It all seemed to go slightly awry when Neil Hannon disbanded The Divine Comedy, switched from indie label Setanta to the mighty Parlophone and enlisted Nigel Godrich to mix his last album, Regeneration. It wasn’t that it was bad – there were lovely moments. But it wasn’t the euphoric genius we’d come to expect from the Irishman with the golden voice and the way with words, and the classically-trained Joby Talbot serving up luscious orchestrations.
Three years on and here’s the next album from the new regime. Neil Hannon no longer has a permanent band but Joby has been persuaded back to add his magic, and there are contributions from Yann Tiersen (guest accordion) returning the favour of Neil guesting on L’Absente, and Lauren Laverne providing vocals on the first single, Come Home Billy Bird.
The cover gives us a clue that we may be back in familiar Hannon territory. Gone is the long floppy hair and back is the natty dresser. So far so good. Nigel Godrich is mixing but production credits go to… Neil Hannon. And what comes out of the speakers is Neil Hannon in wonderful voice, with a collection of songs that owe far more to Liberation and Promenade than they do to Regeneration, with an occasional nod to Casanova.
There’s also a big sprinkling of references (it was always thus), but this time they are lyrics from classic songs instead of purely literary ones. “Breaking up was so very hard to do,” in the pleasant, meandering Charmed Life is the first of many.
Sticks And Stones is the standout track. It’s got great rhythm (Yann Tiersen providing the backbone), echoes of Frog Princess, terrific lyrics, quirky intervals, and Hannon’s voice in full flow. When you think it’s just about over it builds into a lush orchestral interlude that sweeps you away.
Leaving Today reflects Hannon’s new (-ish) responsibilities as a husband and father – a bit schmaltzy but very gentle and sweet. Come Home Billy Bird won’t go down in history as a Divine Comedy stomper but Gin Soaked Boy it ain’t. My Imaginary Friend is another grower – we’re back in Bernice territory here – with childhood preoccupations and a nicely daft chorus.
The Wreck Of The Beautiful is curious – the Eric The Gardener of the album. Very sombre, with simple acoustic guitar and sinister half-tones on synth, it is about The Beautiful (“the flagship of our Navy”) going to the breaker’s yard. There may not be much of a tune, but I still found it going round and round in my head.
Our Mutual Friend is another great track, and one that repays careful listening. The Michael Nyman-esque pulsing rhythms are the anchor for a tale of ordinary life. The banality of the lyrics is wonderfully contrasted by the grandeur of the music, with a brilliant crescendo at the denouement. Lovely. It leads into The Happy Goth, a delightful Hannon song in his classic teenage angst tradition ( “She wears Dr Martens and a heavy cross / But on the inside she’s a happy goth.”), but for once the teenager has got it sorted and the parents are the lost souls.
Freedom Road is an oddity, a simple Shaker-style ballad with Western overtones, plus strings, and Laika’s Theme an instrumental with some delicious shimmery synths but not much definition.
And the title track? I honestly don’t know what to make of it. I can cope with the Western style (is that the theme from High Chaparral?) and the screen heroes theme (though what Oscar Wilde is doing in their company I don’t know). The orchestrations are lovely, there’s superb trumpet fighting for space, but I haven’t a clue what it’s all about. Maybe it doesn’t matter.
The final impression is that Neil Hannon is back as a force to be reckoned with. The themes have changed with his new lifestyle but the mixture of humour and pathos is there, waiting to be poured into gorgeous songs that lodge in your brain. Joby’s orchestration is as lush as anything on Fin de Siecle. Some of the tracks on Absent Friends aren’t as immediate as those on, say, Promenade; they lack that absolute simplicity, that rightness, and Hannon is probably correct when he said long ago that he could never write those songs today. Luckily for us, the grown-up version is pretty good too.