In advance of his ninth album Victory For The Comic Muse, Neil Hannon is touring the latest incarnation of the ever-changing live beast that is The Divine Comedy around Europe to road-test some new songs and remember how to play some old ones. Tonight was the turn of the Leadmill.
“Sheffield. Sex City,” drawled the sparrow-like wag centre-stage, quoting his mid-90s fey fop pop competitors, Pulp. Local lads round the steelworks, so they were. “Where is Jarv? Do you miss him? I do. He’s gone to Paris! What’s that about?”
But while Jarvis busies himself with Kid Loco, hippy hairstyles and Serge Gainsbourg homage across La Mer, Neil is here and wants to know what we think of his new song A Lady With A Certain Age. What he thinks of it is clear. “I hope we do it justice,” he warns his band in between supping his never-ending supply of Guinness pints. Of eyebrow-arching note is the indisputable fact that he’s just a wee bit tipsy. “I’ve had far too many pints today,” he enunciates.
The band do the six minute tribute to an upper-class English lady with panache. The lyrics are heart-wrenching, even if we’re left to wonder if the Lady in question is entirely a construct of Hannon’s mind rather than somebody observed. It’s a beautiful, mournful, perfect song whatever, and is met with attentiveness, then extended applause.
Not all the new songs take themselves so seriously. Set opener To Die A Virgin is a Casanova-era romp, full of brass parps and theatrical, OTT excess. At least it would’ve been had the eight-piece band included a brass section rather than synth simulations. Come on Neil, even Guillemots can afford a couple of brass players these days. What’s going on?
The countrified jaunt of Mother Dear, a sweet tribute to his mother, also goes down well. The new album’s only cover, The Associates‘ Party Fears Two, has that Scott Walker-meets-military-parade rhythm evident on Tonight We Fly and Something For The Weekend. It’s been reworked as a Divine Comedy standard: “This is the point of the evening when I get bored of singing my own songs,” wags Neil, before launching into it.
Of the older material it’s the uptempo stuff that dusts itself down best. Becoming More Like Alfie, main set closer Tonight We Fly, encore Something For The Weekend and especially Charge! are all enthusiastically greeted. Less successful are the grandly orchestral numbers Our Mutual Friend and If…, both of which lacked a certain bite even if Neil all but acted out the story of the former, collapsing in a drunken heap like his hero of the song mid-way through.
There was at least one song from every album. From Regeneration a mind-numbingly slow Eye Of The Needle was the set’s low point, while Fanfare For The Comic Muse – “I’m reclaiming my past” – was surprisingly mined for a forgettable rendition of Secret Garden.
Once the new album is out and the faithful have learned the words perhaps the audience might look a little less static. As it was, Neil seemed happy relying on 10-year-old standards rather than demonstrating the potency of his latest material, and his audience – certainly not milk-toothed – seemed to agree. By the summer, one assumes, the whole album will be aired in a live setting. For now, this was a tantalising taster rather than a Divine Comedy main course.