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The release of the new boxset Venus, Cupid, Folly & Time this week marks 30 years of The Divine Comedy. So what better time to look back over Neil Hannon’s career of literate orchestral pop stylings? And what better way to bring nuance and shade to such a discussion than a highly subjective numbered ranking?
#12. Fanfare for the Comic Muse (1990)
An easy last place, given that Hannon himself has largely disavowed it. There are faint sparks of something here, particularly on ‘Secret Garden,’ but mostly it just sounds like what it essentially is—a 20-year-old trying to sound like R.E.M. The only album on this list you can really skip and miss nothing.
#11. Absent Friends (2004)
Absent Friends is not bad by any means. It’s just that a lot of the charm of Hannon’s melodies and lyrics get drowned out by the big orchestral arrangements, which tend here to overwhelm the songs rather than serving them (as elsewhere). The likes of ‘Leaving Today’ and ‘Sticks and Stones’ would benefit a great deal from stripped-down versions. That said, ‘Our Mutual Friend’ is one of Hannon’s best, and I’m quite partial to the unabashed sentimentality of ‘Charmed Life.’
#10. Liberation (1993)
If Fanfare… was Hannon’s attempt to imitate his influences, Liberation is his casting about to find his own voice. Several songs here (‘Timewatching’, ‘The Pop Singer’s Fear of the Pollen Count’, ‘Three Sisters’, et al) would later be updated, suggesting that this is an album on its way to becoming something, not quite there yet. There’s plenty to enjoy, though; ‘Lucy’ is a very fine setting of Wordsworth’s Lucy poems, and the likes of ‘Queen of the South’ and ‘Victoria Falls’ are strong songs that sound nothing like anything else in Hannon’s career.
#9. Fin de Siècle (1998)
If there was ever such a thing as a Divine Comedy imperial phase, this is it. Most obviously, it yielded the fun if lightweight ‘National Express,’ still probably the best song about a British coach company in existence. And for every overblown ‘Sweden’ or ‘Thrillseeker’ here, there’s a surprisingly gentle ‘Eric the Gardener’ or ‘Commuter Love’—the latter in particular a fine demonstration of Hannon’s eye for detail and instinct to humanise, redolent of his idol Scott Walker’s late 60s work. Then there’s ‘Sunrise,’ a beautiful song about the Good Friday Agreement, in which Hannon’s substantial vocal range is as much on show as his thematic range.
#8. Victory for the Comic Muse (2006)
Maybe the most idiosyncratic Divine Comedy album, which is quite something in itself. Victory… goes from teenage horniness (‘To Die a Virgin’) to mortality (‘Snowball in Negative’), taking in confusing lovers (the wonderful ‘Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World’), loving mothers (‘Mother Dear’) and aristocratic ballooners battling with the elements (‘Count Grassi’s Passage over Piedmont’). Its crowning glory, though, is ‘A Lady of a Certain Age,’ a gorgeous tragedy in three verses, often said to be a kind of sequel to Peter Starstedt’s ‘Where Do You Go To (My Lovely).’
#7. Casanova (1996)
The album that brought Hannon to fame, even a brief stint in Britpop circles (wherein, by his account, patiently explaining to Damon Albarn that he was in fact from Northern Ireland yielded very little result). Some of the finest and most recognisable Divine Comedy singles hail from here—‘Something for the Weekend’, ‘The Frog Princess’, ‘Songs of Love’ (derived from the Father Ted theme). The album as a whole, befitting its title, is dedicated to a dark sexual energy which sometimes gets stretched a bit thin, though songs like the Walker-referencing ‘Through a Long & Sleepless Night’ and the double entendre-laden ‘Charge’ are, true to form, tongue-in-cheek enough to work.
#6. Regeneration (2001)
For the most part, the name “The Divine Comedy” really just refers to Hannon, the creative force and only stable member of the group. Here, though, TDC briefly becomes an eight-piece band and, unexpectedly, turns out an indie rock album produced by Nigel Godrich. Surprisingly, it works. Hannon can still turn out tautly constructed pop songs—‘Bad Ambassador’, ‘Love What You Do’, the aptly named ‘Perfect Lovesong’—but in the likes of ‘Mastermind’ and ‘The Beauty Regime’, he and his bandmates (including long-term collaborator Joby Talbot) take aim at The Way Things Are, in more earnest and less wry fashion than usual. It’s a one-off experiment, but undoubtedly a successful one.
#5. Office Politics (2019)
Now this was another unexpected move—away from the lavish arrangements of the previous albums towards an ’80s style, synth-driven sound. And a (loose) concept album, no less, about the vagaries of mundane office drone life, not to mention Hannon’s first double album. But the early singles proved there was life in the idea—the catchy but biting ‘Queuejumper,’ and the wonderful ‘Norman and Norma,’ a funnier, sweeter follow-up to ‘A Lady of a Certain Age.’ The album itself proved to be a surprisingly cohesive package, by turns silly and well-observed. Highlights include ‘The Life and Soul of the Party,’ a takedown of your embarrassing friend who thinks he’s all that, and ‘Philip and Steve’s Furniture Removal Company’, the proposed theme tune to a sitcom about Philip Glass and Steve Reich. But of course.
#4. A Short Album About Love (1997)
Rarely do you find a title as apt as this one. Seven near-perfect songs taking on various aspects of love—longing from afar (‘Everybody Knows (Except You)’), idolisation of the lover (‘If…’), regret (‘If I Were You (I’d Be Through with Me)’)—all drenched in lavish string and brass arrangements. This is, more than ever, where Hannon proves himself to be one of the finest writers of love songs around; by turns witty and open, and always humane.
#3. Bang Goes the Knighthood (2010)
In 2010, Neil Hannon was riding high, coming off the back of winning both the Ivor Novello Award and a ton of celebrity plaudits, along with Thomas Walsh, for the first Duckworth Lewis Method album. And rather than reinvent the wheel in response, he plunged himself into writing some of his cleverest, and best, songs to date. ‘The Lost Art of Conversation’ is a tour de force from one of pop music’s best rhymers, an only-half-joking statement of despair at the state of thing. ‘The Complete Banker’ is even more scathing in its mid-financial-crash satire. On the other hand, ‘At the Indie Disco’ is sweetly nostalgic for the music of Hannon’s youth, and ‘Have You Ever Been in Love’ is a buoyant invocation of the joy of first love. With hindsight, it was pointing the way forward.
#2. Foreverland (2016)
Aka ‘A Mid-Length Album About Love.’ The influence of Hannon’s partner Cathy Davey is all over this one. Part of that is overt; she performs vocal duties on several songs, as on this album’s predecessor and successor, including co-lead on ‘Funny Peculiar.’ But this is also, inescapably, an album about being in love, with all the experiences that entails. ‘The Pact’ couches a loving commitment in the language of international diplomacy, ‘How Can You Leave Me on My Own’ explores the peculiar malaise of being left in the house when one’s lover goes away, while ‘Catherine the Great’ is… a love song to Catherine the Great. Well, this is a Divine Comedy album.
The highlight, though, and my very favourite Divine Comedy song, is ‘To the Rescue,’ a touching tribute to Davey’s animal rescue work which manages the remarkable feat of being both grandiose and direct. There are surprisingly few love songs about being proud of one’s lover, which makes this one all the more moving.
#1. Promenade (1994)
This is where I really have to admit my bias, because there was never going to be any other number 1. Promenade is my favourite album of all time. A concept album about a day in the life of two lovers, it’s where Hannon truly found his voice. There’s a tangible joy to this album, a sense of glorying in being alive. It’s a tribute to the pleasures of life: to good food (‘A Seafood Song’), to art (‘The Booklovers’, ‘When the Lights Go Out All Over Europe’), to fond memories (‘The Summerhouse’), to good company (‘A Drinking Song’), and, most of all, to love. It’s the kind of work that could easily define a career, and one of the best possible tributes to Hannon is that it by no means defines his.