The Auteurs – Now I’m a Cowboy

“If you possess the wrong kind of ambition, you fall between the cracks”, Luke Haines opines with the final sentence of Chapter 10 of “Bad Vibes”, the first part of his autobiography.

Chapter 11 is entitled “Commercial Failure”.

You have to decide if you want to be art or commercial, his label head had told him in November ‘93, when Haines wanted to release “Lenny Valentino” as a single in advance of a second Auteurs album. “120 seconds of meta-Motown-Dada genius” is how Haines describes the song – art-commercial, in other words. Lenny Valentino tells the tale of comedian Lenny Bruce being transported into the early twentieth century to play the part of Rudolph Valentino at his funeral procession. Lyrically, thematically, definitely art then. But musically, it’s a blistering two minutes of violin stabs and a chord progression that circles and circles, always threatening to go in for the kill, always holding off. Haines has dialled his vocals up to eleven, making the most of his sinister whispering snarl. Commercial, then.

Ought to be, but ends its first week at 41, down from a mid-week high of 35. Still, at least Pulp – Haines’ current bête noire, having moved on from Suede – only made 48.

Given the marginal failure of Lenny Valentino, which is by a long chalk the most accessible, most direct, most commercial of the eleven tracks on Now I’m a Cowboy it’s not a complete mystery that the album also stumbles. It shouldn’t but it does. It’s full of ambition, just perhaps the wrong kind.

How do you go about being commercially successful with an album that contains songs called “Chinese Bakery”, “Life Classes / Life Model”, “I’m a Rich Man’s Toy”, or the aforementioned “Lenny Valentino”? Not many people get to play both sides – Kate Bush, David Byrne, a select handful of others maybe – and if you come across as the kind of guy that might not only read Kafka but want to talk about it afterwards, then it doesn’t matter that your song “Modern History” builds over five and a half minutes to a brutally sumptuous thrashing and horns climax. To pull another example out of the air almost totally at random, if you’re the kind of artist who titles chapter 10 of the first part of their autobiography “Russian Futurists black out the sun” then you are going to find traction and popular acclaim to be an unusually slippery target.

The wrong kind of ambition. Not the kind that leaps about – left, right, ‘ere ya go, blimey is that Phil Daniels? – but the kind that writes songs like “The Upper Classes” – sample peerless lyric “there’s nothing wrong with inherited wealth, if you melt the silver yourself” or “you can get so far with a perishing wit but the money’s in trust – isn’t it?” – or Brain Child and its tidy little echoey guitar pings and accusatory closing refrain – “you’re a thief with style”.

Now I’m a Cowboy is a better album than its predecessor – it’s a better album than almost anything else released in 1994, but it’s not what the people want, or what the people understand. It’s uncompromising, but at the same time compromised: not necessarily even what Luke Haines wants. Demos. alternative takes and session versions of “New French Girlfriend” and “Lenny Valentino” show up the uncertainty in Haines’ plan for global domination, no matter how deterministically he later writes about the album’s commercial failure. Studio tinkering brings it closer to the intended vision until, as Haines writes:

I’m pretty sure we’ve done, at the very least, a great salvage job on the album, but I know in my heart that this is not good enough. I suspect I have a bloated corpse on my hands, and on my conscience.

When Now I’m a Cowboy is released all the people – so many people – go out and buy Parklife instead, and Britpop booms. Absolutely no-one whistles “Lenny Valentino” jauntily in the street, “Chinese Bakery” – a melody for the ages in want of a pat lyric – remains an unknown gem. In better news, Haines would channel his frustration into a third album, nattily entitled After Murder Park.

The Auteurs – New Wave

“What makes you ashamed to be British?” asked Select Magazine of each of its cover stars in the now infamous ‘Yanks Go Home!’ edition in May ‘93. Luke Haines, lead singer of The Auteurs, responds:

Plenty of things. Racism. All that despicable British Movement crap. Our tendency to keep harking back to VE Day. I dislike the small towniness. The sense of bigotry.

In answers to other questions, he admits to not thinking “there’s anything great about Britain as such”, that “The Union Jack doesn’t mean anything to me”, and “there’s not a lot to be patriotic about in a country that’s put up with the Tories for 14 years.”

It says something about Haines that when invited to a party that part of him has been longing to attend, he can’t help but decry the canapes and blank at least one or two of his fellow party-goers. In his defence, much of the flag-waving ‘Yanks Go Home!’ rhetoric in the article ranges from embarrassing to misguided – a lot of flim-flam surrounding a straightforward argument about the weakness of second division grunge acts.

But when Brett Anderson is one of those other party-goers, and you are currently in the middle of a repressed war of internal bitterness with the lead singer of the band you’ve been touring with but not getting on with, and not keeping pace with in the charts, you can be forgiven a little snark. Suede – who draped themselves over the cover of Melody Maker before even releasing a single, whose debut album went straight in at number one, and who, according to Haines’ account of their first tour together in “Bad Vibes”, the first volume of his autobiography, took to singing Auteurs songs backstage “in mocking silly voices”. Suede – who won the 1993 Mercury Music prize, beating The Auteurs by one vote in the process, a larceny that caused Haines to demand of Simon Gilbert (Suede’s drummer) that he hand over the money.

The photo of Haines accompanying the Select interview sees him in that oh-so-English item of furniture – the deck-chair. There he sits on Brighton beach, the pier behind him. His face says “if we must”, his coat, hair, scrunched up slouch, and hands thrust in pockets all say ‘it’s bloody cold, can we get on with this?’. No co-incidence that for the cover of “Bad Vibes” he is shown relaxed among the same surrounds. But while the west pier behind him is now a burned out husk under gloomy clouds, Haines appears relaxed, dapper even – as if ready for the grand tour. A glass in one hand is either being raised in a toast, or in accusation – away with you! can’t you see I’m relaxing with my gramophone?

Haines wouldn’t thank me for saying it or – doubtless – agree, but there’s an Englishness to New Wave that is shares with Blur’s Modern Life is Rubbish. The resemblance is passing, and you might miss it were you to focus only on the protagonists – Haines looking down, dour, glum; Albarn all chipper Sunday Sunday roasts and larks. If Albarn is the drunk who gatecrashed your party, Haines is the whisky and gin-soaked hanger-on of the remorseful morning after.

Musically and lyrically, as well as personally, New Wave sees Haines placing himself in opposition to more or less everything and everyone. Jarvis “pop fan” Cocker was another of the Select interviewees; while Pulp have spent decades meticulously catalogued bedsit grime, sex, the squalid, the grubby, the snobbery, it’s very often with a wink and a glint in the eye of Jarvis. If Haines winks at you during words like “In your room, as a plan hatcher, a soul snatcher” from “How Could I Be Wrong?” or lines from his self-styled “stalker song” “Home Again”

You’re safe,
there’s no prowler
No creeper in your lane
It’s better than drugs
it’s cool
To be in your home again

– that wink would be the very meaning of sinister, and any glint you feel sure would be steely. cold, and very sharp. It’s not all housebreaking and stalking, though: Haines finds time to marry a showgirl, get her high, and get a job on the side; mostly there’s just a feeling of life not quite working out the way you planned, especially if you didn’t plan to be like all the rest. “I was in Vaudeville at age five. My career took Its first nosedive”, “We can bitch, but it ain’t tinsel town”. And there’s “American Guitars”, the song that secured The Auteurs place in the Britpop troupe even though it’s not, as the quick to judge had it, a direct attack on grunge, but a swipe at British bands “failing dutifully” in following the trend rather than finding their own sounds.

On “American Guitars” The Auteurs play a fast and loose game of not quite pastiching the target of their ire, its rough rock sound and strident solo the closest New Wave comes to sounding like a conventional four-piece. Bringing in James Banbury – “the cellist” as he is referred to throughout Bad Vibes – adds unique textures. Together with Haines’ triple-tracked voice, which you could never describe as poppy, bright, upbeat – more disillusioned, certainly displeased – they create a uniquely gloomy template.

Despite the brilliance of the song-writing and the lyrical wit, its the gloominess you have to look to when asking why New Wave and its singles (“Show Girl”, “How Could I Be Wrong?”) didn’t sell better. Just look over at the winner’s table, and you’ll see Suede: Brett Anderson louche and sexy, Bernard Butler’s floppy fringe, 70s glam-racket riffs somehow turning council house sex and drugs into a riotous festival singalong. Meanwhile, to the disgust of Luke Haines, Melody Maker were describing The Auteurs as “the new saviours of rock”.

Each generation gets the Britpop it deserves, you might conclude.

Auteurs Day

New Wave is 21 today. To celebrate this momentous occasion I am giving myself over – for better or for worse – to the uncompromising snarl and dark mind of Mr Luke Haines for the day, in order to spend some time working through the studio albums of his don’t-call-them-britpop band The Auteurs. Chronological, as ever, is the order of the day, which means the birthday boy is up first, followed by Now I’m a Cowboy and the fantastically bleak After Murder Park, culminating in the oft-overlooked, post-millennial and slightly after the fact final Auteurs album How I Learned to Love the Bootboys.

Depending on how I get on, I might find time to drop a little Baader Meinhof in as well.

Provisional order of service is as follows:

  1. New Wave (1993)
  2. Now I’m A Cowboy (1994)
  3. After Murder Park (1996)
  4. How I Learned to Love the Bootboys (2001)

Afterword…

The albums have been listened to, the reviews have been written, the links have been added. And now, sufficient time has passed for most of the vicarious cynicism to wash off.

The Divine Comedy – Bang Goes The Knighthood

After the not entirely modern, not so old-fashioned either, relatively straight-up Victory for the Comic Muse, much of Bang Goes the Knighthood is refreshingly and charmingly off-beat. At times it’s endearing or silly; sometimes it even manages to be both at the same time. It feels, perhaps as a result of Hannon’s recent solo man and a piano tours, like a one-man job. Not only that but it’s that of a man so freed from the past that he comes dangerously close to asking if he can borrow it when “Down in the Street Below” flirts with stealing a brief snippet of the arrangement from “The Summerhouse”.

A week before the album’s release, “At the Indie Disco” was released, dropping all the right names for the 90s indie crowd and coming across like a pitch-perfect homage. Later, Hannon admitted that the song wasn’t based on personal experience, more an imagining of indie discos passim that he himself missed out on. Did this make the song less authentic, or more? Does it really matter? I don’t have to believe that Hannon has been “diving for pearls in the shallow sea” to allow myself to be transported into the world of his “Island Life”, so the feeling is perhaps it doesn’t matter all that much. Perhaps it was just the surprise on hearing that Hannon – so cool he stopped trying to be cool a long time ago – was not an indie disco regular. But then again – why would he be?

It’s an up and down album (lyrically and metaphorically) “Neapolitan Girl” and “The Lost Art of Conversation” dance on beds of cool jazzy guitar piano respectively, while at the opposite end of the scale, the album’s silliness is mostly contained within the music hall atmosphere of “Can You Stand Upon One Leg”, which contains comedy sound effects (no, really it does), and when played live usually includes a joke told by a member of the crowd. Residual traces of silliness seep out and into “The Complete Banker”, and the entirely without conceit “I Like”, in which Hannon seems hell-bent on disproving any suggestion of his value of a curator of fine lyrical constructions. It’s a mission he blows with the following couplet:

I like your car, you curse like a trooper
During a hard reversing manoeuvre

And one final lyrical treat to round off a day of such delights – one that puts a whole new spin on family outings to National Trust properties:

We’ll walk the grounds by Capability Brown
Get lost for days inside the manicured maze
We’ll bump our heads jumping on a four-post bed
And we’ll ride for free
On the ladders round the walls of the circular library

And that, as they say, is that. Another band, another day…

The Divine Comedy – Victory for the Comic Muse

The obvious reference point for the title is the long-forgotten début album Fanfare for the Comic Muse. The truth, as so often is the case with The Divine Comedy, is more ambiguous. Victory for the Comic Muse is also a line taken from “A Room With a View”, a favourite of Neil Hannon’s, the Merchant-Ivory film adaptation of which provided the audio sample at the start of Liberation. Hannon is too knowing to chalk these incidences up as merely coincidence, at the same time too smart to let on where the planning begins and the happenstance ends.

This comic muse starts off with a sound-clip from The Camomile Lawn, and the jaunty “To Die a Virgin”. It’s the first of three solid tracks at the start of the album, all of which barrel along nicely enough without quite ever hitting the heights, emotionally or musically. Perhaps by this stage Hannon is content to crank the handle from time to time, you might be forgiven for thinking. But then along comes “A Lady of a Certain Age”, to set the record straight, as it were. And in the telling of its tale – ‘chasing the sun around the Côte d’Azur until the light of youth becomes obscured’, an “English lady of a certain age” muses on the material comfort but emotional discomfort of the privileged set, the kids, the rich husband, the mistress, and the twilight years cadging drinks off nice young men. It’s a poignant tale, told beautifully.

“The Light of Day” and the piano curio “Threesome” round off a subdued first half of the album; the second half is where the action and excitement are to be found. A staccato cover of The Associates’ 1982 hit “Party Fears Two” is a triumph: Hannon can’t quite match Billy MacKenzie’s “hysterical banshee screeching”, but with strings replacing synths, the track holds together remarkably well.

The rest of the album is no less impressive. If you could have guessed from the titles in the first half that the songs might also be straightforward, then you could apply the same logic to the closing tracks. ‘Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World’, Count Grassi’s Passage over Piedmont’, Snowball in Negative’ all suggest adventure, intrigue, mystery; the last two also feature lovely piano parts and textural shifts. Only “The Plough” hides its suspense and drama behind a hum-drum title, though in truth it’s as fabulous a tale as ever Hannon has writ, played to a marching beat whose discipline is halted and rejected in the hero’s chorus line: “I’ll plough my own furrow; I’ll go my own way”.

Overall, Victory for the Comic Muse tries to play it a bit safe, and suffers as a result, but if Neil Hannon can still come up with songs as good as “A Lady of a Certain Age” and “The Plough”, there might be life in the old horse yet.

The Divine Comedy – Absent Friends

After Regeneration sadly, mystifyingly failed to have the intended impact, Neil Hannon broke up the band, toured with Ben Folds (the two performing extra-special covers of classics such as “Careless Whisper” to great acclaim), before returning to the studio to record what is largely a solo album with occasional contributors – including long-term regular Joby Talbot – albeit an album still under the Divine Comedy name.

If Regeneration was a departure from Fin de Siècle, then Absent Friends is at least the same relative to Regeneration. Drawing back from the seriousness and rock stylings of that album, it re-introduces the funny, charming side of Neil Hannon’s writing, covering happy goths, imaginary friends, charmed lives, and the madcap-dash to the airport world of the international business traveller.

Overall, it’s the sound of a free and happy man (happy he and happy he alone…), retaining the simple melodic approach of Regeneration but bringing back some of the early Divine Comedy fun from Casanova, Promenade, and Liberation. It all sounds very relaxed, “Sticks and Stones” moves with ease and grace that belies the pain within: “Sticks and stones may break my body but words can tear me apart”. “My Imaginary Friend”, meanwhile, finds time to include quirky distorted vocal interludes, and ‘Laika’s Theme’ is in no hurry to complete its space-chorus orbit.

“Come Home Billy Bird” is the closest the album comes to previous hits, musically at least, while on an album not so long on individual lyrical bite, both “Our Mutual Friend” and “The Happy Goth” more than compensate, the former with a Tales of the Unexpected pay-off, the latter with the oft-felt, seldom understood appreciation of the difference between sad songs and sadness.

Overall, Absent Friends is not quite up there with the very best of Neil Hannon’s albums (look, that bar is pretty high up there – can you even see it?) but it’s a fine recovery from the aftermath of Regeneration.

The Divine Comedy – Regeneration

Maybe if just the music had changed…

After Fin de Siècle, The Divine Comedy moved from Setanta, their label home for five albums, and joined Parlophone. For Regeneration they dispensed with the services of The Brunel Ensemble, and Nigel Godrich was brought in to produce what was a very different sounding album.

After the post-Britpop, still largely orchestra-led Fin de Siecle, Regeneration marks a new chapter in The Divine Comedy’s discography. While strings still feature, they’re very much an accompaniment to the band, rather than on equal terms, or the main attraction. Godrich brings his gently pulsating electronic box of tricks to proceedings, adding in a calm sensory lake here and there while giving the songs, simple though they are at times, room to breathe.

Maybe if just the attitude and persona had changed…

With a somewhat stripped down sound, more electric and electronic than before, on Regeneration, without a string or woodwind army to fight Neil Hannon allows himself to play the vocals straight, letting long notes linger without once straining to be the centre of attention, generating an aura of humility and vulnerability where once was chutzpah. Aside from opening track “Timestretched”, with its callback to “Timewatching”, almost the whole album feels different. It’s a work lived mostly through uncertainty and doubt – at times you feel a question mark could be added to its title.

The result is a stunning collection of some of his finest lyrics, wrapped in some of his finest, yet simplest, songs. And yet – somehow – the three singles from the album (“Love What You Do”, “Bad Ambassador”, “Perfect Lovesong”) failed to score a top 20 hit between them, each stumbling to a lower chart position than its predecessor. The album reached 14, far better than Casanova had achieved, but a disappointment no doubt after Fin de Siècle and A Secret History, which hit nine and three respectively.

Maybe it’s just the absence of an obvious hit single for the masses – ”where’s this albums “National Express” or “Something for the Weekend”?” you can hear them asking – that’s to blame and nothing more. “Bad Ambassador” auditions for the role, but with Hannon delivering lines like “I’m not the Pope and I don’t want to be The Archbishop of Canterbury” it’s a good deal darker and less knockabout than those hits.

Lyrically, Regeneration is so stacked with gems that it’s almost impossible to pick a highlights reel: “Note to Self”, with its growing list of restated assumptions; the list of “rare and precious things” cited in “Lost Property”; the internal turmoil of “Eye of the Needle”:

The cars in the churchyard are shiny and German
Completely at odds with the theme of the sermon
And all through communion I stare at the people
Squeezing themselves through the eye of the needle

The high-water mark is to be found at the end, in “The Beauty Regime”. The song is stately, the lyric at once despairing, caustic, but ultimately optimistic:

Don’t let them sell you impossible dreams
Don’t be a slave to the beauty regime
Look again in the mirror and see
Exactly how perfect you are

How do you follow that, other than to pause for applause, and move on to the next album?

The Divine Comedy – Fin de Siècle

Fin de Siecle was the last album The Divine Comedy recorded for Setanta; its title is almost too perfect. There’s a definite sense throughout that this thing, in its present form, has gone about as far as it can. If the line between genius and insanity is sometimes invisible to the naked eye, so to must be the clear glass of the two-way mirror between apotheosis and self-parody – a point proved, you might feel, by this very sentence.

Fin de Siècle is an album (cliche ahoy) of two halves – on the one hand you get the knockabout singalong anthems propelled along on Northern Soul-style rhythms, on the other the weightiness = the rare heft – of tracks like “Sweden” and “Thrillseeker”.

It starts – as almost no good album has ever done – with a sound-bite from Katie Puckrik, and launches straight into “Generation Sex”, honing in on the paparazzi in the gutter with laser-guided accuracy, before taking a moment to point out a home truth:

A mourning nation weeps and wails
But keeps the sales of evil tabloids healthy
The poor protect the wealthy in this world

The natural bedfellow of “Generation Sex” here is the wonderful and comical “National Express”. For those looking for a good time these two are worth the price of admission alone, but elsewhere fun is thinner on the ground. Instead, the mood is generally darker than on previous Divine Comedy albums. “Sweden” might just be the most brilliantly conceived bombast, crashing cymbals and a closing list of that nation’s great and good – “Ingmar Bergman, Henrik Ibsen, Karin Larsson, Nina Persson” – but there’s definitely something lurking under the repetition of the song’s title through the song. Two lengthy tracks – “Eric the Gardener” and “The Certainty of Chance” (both co-written by Hannon and Joby Talbot) – hint at a calmer future, but elsewhere there’s fatalism, doom: “Thrillseeker” drops one-liners a-plenty, but they’re coming out of the villain’s mouth – more “No, Mr Bond – I expect you to die” than “Just keeping the British end up”; “This life owes nobody happiness – only pain and sorrow” sings Hannon on “Life on Earth”; “You’ll know the end is nigh. We’re gonna die!!” concludes “Here Comes the Flood”.

Fin de Siècle, fin de la vie, fin de tout?

Not quite – the album closes with “Sunrise”, and its beautiful beacon of hope and redemption:

From the corner of my eye
A hint of blue in the black sky
A ray of hope, a beam of light
An end to thirty years of night
The church bells ring, the children sing
What is this strange and beautiful thing?
It’s the sunrise
Can you see the sunrise?
I can see the sunrise
It’s the sun rising

A label-departure Best-of aside, it would be two and a half years and several hundred sunrises before The Divine Comedy would return. When they did, it would be as a quite different-sounding entity…

The Divine Comedy – A Short Album About Love

What to do after the success of Casanova… not so much the success of the album itself, which didn’t quite make the Top 40, so much as the success of singles like “Something for the Weekend”, “The Frog Princess”, and “Becoming More Like Alfie” – three top 30 singles, two of them top 20 – top 15 even.

Why, record a live mini-album with a full orchestra, of course, the recording to take place at a sound-check before a gig at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Well, what else? I’ve mentioned before that the “plus orchestra” album is not always looked upon favourably by critics, and seen as the move of the desperate, the contractual obligation effort, or the album that comes after the well of inspiration runs dry. “A Short Album of Love” feels so much like a perfect progression, and was carried with such a feeling of fun and enjoyment that you’d have to be particularly churlish to apply any of those to it.

Apart from a rerun of “Timewatching”, which first appeared on “Liberation”, it contains entirely new material, beautifully performed by Neil Hannon, the band, and The Brunel Ensemble, and was timed for release, appropriately enough, just before Valentine’s Day, 1997.

It opens with the dramatic “In Pursuit of Happiness”, the middle section of which later became better known after it was re-purposed as the theme music for BBC’s friendly science programme Tomorrow’s World. The exuberance of the track is best summed up by its listing on one lyric site. The first verse ends with:

And if it’s all right I’d kind
Of like to be your lover
Cause when you’re with me I can’t help but be
So desperately
Uncontrollably happy!

I don’t know if that exclamation is included in the official lyric sheet, but it seems quite entirely apposite, and sets the tone for much of what follows. If it’s excessive, it’s all done with a sincerity that carries the day. The nudge and wink of Casanova is largely absent, replaced with disarming charm. “If you were a tree I could carve my name into your side” he sings, in “If…” before the early-to-mid Divine Comedy era horsey imagery takes over – “If you were a horse I could ride you through the fields at dawn”. There are more horses in ‘I’m All You Need’ – along with frogs, and dogs, and a chorus punctuated by stabs of brass – and even if it’s not all cleaning crap out of stables without complaining, even in the more melancholy moments – ‘If I Were You (I’d Be Through With Me) with its country-esque title but typically Divine Comedy-esque melody, and the re-recorded “Timestretched” – there’s the warmth of a comforting arm around the shoulder from start to finish.

The Divine Comedy – Casanova

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.

The Divine Comedy – Promenade

Just in case Liberation was a bit too easily-digestible, not quite soaked enough in literary reference, art or artifice, for its follow-up Neil Hannon pulls out all the stops. On Promenade he casts aside, for the most part, the easy and the obvious, the pop and the rock. He replaces it with strings upon strings, distinctly un-pop, un-rock constructions, building big bold arches over a concept album about a pair of lovers enjoying a seaside trip. Their grand day out is soundtracked by the unashamedly baroque, the knowing, the smart, the literary arrangements.

After quoting lines from “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past”, Promenade opens with the alarming and amusing line “Rub-a-dub-dub it’s time for a scrub”. It’s a perfect lyrical feint – a drop of the shoulder and a side-step later and we’re into “Going Downhill Fast”, the wind whistles past, natural beauty abounds, the piano barrels down the road with us while strings float like butterflies alongside. The freewheeling fun is brought to a halt by “The Booklovers”, a witty bookish version of A House’s “Endless Art”, with Hannon briefly caricaturing each author in the roll-call.

A toast is raised during “A Seafood Song”, and another list: this time a fishy list. Later, more toasting, during the raucous “A Drinking Song”:

We’re drinking to life
We’re drinking to death
We’re drinking ‘til none of our livers are left

In the same song, Latin mixes with French mixes with hedonism and what I imagine to be the only use of the word “chanticleer” in modern pop.

Typical British weather informs the narrative when the lovers get caught in the rain. In some ways “Geronimo” harks back to “Going Downhill Fast”, but that song’s seemingly endless summer daze is gone, replaced by that wet stuff we do so well, leaving the pair soaked but invigorated:

What began a drizzle
Has now become torrential,
And doesn’t look like coming to an end.

Elsewhere, childhood memories and French cinema are explored, and at the end, the most exquisite portrayal of pure love and happiness. Our pair flies as their hearts beat together, seeing others as only the smitten can:

Looking into all your lives
And wondering why
Happiness is so hard to find

Where Liberation flirted with the concept of baroque pop, mixing it with more obviously straightforward themes, Promenade is laudably singular in its dedication to the form. Barely a song passes without a daring moment – even “When The Lights Go Out All Over Europe” includes tendencies towards operatic grandeur, and “The Summerhouse” is four otherwise conventional indie-pop minutes with a cor anglais solo snuck in for good measure. Only at the very end, with the life-affirming “Tonight We Fly” does Hannon present us with something we might consider ordinary, and yet in truth it may well be the most remarkable song on the album. Just when you think you’ve got the measure of him, Hannon moves another step ahead…

The Divine Comedy – Liberation

“An ordinary day, down old festive road” begins The Divine Comedy’s second album (or first if you discount outlier album Fanfare for the Comic Muse), with Neil Hannon’s now customary literary wit and appreciation. Inside ten minutes, and you’ve already been presented with Mr Benn and his magical shopkeeper friend, dialogue from A Room With a View, and a track constructed around an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. Later: hayfever-based fun, slinky synthy Europop, Wordsworth, Chekhov, and a reworking of “When I Fall in Love”.

If any or all of the above sounds heavy-going, fear not – on Liberation, Neil Hannon shows ample lightness of touch and the lyrical and musical dexterity to keep the music floating lithely as a cloud. Having disbanded The Divine Comedy after the 1990 album Fanfare for the Comic Muse, here Hannon retains only Darren Allison from that album’s lineup. Allison, who had engineered albums for Jesus Jones and My Bloody Valentine since Fanfare…, provides percussion while Hannon plays almost every other role on the album: harpsichord, organ, guitar, vocals, lyrics…

Musically, what’s on offer could be casually labelled as “baroque pop”; the truth is not so straightforward. There is much to admire beyond the harpsichord and french horn, and the middle stretch of the album flies far away from anything you might imagine from the term. “Europop” throws a curveball with its plinky opening, before turning disco-slinky and new-wave, Neil Hannon inhabiting that louche persona that he works so well; “Timewatching” is rich cello reminiscent of Nick Drake’s “Way to Blue”, set to Hannon’s fatalistic two-letter reworking of an old standard:

When I fall in love
It will be forever
So I’ll never fall in love again

After these two Liberation breaks out into the brazen pop singalong, click-along, that is “The Pop Singers Fear of the Pollen Count”, before settling down into its closing stanza. Even here, quiet moments of loveliness are tucked away, waiting to be revealed: the harmonies and gentle wave of the chorus in “Queen of the South” (seemingly not a song about a football team); the unfurling of the instrumental “Europe by Train”; the soft fuzz of the guitars in the Wordsworth-inspired “Lucy”.

Not that the baroque moments aren’t also worth savouring. ‘Your Daddy’s Car’ is a jittery delight, the dancing harpsichord and Hannon’s jaunty delivery masking the hollow reign of the bright young things:

Can you feel the sadness in our lives?
Well it’s the only kind we’re worthy of.
Can you feel the madness in our hearts,
as the key turns and the engine starts?

Similarly, “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” sets the tale of Fitzgerald’s cruelly tricked character to a bouncy, swinging sixties rhythm complete with ‘baa ba-ba-ba baa’s, and “Festive Road” is exactly as much fun as a song about Mr Benn ought to be: a playful melody with a melancholy heart.

It’s not perfect – at 51 minutes Liberation feels longer than it ought, but as a declaration of future intent its task of sweeping Fanfare for the Comic Muse away to make room for the real Divine Comedy is neatly, wittily, wryly accomplished.