It’s been a strange sort of year. The world has seemed in a constant state of flux, cultural heroes are dead and buried and a huge aura of uncertainty hangs over, not just the country, but the whole world. It’s all a bit scary. Which is why a new Divine Comedy album is such a comfort.
For Neil Hannon doesn’t deal in surprises or uncertainties. There are certain things you expect from a Divine Comedy album, some quarter century in to his illustrious career – self-deprecating love songs and a few historical references, all sprinkled with a huge dose of whimsy. It may be six years since we last heard from Hannon – in his Divine Comedy guise at least – on the excellent Bang Goes The Knighthood, but only a couple of notes into opening track Napoleon Complex, it feels like slipping on an old pair of comfortable slippers.
The lead single Catherine The Great is, in its way, the perfect re-introduction to Hannon’s world – a flourish of strings, some beautifully arranged brass and lyrics full of wry humour about one of history’s most famous figures (references to her “great hair” and “powerful gait” plus a nod to that most famous myths about her – “she looked so bloody good on a horse”). The self-deprecating Napoleon Complex pokes fun at a man who “stands 5 foot 3 in Cuban heels” and who “gets all the girls… and then wakes up again” but Hannon is at his best when his arch-humour combines with heartfelt sincerity.
Foreverland is, rather like (most of) Bang Goes The Knighthood before it, an album about contentment. The beautifully orchestrated title track would be overtly slushy in anyone else’s hands, but Hannon’s conclusion that “everybody thinks it’s all lies until they can see foreverland” is so beautifully delivered that even the most cyncial heart would melt. Hannon’s partner (and long-time Divine Comedy collaborator) Cathy Davey also shows up for album highlight Funny Peculiar, a Cole Porter-style duet that stays just on the right side of cloying, while How Can You Leave Me On My Own is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny, as Hannon tells of being reduced to a “bad-smelling, couch-dwelling dickhead” who eats too many biscuits and looks at “too many naked ladies as I’m too weak to resist it” whenever Davey pops out for a few hours.
The lyrics never take a backseat to the melodies though – in fact, Foreverland may be Hannon’s most intricately crafted album to date. The lush arrangements of the gorgeous To The Rescue stand out, as do the dramatic flourishes of A Desperate Man or the brief Broadway-style interlude of Other People. Admittedly, a couple of the tracks fail to hit the mark as readily – I Joined The Foreign Legion (To Forget) may well be the quintessential Divine Comedy title, but the song itself – apparently inspired by Carry On Up The Khyber, yet sounding in its arrangement like an homage to John Barry – isn’t as memorable as some of the others on here, while The Pact, something of a list song, seems to float along without making too much of an impression.
Overall though, Foreverland is a blissful, heartfelt and often very funny paean to love and companionship. Some will no doubt dismiss it as too twee and theatrical for today’s musical landscape, but that is to misunderstand The Divine Comedy. Listening to this album, you’re transported for 50 minutes or so into a place more comforting, more welcoming and warmer. And, in this year above all years, we need Neil Hannon for that more than ever.