With its title, the come-ons of the protagonist of “Something for the Weekend”, clips from Alfie, and the none too subtle word-play of ‘In and Out in Paris & London’ (not to mention its mantra-like outro), it’s tempting to see Casanova as nothing more than Neil Hannon’s cheeky-chappy coming out album. The truth, as ever, feels not quite as simple as that, but it is a reading that holds up through most of the album’s swagger, occasional moments of self-doubt and introspection aside.
Stylistically it’s a coming out party of some exuberance: the baroque pop of Promenade seems little more than a memory, replaced by confident arrangements, strings and assorted orchestral players providing sweeping accompaniment to Neil Hannon, whose voice seems to have taken on a new timbre as he sashays through town and country, confiding theatrically in the listener, moralising and amoralising alike.
A measure of how removed Casanova is from The Divine Comedy’s previous two albums comes right at the album’s start: “Something for the Weekend” is such a gloriously easy-going pop masterpiece it was recently voted into 15th place in a BBC poll to find the ultimate Britpop anthem. The first sound on the album is coquettish laughter, followed by Hannon giving it his best Terry-Thomas “Hello… ooh… I say… How about a little kiss? Oh, don’t be unkind” and a ‘woo!’ that few gig-goers are able to resist joining in on. As if to toy with expectations of his lyrical prowess, Hannon then rhymes “stupid” with “woodshed” and recounts a tale of trickster, tricked. You might feel sorry for the poor guy if it wasn’t for the knowledge he’d do it all again in a heartbeat.
Then there’s Songs of Love, an instrumental version of which became the theme tune for Father Ted, and which (along with legendary Eurovision entry “My Lovely Horse”) ensured The Divine Comedy would forever be a band of great historical significance. The album version of “Songs of Love” is one of the rare introspective moments on Casanova. It’s also a foray back in time, its harpsichord evoking for once Liberation and Promenade, and further still – Hannon’s type, who “hibernate in bedrooms above, composing their songs of love” could be soul-mates for Janis Ian’s in “At Seventeen” who “desperately remained at home, inventing lovers on the phone”. It’s not all about looks, though, for Hannon, for whom:
Fate doesn’t hang on a wrong or right choice
Fortune depends on the tone of your voice
But while Casanova inhabits different ground to its predecessor, this is no modern pop album, however much it protests. “Everybody knows that no means yes” sings the protagonist in “Becoming More Like Alfie”, and every good listener should know not to be fooled by retrospective Britpop association. Before “Songs of Love” got the nod, Hannon had also submitted another tune to the Father Ted producers. It was rejected, so Hannon reworked it into “A Woman of the World”. Giving the wheel of time a different spin, here Hannon steps back to an era of top hat and tails, and the call and response of a chorus line. You could almost be listening to a fondly nostalgic 1970s Christmas TV variety performance. ‘Through a Long & Sleepless Night’ has an old-fashioned guitar wakka-wakka behind the fury, while “Charge” is gloriously over the top, Hannon making the most of each and every rolled “r”, while you just know the pianist will be turning to the audience with a grandiose wink after every refrain.
The sweetest, funniest, most knowing moment of bringing the gold old days back is saved for just before the end. “Theme From Casanova” plays out with an RP spoken-word introduction straight out of “Sing Something Simple”. The charts may be coming, it seems to say, but before then, there’s just time for one last hurrah, one last old-fashioned tune.
And Casanova was The Divine Comedy’s last album before the Top 40 came calling – in the next two years, both A Short Album About Love and Fin de Siècle would find berths inside the top 20.
A note on this review:
In a way, this review has been 18 years in the making. Back in 1996, not long after the album was released, I wrote to various record labels asking if they had any promotional copies of new releases they could send, which I would then review as part of a music magazine I was thinking of launching. Among a paucity of responses, Setanta were lovely enough to send me not only a CD of Casanova but also copious release notes, and a track-by-track written commentary on the album. Sadly, along with most of my musical treasure, this is currently in storage somewhere, so I wasn’t able to refer to it while writing this review. I hope against hope, however, that even in some vague way, the review was worth the wait, even though there’s no way in which that could truly be the case. Still, as a budding writer again, if not quite a young one, I will be sure to appreciate any time a band or label gets in touch in a way that isn’t just motivated by self-interest. Because of this, I couldn’t help but grin broadly on being mentioned earlier today.