Hannon’s half century: the wit and wisdom of The Divine Comedy

“The Divine Comedy. It’s a fantastic record. great voice, he reminds me of Mike Sarn meets David Byrne meets Scott Walker. It’s very clever musically and lyrically and he’s a brilliant arranger.”

— Sting Q magazine, 1998

As the founder and only ever-present member of The Divine Comedy, Neil Hannon’s career has spanned over three decades, but it’s not just the critical praise that makes him a significant figure – it’s his trademark velvety baritone, his infamous sardonic dry wit, and a wizened panache that’s evident both on record and live in concert.

He is simply one of the cleverest songwriters Ireland has produced, and his name will be uttered alongside such greats as his hero Scott Walker, long after he’s gone. He may have reached his half-century but Hannon’s still a bit young to be described as an “elder statesman” of Irish music. Though his legacy is already evident, as you’re about to discover.

Come on… you know you want to.

Before he was an international pop swashbuckler, Neil Hannon (born 7 November 1970 in Derry) was a shy young man that hailed from Enniskillen with a naff haircut and a knack for elaborate chamber pop. He could do big ideas too. Though the Divine Comedy debut Fanfare For The Common Muse (1990) sounds, at times, a lot like early Toad The Wet Sprocket covering R.E.M. outtakes, it certainly isn’t too terrible for a first try, even if Hannon has all but disowned it.

Following Liberation (1993), things really started to coalesce on 1994’s Promenade. With its thematic references to water and the Greek gods, the luxuriant and mischievous third album tells the story of a young couple spending a day at the seaside. When it reached for the big tragicomedy moments it was simply extraordinary. The Summerhouse, for instance, is a heart-baring song about youthful nostalgia written by a precocious 23-year-old.

What a vortex of feeling it plunged you into. 

After gaining significant acclaim with Promenade (oh, and didn’t he look the spit of a young Mark Hollis in his Talk Talk days on the cover?), for the follow-up Hannon donned an ironic smoking jacket and wagged his eyebrows mischievously.

Casanova is witty and whimsical and at times Hannon goes a little overboard cosplaying a Britpop Hugh Hefner. Yet its high-points are glorious and as full of emotion as anything he would do (bonjour The Frog Princess). Plus it gave us Songs of Love, aka the theme from Father Ted, and the his first hit in Britain, the Carry On innuendo of Something For The Weekend. 

Released to coincide with Valentine’s Day 1997, A Short Album About Love was greeted with positive reviews and the strongest initial sales of any DC LP to date. Combining bombast and longing, 1998’s Fin de Siècle is a little uneven, though any record that contains the firecracker singular pairing of Generation Sex and National Express (Hannon’s only Top 10 45 in the UK) was still a more enticing prospect than most of albums released that year.

And here comes the one about the arse “the size of a small country”. (Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!).

Ready for my straitjacket, nurse?

A new deal with Parlophone surfaced at the dawning of the new millennium and Hannon headed into the studio with Radiohead’s producer Nigel Godrich. The end result was the stunning, rockier Regeneration (2001), which, unusually, focused on the seven then current band members as a whole, eschewing the usual orchestral-driven pretensions for a more organic, guitar-focused sound.

Subsequent outings Absent Friends (2004), Victory For The Comic Muse (2006) Bang Goes The Knighthood (2010), and Foreverland (2016) find the jovial tunesmith expounding on the elegant, aristocratic pop leanings of his inundate theatricality, the erudite lyrics populated with the usual assortment of hopeless romantics, gadflys and clueless upper-class youth, not to mention packed full of historical references (Catherine the Great, Napoleon, the French Foreign Legion), not to mention a slightly jarring, bouncy cover of The Associates’ Party Fears Two.

Twelfth and most recent album, 2019’s Office Politics, was a curious fusion indebted to eighties new wave acts like Adam Ant, Blondie and Siouxsie. It made ninth place in Ireland but did better across the water, becoming Hannon’s highest charting studio set in Britain, its No.5 peak only bested by the act’s A Secret History… The Best of the Divine Comedy, one of my most favoured compilation albums. 

Released in 1999, it’s the perfect round up of singles and best-known songs from DC’s previous five studio albums on the now defunct Setanta label. (A limited edition even features a bonus disc featuring beyond quirky selection of curios and covers, including David Bowie’s Life on Mars?, Kraftwerk’s The Model, and Talk Talk’s Life What You Make It.)

In the end, Neil Hannon is the one you want at your party, sitting at an end table, smoking, drinking your most expensive booze, slyly winking at the ladies, and sizing up the crowd like an international spy. Give the man his due, style is his middle name. You can bet he’s got unbelievable chat-up lines.

Check out the swinging swagger of his song for the BBC’s Doctor Who series too; Love Don’t Roam, an atypical aberration released under his own name. The wordsmith extraordinaire even leant his dulcet tones to Robbie Williams’ No Regrets alongside the other Neil — Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys.

Cos he was never being boring.

Steve Pafford

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