I am pretty sure I am the only person in North America who has heard of the Divine Comedy. I certainly have never met another fan here. Neil Hannon, the man who essentially is the Divine Comedy, started his band in Northern Ireland in 1989, as an R.E.M. soundalike, before going off in several different directions and finally releasing Casanova, a delightful gem of a record that I almost chose instead of this record. Casanova has “Something for the Weekend”, the band’s first hit single and a fun little galloping pop song. Instead I went with the Krzysztof Kieslowski inspired A Short Album About Love, which has my favourite the Divine Comedy song on it, and is unique on this list as it was recorded live at a sound check at Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Live off the floor albums tend to sound messy and incomplete, or are wildly uneven. THe only other one I can think of off the top of my head that was any good was R.E.M.’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi, an underrated classic album. But I’ll take this beautiful record over that one any day of the week.
My love for the Divine Comedy started when I heard “Everybody Knows (Except You)”, a gorgeous soaring orchestral pop song that melts my cynical, bitter heart by being unbearably perfect. Hannon’s voice is a rare instrument, a rich and expressive voice that can soar and that can withhold. It would take a lot to shine a vocal over the horns, strings, and general classical aspirations of the music itself. But this sweet little love song is simply beautiful, and I adore it to bits.
The record opens with the cheeky “In the Pursuit of Happiness”, with its loping, folk based melody and grand philharmonic touches. The lyrics touch on the desire for joy and happiness despite the fact we don’t have a firm grasp on true happiness as a collective and that our own ability to share in mutual self-destruction is often ignored in favour on banalities.
Hannon and arranger Joby Talbot both have listened to a lot of Baroque composers somewhere, as “Timewatching” sounds like it’s an outtake of Vivaldi’s career with pop music lyrics dubbed overtop. The music is dark and unbearably sad, and at the end of the song, Hannon cribs the lyrics from “When I Fall In Love”. It sounds like it’s a dull piece of music when you listen to those distinct and varied influences, but it’s a powerful song musically and lyrically, as one sits alone in silence and remembers pop music would never have existed without Handel. Seriously.
“If…” begins as a sweet little piano ballad before ascending into “Day in the Life” crashing of noise, as Hannon lists what he would do “If…”, looking for a companion for forever. “If I Were You (I’d Be Through With Me)” is inspired by the bossa nova beats and stylistic touches of 60s era, Bacharach and David pop standards. “I’m All You Need” is the most modern sounding track, less big band and symphonic, more standard 90s pop. The lovely and minor key brilliance of “Someone” remains, however, Hannon’s single greatest vocal- expressive, fulfilling, just being one of the great singers in music today. Voices like that should be appreciated more. He can sing circles around Christina Aguilera.
It has been said that Hannon has sent a copy of each of his albums to his hero, genius Scott Walker, the American-born UK superstar troubadour. Hannon has often cited Walker as an influence and has worked with him on a record. Hannon’s voice is more predictable than Walker’s own, but the influence is clear, particularly on a song like “Someone”. Walker and Burt Bacharach are all over this record. As a fan of both, and of the Divine Comedy, I am proud to say I’m glad to have found this band, and heard this short, brilliant record. It’s wonderful to know that back in the late 90s, someone hadn’t turned entirely to synth beats and autotuned vocals and became the Spice Girls. Someone was putting out proper great pop music.