“Old forms equals new life?” New label, new direction, new pressures? Choosing a new direction is a hard and dangerous business. For reasons as varied as lack of courage, talent, ego and business concerns, there are few bands who follow their muse in a vacuum. Yet, how can anyone prove a band’s lack of concern for such matters, and does such contrivance matter if one likes the end result?
Arriving on stage, at 9 p.m. last night, it was clear that a new phase of The Divine Comedy was being revealed. Appearing in almost self-consciously casual clothes, they meant business, playing with a cohesiveness, vigour, and enthusiasm not seen since the Casanova tour, but the most marked change of all, was the absolute sincerity of the delivery, the complete absence of the self-possession expressed through the shy, playfully coquettish songs of old.
Opening with the guitar arpeggio based meander of “Timestretched”, which Neil sang in an effectively languid, soporific, helpless voice, the band performed all eleven songs off the new album, as well as 6 old songs, three of which came from Fin de Siecle, which unfortunately did as much to highlight the bands’ strengths as it did their weaknesses.
Musically, there is a lot to love about the new songs. Though few are immediately satisfying, they may be characterised by clever and often elegant arrangements, with layers of intertwining melody building to good effect. Instruments uncommon to the mainstream appear including glockenspiel, trombone, recorder and church organ and are particularly effective on Lost Property, Eye of the Needle, The Beauty Regime and the new, if not immediately catchy single Love What You Do. Analogue electronica has also been added, and is all the more effective for its spare usage, with Joby and Pinkie hidden behind a stack of equipment, looking every inch the mad, and frequently hugging scientists.
Having said that however, there is a reliance on guitar, bass and drums at the core of the songs, around which arrangements occasionally felt tacked on. In fact, the reliance on the “traditional” guitar band instruments made some songs sound self-consciously “indie”, like the syntactic blunders of a non-native speaker. While Regeneration carries an effective guitar solo climax and Bad Ambadassor gets by on a decent sing-along chorus, “Note to Self” sounds particularly unconvincing in it’s “What the f— is happening” final verse, despite it’s graceful bass line. Elsewhere, the vocal pause at Mastermind’s climactic word “free” is appallingly contrived and just doesn’t work, and Dumb It Down is mired by a dull repetitive melody which no arrangement could lift. This unhappy nadir should surely have relegated to a b-side, especially since its melody is unfortunately not its worst offence.
There is one moment of immediately identifiable loveliness, Perfect Lovesong a Beatles/Beach Boys pastiche, but none the worse for that. However, its middle eight is simply undercooked, and is crying out for vocal harmonies that weedy recorders simply cannot provide.
Clever arrangements aside, there is little-to-no originality in the music, but there is some amount of beauty, Lost Property’s ghostly backing vocals against gentle piano, Eye of the Needle’s organ, but the biggest let-down of all of the new songs are the lyrics, or rather the subject matter.
While Neil Hannon’s lyrics have hitherto been characterised by a wry wit and a sensitivity to the sound of the words themselves they didn’t reveal anything about himself. Now It seems the he wishes to be more honest and open, to bare a little more of his soul, but if one’s going to dig around one’s psyche, one had better not prevaricate, and on the evidence of these songs there may be a few too many lyrical cop-outs regardless of how frequently pleasing the music is.
Simply put, he’s taken on topics that are just too big for his lyrical bite. He gets away with this on Timestretched (his experiences as a “celebrity”, a theme echoed in lines elsewhere), Lost Property (how much value and self-worth we invest in things), Bad Ambassador (the lure of pop star dissipation) and most successfully on Eye of the Needle (dichotomy between spiritual yearning and material comfort), but there are any number of albums and songs where these themes are dealt with far better – Pulp‘s This is Hardcore album, most of Radiohead‘s OK Computer, Elvis Costello‘s The Other Side of Summer or Poor Fractured Atlas and parts of REM‘s Up spring to mind.
However, it is when he moves from the particular to the general, as on Regeneration, The Beauty Regime, Love What You Do, Mastermind and Dumb it down that he more than once falls into sub sixth-form poetry, e.g. “Beauty is not the same thing as youth” (Mastermind). This plumbs the furthest depths in the utterly vile Dumb it Down with lyrics of such devastating banality as “You’ve got a personality/We’ll throw you in the sea and watch you drown/Dumb it down” and “everything is mindless fluff/Like this world’s not dumb enough”. It is not fit to lick the boots of Subterranean Homesick Alien, its so obvious touchstone.
Little of this seems to matter to the capacity crowd, who greet the new songs more than warmly, and with considerable attention. They also get stuck into the older songs with much enthusiasm, turning an acoustic National Express and semi-unplugged Becoming More Like Alfie (just Ivor accompanying Neil) into feel-good sing-alongs.
However, leaving the gig, one can’t help feel that the Divine Comedy’s art may have been in their artifice. Whether this new-found but flawed openness, despite the large amount of loveliness it has to offer, will attract the attention of the Coldplay kiddies is very much open to debate.