“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.