From the hushed tones of opener Timestretched to the plodding finale The Beauty Regime, Regeneration seems to go out of its way to leave past jauntiness behind. There is, not entirely sadly, nothing here about coaches, woodsheds or Michael Caine characters. But we knew that long ago Neil Hannon had opted to shed the pretence and “be himself”, supposing he could remember who that was. We also knew that some changes would be necessary to keep the vision. Regeneration was eagerly awaited.
Musically, this album is not that much of a change of direction for The Divine Comedy, for the songs are every bit as glorious as their predecessors; and this is not really surprising, for the line-up is the same, with Hannon still accounting for all the songwriting credits.
But in the main, the arrangements and instrumentation are simpler and rather more stripped down than anything that went before. As Hannon acknowledged, the last studio album, Fin de Siécle, featured over 100 musicians – things were getting ridiculous. Yet despite the back-to-basics approach, Regeneration is still easily recognised as a product of the same band, albeit with the addition of producer Nigel Godrich.
The notable changes to The Divine Comedy are many and varied but have rather more to do with marketing and subjects with which to make up column inches. There was Hannon’s marriage to Orla Little, the addition of Godrich, new label Parlophone, no picture of Neil on the cover of the new singles and album, the album being named after one of the songs; and new scruffy attire and hair length which, when combined, make Hannon look at least 10 years younger than when he was stuffed into a suit.
So what does it all add up to? Well, there are real moments on Regeneration, already suffering comparisons with labelmates Radiohead, also produced by Godrich. But there is also a smattering of music-by-numbers and, considering Hannon’s talent, this is all the more annoying. Perfect Lovesong even mentions The Beatles and The Beach Boys and sounds like Billy Joel‘s Uptown Girl getting into bed with The Beatles’ The Fool On The Hill.
That said, the good moments just about win the day, for there are many of them. Lost Property is simply beautiful, with fragile Thom Yorke-esque vocals melding well with a rhythm section which sounds like it has been paying close attention to Air‘s Premiers Symptomes, while Joby Talbot’s piano emphasises the classy chord sequence. Eye Of The Needle lyrically retreads old ground about religion and secularism yet musically offers a quite stunning melody and many recognisable Godrich-induced effects which would sound at home on Radiohead’s Kid A.
Mastermind is musically the definition of lovely, with baritone humming in the background towards the end which can’t fail to engender feelings of goodwill. Note To Self, although polished to perfection, is the edgiest thing Hannon has recorded and is the perfect antidote to Perfect Lovesong, which it immediately follows.
Hannon recently remarked that all his previous singles sounded like they had been one hit wonders, even if there were eight or nine of them. Regeneration has much more depth and is clearly rooted far more in the writer’s experiences than anything that went before, such as the set-piece concept of Promenade or the wry, detached observation which characterised Fin de Siécle.
Yet without set pieces and observations, Hannon’s lyrics show him up to be simply a damned good songwriter and musician with a first-rate voice. The lyrics say little more than he is happy with his lot. Perhaps, then, what Regeneration adds up to and what makes it rather special is its ability to marry stripped-down beats and arrangements which suggest angst, with lyrics which are overwhelmingly positive. Whatever minor criticism may be made, he gets away with it. If it was this effect Hannon was after, he has achieved it with some aplomb.