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?