Long before the rosy cheeked Keane, nicely spoken Coldplay and Lily Allen were lambasted for daring to be middle class, Neil Hannon was the hate figure du jour of the tackier music publications. Such people never got – and still don’t get – Hannon, a son of a bishop (dear Lord!) with a passing penchant for the pretentious, poncy and piffling.
Well, that’s fine. Let them eat their burnt, regurgitated breadcrumbs of AOR. Anyone with an appetite for something beyond the crushingly ordinary can feast instead on the gourmet that is The Divine Comedy‘s brazenly titled bourgeois tour de force, Victory For The Comic Muse.
The diminuitive son of a preacher man’s ninth record came about almost by accident. He’d submitted songs to be considered for soundtracks, written some more for other artists – notably Jane Birkin and Charlotte Gainsbourg – and found himself, as if by magic, with nearly 30 songs waiting to be heard. It was time for a new recording.
Eschewing the claustrophobic production of Regeneration producer Nigel Godrich and choosing instead to produce the record himself, Hannon gathered together 28 musicians at London’s venerable RAK studios for a 10-day romp through as much new material as he could cram in to the sessions, leaving little time for overthinking – a weakness of 2004’s Absent Friends. The result, described by mixer and recording engineer Guy Massey as “fooking hard work, but in a good way,” is The Divine Comedy’s most spontaneous record in ages.
Victory For The Comic Muse, its title derived from a line by Cecil Vyse in EM Forster’s A Room With A View, for the most part flaps joyously about, giggling bashfully in that Edwardian world inhabited by Forster, Waugh and the rest of the Bloomsbury Group that Hannon clearly wishes he’d been part of. But no less a luminary than the rather punkier Patti Smith has of late been drawing inspiration from this set of moneyed eccentrics from a time gone by, so he’s certainly in good company.
Turning from his personal circumstance of domestic bliss, a commendable yet rather dull-to-the-ear theme that ran through Absent Friends, Hannon here indulges in imaginative storytelling and fictional character studies. Such areas have, since the concept album Promenade, been amongst the reasons why his fans have remained so loyal down the years – very few people write songs like these anything like as well as he does.
In so many ways the standout track is one such character study. A Lady Of A Certain Age is a devastatingly beautiful song dripping in as much class as its central figure, an ageing demi-monde Med setter, drips in pearls. It’s arguably the best song Hannon has ever penned, fusing Nymanesque string phrases and a rare focus on lyrical storytelling.
For potential hits though it’s hard to look past confident opener To Die A Virgin. Beginning with a sample from the TV series of Mary Wesley’s The Camomile Lawn, a touching tale of aristos flouncing like divas in the ’30s, it’s a riotous return to the Casanova-era Hannon of 10 years past, a romp of brass parps, arched strings and, through it all, that rich baritone so often compared with that of his hero Scott Walker. With oodles of reverb adding to the atmospherics, his voice has rarely sounded better.
The lead single, Diva Lady, isn’t really in the same league. It revisits the plastic people who gurn and pout, last lambasted by Hannon on Generation Sex. He claims to have written the song after glancing over his wife’s shoulder at a gossip rag. With its tales of entourages and egos needing to be massaged, it should see The Divine Comedy back in to the top 40.
From a glance at a magazine to constructing a character to tear down, Hannon’s imaginitative extrapolation is in part what makes this album so memorable. Scaling the heights of pretention with unapologetic glee, Count Grassi’s Passage Across Piedmont wants to be the soundtrack to a balloon flight from the 1880s. It was inspired from a painting and, all told, is really a great excuse to get lots of fancy words into a song. Credit is due for rhyming “muscadet” with “throw it away”.
And it seems that having a hit again matters to him. A jaunty cover of The Associates‘ Party Fears Two steals the rhythm section of Hannon’s first hit Something For The Weekend and marries it to an orchestral arrangement that’s not a million miles from a Carry On soundtrack out-take. It’s the first cover ever to appear on a Divine Comedy album and was originally to be part of a covers project – but on balance it’s not really necessary here.
He also finds space for the petite Threesome, played by three people on piano, and the instrumental experiment that is Snowball In Negative. There’s an epic expedition for spiritual salvation in The Plough and textbook melancholia in The Light Of Day, a lovely, phones-in-the-air singalong that’s nearly the equal of Casanova’s Songs Of Love yet features many of the same instruments as fan favourite The Summerhouse, from Promenade. Mother Dear introduces a countrified, banjo-led arrangement into the mix for a dutiful tribute to – you guessed it – his mother that’s just the right side of cloyingly sweet.
Yes, it’s contrived, yes it’s mannered, but by Jiminy Victory For The Comic Muse packs a glorious, devil-may-care punch of single-mindedness from a composer, lyricist and performer seemingly at ease in his skin at last. The patron saint of dandies has unveiled his best work of the naughties by a country mile.