Let’s get the answer to the burning question out of the way first: yes, it does include My Lovely Horse. Nothing if not comprehensive, this celebration of Neil Hannon’s 30 year career as The Divine Comedy spans 24 discs and over 22 hours, and almost half of its 375 tracks have never previously been released. Included are the 11 canonical albums from Liberation (1993) through to Office Politics (2019), nine of which have been remastered for this collection, plus a full complement of B sides, demos, live versions, alternate takes and so on – and the Father Ted stuff.
Epic boxsets like this luxuriously slipcased piece of work sometimes feel unnecessary or over-indulgent, but it’s hard to argue against the value of taking the time to reflect on Hannon’s oeuvre: he’s a supremely talented songwriter who has reached a point in his career where there’s an awful lot to take in. Moreover, we haven’t had an opportunity to look back on the work of The Divine Comedy since the greatest hits collection A Secret History (1999). Admittedly Hannon has had fewer certifiable hits since then, so another greatest hits album wouldn’t really be apposite – but the quality of his twenty-first century work is arguably higher. Absent Friends (2004) is particularly well worth revisiting, unlike anything else released that year, it still shines. And the Nigel Godrich-produced Regeneration (2001), not quite like anything else released by The Divine Comedy, has aged beautifully.
But it’s the pair of discs entitled Juveneilia (read that word carefully, it’s easy to miss the pun) that really makes the boxset something special. “Most of this collection is absolutely terrible,” Hannon opines in the liner notes, and sure, many of the tracks included fall well short of the standard of the Hannon canon, but they make for a fascinating listen not just for fans of The Divine Comedy, but for anyone interested in the early evolution of a songwriter.
Juveneilia includes the album Fanfare for the Comic Muse (1990), until now disowned by Hannon, and the two EPs Timewatch (1991) and Europop (1992), the latter produced by Edwyn Collins. These unspectacular jangle pop records might feel out of place alongside Hannon’s later chamber pop, but they are shallow cuts indeed compared to the earlier tracks included. These begin rather extraordinarily with a 1983 recording of the young Neil Hannon as a choirboy singing in St Macartin’s Cathedral, Enniskillen but also feature an album’s worth of teenage bedroom tapes and early band recordings that predate the establishment of The Divine Comedy.
From Juveneilia onwards it’s possible to track Hannon’s influences from U2 through Nik Kershaw to Scott Walker and beyond. He becomes a more assured and confident songwriter, of course, but also a more experimental one. In the liner notes to Casanova (1996) he describes his increased knowledge of production and arrangement as “both a blessing and a curse. Making it easier to bring the sounds I hear in my head to fruition, whilst making those happy accidents born of ignorance much less likely. I have to keep moving the goalposts”.
Thus Office Politics, The Divine Comedy’s most recent album, includes some pretty outré songs: a catalogue of the names of synthesisers read over dissonant analogue beats, and a set variations on the theme tune for an imagined sitcom in which Philip Glass and Steve Reich run a furniture removal company. These provocations are a far cry from the Fin de Siècle (1998) singles National Express and Generation Sex, but a common thread and the same spirit runs through all of these witty vignettes.
So just what is it that makes The Divine Comedy such a compelling act, Neil Hannon so vital a musician and Venus, Cupid, Folly & Time such an outstanding collection? Firstly, there’s Hannon’s technical excellence as a songwriter and the complexity that can be found in his unexpected chord progressions and song structures. The arrangements, for which his longstanding collaborator Joby Talbot deserves much credit, enhance the songs further. Then there are the off-beat subjects and themes – Hannon describes them as falling into two brackets, ‘romantic wishful thinking and socio-political preaching’, but within those broad categories he tells myriad tales, and he has the wit and panache to turn what’s often quite bizarre subject matter into fantastic songs.
And finally, there’s the fact that he isn’t afraid of big pop hooks and even a bit of cheese now and again. As this collection reminds us, Hannon has been through many phases and has penned a great diversity of songs. But it’s likely he’d be among the first to admit that at heart he has always been a pop singer, and therein may lie the key to his charm.