Gone are the hundred-piece orchestras, gone are the fellow bandmates and gone too some of the grandiose, overblown edge often associated with The Divine Comedy. But this is no bad thing as Neil Hannon treats the audience to new material, old favourites and various, carefully selected covers with an intimately personal touch probably not possible from the overcrowded live set-up of the past.
The loss of the rest of the band since 2001’s Regeneration (itself a reference to a more pared-down approach) is directly alluded to by the name of latest album Absent Friends, and it is the title track that opens tonight’s performance. Backed only by piano and cello, Hannon creates an intimacy between himself and the audience as he strums through old and new material, all imbued with the trademark melancholy, observational humour and dry wit that have come to characterise his work over the years.
Old favourites such as Becoming More Like Alfie and biggest hit to date Everybody Knows (Except You) are whisked through by Hannon with his rich, deep croon, with brief pauses for banter with the audience – “Why couldn’t he just tell her? Asshole!” he jokes after Everybody Knows. Indeed, humour forms a large part of Hannon’s charm as shown by his cover of Tom Lehrer‘s murderously macabre severed limb love song, I Hold Your Hand In Mine Dear and, following a pro-European political sketch, through his dedication of Generation Sex to the UK Independence Party, which he threatens to play extra slow, “just to piss them off.”
At one point the choice of the next song is placed in the hands of the audience, the lights go up as the hand-count for Moon River or National Express is made. However, the voting process goes as smoothly as a Zimbabwean election and the undecided hung parliament means he sings both cover and old favourite, along with a Hannon provoked sing-along chorus.
The wistful nostalgia of new track Leaving Today gently builds with the introduction of cello and brief interjections of piano combining to create a sorrowful, and to be honest, quite miserable tone which is thankfully broken by the humourous tale of disaffected youth that is The Happy Goth.
This is followed by the twee tale of lunches on the lawn that is The Summerhouse. At this point though the heartstrings start to feel a bit tired of being tugged by the constant stream of romantically sentimental, sad stories of unrequited love (Our Mutual Friend), the pitfalls of fame (Randy Newman‘s Lonely at the Top) and indulgent, if beautiful, introspection (Lucy). The clouds of self-conscious reflection and everyday longing that permeate the set at times, in spite of touches of eccentric Oscar Wilde style humour, make you feel like shouting at the stage to get Hannon to lighten up a bit.
The cloud lifts, however, as Hannon launches into the final leg of tonight’s performance with a cover of the Flaming Lips‘ Do You Realise?. His rousing, emotional rendition may lack the ecstatic euphoria of the original but this is replaced by a sweetly struck appeal to the hearts and minds of the audience. He follows this with Father Ted theme tune track, Songs of Love, bizarrely comical nursery rhyme, My Lovely Horse and new song Charmed Life, before ending the set with Tonight We Fly. The final words of which, ‘this life is the best we’ve ever had’, are some of the most upliftingly optimistic of the night and go towards earning Hannon a standing ovation.
The Divine Comedy indulge in a type of observational kitchen-sink melancholy that’s more triumphant than the Pet Shop Boys and more theatrical than Pulp. Whilst listening to Hannon’s bittersweet brand of fop pop forms an enjoyable ride through the full range of human emotions it has to be said that this extended set of over twenty songs sagged slightly in the middle, becoming emotionally tiring, but full credit to the Londonderry man for pulling it together at the end and giving the performance a much needed pick-me-up.
Let’s just hope Neil Hannon is still in touch with his ‘absent friends’ if he ever feels in need of a lift himself.