pact’ is an ornately endearing set of alternative marriage vows, while ‘I Joined The Foreign Legion (To Forget)’ is an affectionate stab at a Rat Pack crooner role. One of the most affecting pieces, initially, is ‘Other People’, which takes Hannon’s original voice memo and attaches a striking string arrangement without recourse to tortured metaphor or limp clowning. However, presumably because it’s a ‘very Divine Comedy thing to do’, the demo’s abrupt ending where its writer hadn’t as yet conjured a full second verse is left in, absconding on ninety-six seconds with the line “you have had other lovers, so have I and, er, blahblahblah.” If there wasn’t a sodding donkey on another track, it might look like a cute bit of ironic comment on the art of writing a love song, but in this company it feels mildly contemptuous of an audience drawn in by intelligence and detail.
The aforementioned ass appears on the traumatically feeble chug of ‘How Can You Leave Me On My Own’, a self-deprecating evisceration of Hannon’s man-child cluelessness when Cathy the Great is away. By the time the second verse comes around with the lines “when you leave, I become a dickhead, a bad-smelling, couch-dwelling dickhead,” the song about the bus starts to feel like a modern classic. It rumbles along, thudding piano and handclaps to the fore sounding like a memory from a time we’re all trying to forget.
The album’s other overtly raucous moment is far more enchanting, ‘A Desperate Man’ setting up stall as one of Hannon’s remarkable dramatic monologues that include highlights like ‘The Plough’, ‘Thrillseeker’ and ‘Through A Long & Sleepless Night’. The brass driven car-chase of a chorus is great fun and works all the better for the absence of a punchline. ‘My Happy Place’ could easily fit on ‘Absent Friends’, with its precise arrangement and warm delivery, and the title track is arguably where the record should really have started. Choral backing vocals, rippling piano and several multi-layered eruptions of melody make for vintage Divine Comedy and it’s one of the rare moments on the record where the song has space to breathe. Hannon has so very clearly still got it, which makes it all the more frustrating that he seems so happy to make do on occasion.
Never is this clearer than on the album’s magical centrepiece, ‘To The Rescue’. Shimmering harpsichord, soulful guitar licks and lounge-jazz drumming combine beneath one of his most beautiful tunes to date. Insistent strings and a nagging organ refrain add a certain sense of unease as the lyrics tell of Cathy, by now unsurprisingly, and her efforts with the My Lovely Horse rescue charity. Built around honest admiration, lines like “I looked for Marilyn, I got Che instead” are glorious and the final instrumental minute is as fine a moment as The Divine Comedy have released in fifteen years.
‘Foreverland’ embraces the clichés and largely follows a formula. Certain subject matter and song titles perpetuate a particular illusion and the middle of the road radio play has trickled in according to plan. However, there are still signs of a remarkable and unique artist who has scaled great heights and inspired utter devotion. A strangely unfiltered outpouring of Hannon’s love for Davey, it is painfully saccharine at points, but his craft has not deserted him. Might be worth looking for another lyricist though.
Words: Gareth James
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