Bang Goes The Knighthood (2010) and Closing Thoughts

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CHRIS

This has been a month of ups and down with Neil Hannon really keeping us on our toes. The first third was a slog of the highest order, the middle one of intermittent triumphs, and the home stretch has had some real highs: this is why I have decided not to review the final album. I don’t want to take the risk. By leaving out the band’s final album – to date – I am playing musical Schrodinger’s cat: by not opening the digital box there is still a chance it could be good and/or bad. I think it is better that way. In Replacements month I was bitten by this – I had heard rumours the final album was horrendous, and I still listened. In doing so, what I was left with was a foul taste in my mouth and a poor final image of the band. I had so many concerns and apprehensions at the beginning of the month that going out on a slight positive seem like the best result.

So, how has this month been? At times long, at others actually fairly enjoyable. Littered throughout the Divine Comedy back catalogue there are some genuinely great pop songs. When he gets it right – ‘A Short Album About Love’ and ‘Victory for the Comic Muse’ to name a couple – he really gets it right. A songwriter of the highest order. There are enough songs in there to make a best of (even if it is just a mini album).

Sadly, when he gets it wrong, it is really wrong. There were times when the onslaught of smug, side eye to camera lyrics really wore me down. I don’t want to listen to one of his mock Georgian songs ever again.

The only album I know I will go back to is “A Short Album About Love”. Other than that I might just nod along when something comes on random, or a Spotify playlist titled “Bands from the 90s you are not really sure if you like” spits out ‘National Express’ or “A Pop Singer’s Fear of the Pollen Count”.

I promised my fellow blogger Jamie I would give it a go, and I did. He told me I would like them because they are like Belle and Sebastian, and I am not sure he was right. Nevertheless, I will concede that the Divine Comedy are, at times, a little bit like the worst things about Belle and Sebastian (mainly the smugness). And I will forever know that I got through more of them than Jamie did (I think he has gone on to hate the band he chose.)

And, finally, I won’t ever open that box. I will never know what that final album sounds like. I don’t want to. I just want to believe that I can leave the Divine Comedy and not hate them – currently I am succeeding in this.

LUKE

There is a moment to finish the penultimate song of the album where Neil Hannon holds a single high-pitched note for a full 31 seconds. “Let’s see how long you can hoooooooo…” At first I thought my music playing device was broken, only to discover that it was Hannon’s sense of taste that was faulty. But it somehow seemed apt, serving as the gasping death rattle of a movie villain that somehow refuses to die…

I had formed some kind of a truce with the Divine Comedy. More downs than ups, but a tangible sense of development as we progressed through the back catalogue. The file of emotion eventually smoothed the rough edges of irony and smugness of the first few albums, and the results were patchy, at times great (A Short Album About Love, parts of Victory For The Comic Muse), but generally it seemed that patience was rewarded.

However, what I’m left with is a band that I know full well I will rarely return to, if ever. It’s the girl you used to go to primary school with, who you’re curious to see now she’s developed breasts. But ultimately she still has an unpleasant personality.

That sustained note at the end of Can You Stand Upon One Leg goes someway to explain this. It is one annoying quirk too far in a month of many. The moments of genuine feeling, when they’ve come, have been a triumph. This album delivers one, in the form of At The Indie Disco, which evokes the excitement of girls noticing you in clubs, hitting the floor for Blue Monday and having a good time with friends.

This is the same as with virtually every record we’ve heard this month. We may get the occasional highlight, but only after you’ve waded through a significant amount of crap. The Best Of playlist has accumulated slowly and not particularly surely, and felt more like an obligation than a handy reference point for future use.

I’m glad I stuck it out, even if I’ve learned more about what I don’t like in music, rather than what I do. But they’re different sides to the same coin. You can’t have one without the other. The suggestion that the Divine Comedy can be filed alongside Belle and Sebastian – a comparison I had already been aware of – is all I need to steer clear of delving further into them in future. I am nothing if not ruthless.

So long, Neil. Stay dandy.

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Victory For The Comic Muse (2006)

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CHRIS

This month has been one of many words, both those needed to explain the many varied responses to the work of Neil Hannon, and, very importantly, the number included within the songs themselves. For this blog, I would like to add the following: patience.

Patience can be described as:

“The quality of being patient, as the bearing of provocation, annoyance, misfortune, or pain, without complaint, loss of temper, irritation, or the like.”

Or,

“an ability or willingness to suppress restlessness or annoyance when confronted with delay”

As previously mentioned, this is a virtue which has been needed throughout this month. But, I am pleased to report, it has paid off.

“Victory for the Comic Muse” is a pretty good (I don’t want to get too hyperbolic) album. Some catchy songs, pithy lyrics, and, thankfully, an acceptable album length.

The first four tracks on the album are possibly some of the strongest we have seen in the ongoing Hannon musical onslaught. “Mother Dear” is a particular high point with its mix of English, parochial storytelling and big Country rhythm. This song is a delight. Similarly, “Lady of a Certain Age” takes Hannon’s theme – English class – and turns it into something much more palatable then what has gone before. Also, who can’t love an album with a reference to Arthur C. Clarke.

More than any of the previous ‘Artist in Residence’ artists this month has taught me to hold out; but, unlike the Replacements where it was a steady rush to the bottom, here we have a steady uplift towards something that might require, or demand, a re-listen.

So, one more to go: will it be his Nevermind, or his Be Here Now?

LUKE

The penultimate album of Divine Comedy month declares Victory for the Comic Muse. I’ll be the judge of that, sunshine.

It’s a curious choice of name, evoking the stillborn debut album Ode To The Comic Muse, which Hannon would eventually nail to a frisbee and fling over a rainbow, metaphorically speaking. He insisted at the time that this was purely a coincidence, and wasn’t a reference to that first album at all. Well, I don’t believe you Neil. You are lying.

We start with To Die A Virgin, immediately notable for his voice sounding more subdued than usual, playing a less prominent role to the music. This seems to be the case throughout the album, and is probably Hannon’s best vocal performance so far, at least to my ears. So I’m surprised to find that he had a cold at the time of the recording, which was done in just two weeks, meaning most of the music on the album was done in live takes. The simple conclusion to make is that germs make him good, much like the bacteria in yoghurt makes it good for your bumgut.

It was a strange choice to make. Such hurried recording is incongruous with the swooning, orchestral music of this album. The White Stripes favoured such a process so they could bang out the tunes in a frenzy, so as to preserve the rawness and immediacy of their music. I struggle to see the benefit here, unless perhaps Hannon had spent all of his money on afternoon teas at the Savoy and vintage hats by this point, and could only afford two weeks of studio time.

Mother Dear reminds me of a magical time when banjoes were not synonymous with the over-earnest guff made populist by those Mumford shithouses. It’s another jaunty tune, agreeably bouncy and fun.

The breathy delivery of “such a pretty nose” in Diva Lady is just the latest example of a slight mannerism that could easily be swept under the carpet and ignored but is just too unavoidably irritating to do so. Hannon takes the opportunity with this track to extend his growing repertoire into dull lounge-jazz-pop.

The cover of Party Fears Two is a definite winner though, superior to the original, though I say that as someone that has always loathed it to the very depths of my soul. The original, particularly the piano line that serves as a chorus, sounds like someone drunkenly humping the keyboard. Good ol’ Neil has decided to make this more of an orchestral movement, and is so much the better for it. Cheers m8.

I finish the album and officially declare the two week recording session to be a success. Maybe his undoing in the past has been that he spent too long on vocal takes, making them sound more affected (and thus more annoying) than they had any need to be.

Maybe it’s just the magic of germs. But what do I know? I’m not a musician, much less a doctor, even if my handwriting is quite small.

Absent Friends (2004)

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CHRIS

Things have been quiet lately at ‘Artist in Residence’. Some people have been here all the way through, some have dropped in and out, and others, due to this month’s subject content, didn’t event start at all.

The Divine Comedy were a tall order, we all knew that. It has been a difficult few weeks for some – and there are two more albums to go! So, what, to this point, have we learnt about the band. Firstly, they have some incredibly annoying moments.

Secondly, and most importantly in respect to this blog, they are a band that are hard to love. This is not a band that makes you want to rush out an pick up all their albums in one over-zealous shopping spree; or scour the internet for rarities and b-sides (although I can highly recommend ‘Gin Soaked Boy’ from the best of); nor are they are band that will have you hovering over the refresh button at 9am on a Friday moment.

Previous months were hard – I know many suffered through Sonic Youth, and there were times when Beastie Boys albums felt like they would never end; but, these were bands you felt like you should put the time in. They were bands you found time for. When work got hard, when evenings got busy, you wanted to understand what made everyone get so excited for them (even if for some of my co-writers, what you eventually discovered is that you thought all those people were wrong). Eventually, though, in some way it was worth the slog.

But, I am not sure the same can be said for the Divine Comedy. Personally, I have enjoyed some of the albums (I even really liked one in “A Short Album About Love”). Even with these moments of light I couldn’t find reasons to convinve my fellow bloggers to keep pushing on and put the time in. I couldn’t demonstrate some revelatory moment that would take place and make them love the band – the most I could muster was “there are a couple of alright ones near the start, and after that it is bearable”.

So, what about Absent Friends? Like all Divine Comedy albums it is alright. Thankfully, Hannon is still toning down the side winks, and the levels of smug are possibly at their lowest yet. All the songs are listenable and I wouldn’t turn them off if I was washing the pots, but I wouldn’t stick them on if I wanted a good time. I do like this direction, though – particularly ‘Freedom Road’ which is some sort of electronic tinged country numbers.

Overall, like all the albums, I don’t mind it; but, it still doesn’t give any weight to convince my absent friends in Artist in Residence that it is worth sticking it on. And that is its ultimate failure.

LUKE

Absent Friends couldn’t be a more appropriate name for this album. Some of your heroes at AiR have decided that enough is enough. Neil Hannon has broken them. He has stirred such an overwhelming air of apathy that some have choked on it completely.

There is a lyric in Sticks and Stones that sums things up: “we go together like the molar and the drill”. He got it bang on the bonce with that one.

The pity is in that the albums have steadily improved. Though I’m sure A Short Album About Love will remain his best record (with brevity playing a part in that), the change in direction since then has been something to behold. In some ways, he is the archetype of the artist we wanted to cover on this tiny fart of internet: challenging, at times infuriating, but demonstrating an evolution in sound. Some complaints have been taken on board. Many have focused on Hannon’s personality, which at times is too overbearing to ignore. Alas, sometimes if you just don’t like someone, there’s nothing that can retrieve such a situation.

For Chris and I, the sputtering conclusion to Divine Comedy month represents a return to our roots. The genesis of this blog came when we joined a group who listened to an album by The Fall each day, for the month-and-a-half it took to traverse our way through the band’s discography. At times, it felt like a challenge.

But we do not fear challenge. We titter in the very face of adversity. As I type this, I’m listening to Our Mutual Friend, perfect music for the sentiments I wish to express right now. Defiant, noble, proud. A staunch refusal to buckle under the weight. Nil desperandum. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.

Has there been sufficient reward for the toil? I think so. The Best Of compilation is sparse, sure, but I listen to a lot of music. And plenty of that music is shit. Listening to Absent Friends, there’s a certain sense of triumph to hearing moments that are more closely aligned to what I’d hoped he may eventually produce during the grind of the early albums. I kept wishing for the veil of irony to drop, so we could see the man beneath.

In short, I wanted less of the comedy, more of the divine. He may not have won me over entirely by any means, but he’s surprising me by going down swinging. If all else fails, I’ll give him this – you’re unlikely to hear the phrase “international business traveller” sung in such sweet tones elsewhere. That’s got to be worth something, right?

Regeneration (2001)

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CHRIS

“I’m a bad ambassador for that elusive place you’re searching for
I wanna show you so much more… but maybe some other time”

Why so sad, Neil? Three years on from “Fin De Siecle”, it seems that the end of the century and the beginning of the new didn’t provide Neil with much hope. Where his last album was a return to some of the bouncier numbers that littered his early output, from the outset “Regeneration” is very muted. Not downbeat, as such, but this is the sound of a band unwilling to let the music get the better of them. The Georgian wanderer, once so free and full of life, is tied down and tempered. His heart is no longer a well of optimism, but rather a slow chugging force getting him through the day.

Things begin badly: ‘Time Stretched’ is a bit of a forgettable acoustic ramble; one that would not stand out on “Now That’s What I Call A Relaxed Summer’s Afternoon’. But, thankfully, Neil gets off the deck chair and runs free of the patio on “Bad Ambassador”. That is a sweet groove. The verse reminds me of late 90s ‘destined for the big time’ heroes Gomez. And that chorus, soaring, and sweeping again is reminiscent of the Longpigs. It seems Neil is travelling in time, but the time machine won’t go far. This would go on my ‘Best of’ list.

Returning to a comment from fellow blogger Jamie, “Perfect Lovesong’ without a doubt owes a lot to Belle and Sebastian. That is some serious jaunt. And that flute. The whole of the song screams of something off “The Boy with the Arab Strap”. You could drive down country roads, tent and canoe attached to the roof, with this blasting out the windows. Don’t forget your stripy indie t-shirt, though.

In both songs, though, it feels like everything is being held back; each melody one note short of incredible. Elsewhere, there aren’t any bad songs, but there aren’t any other big standouts either. This is the definition of background music: I want it to be passable, but I don’t want to know much about it.

Obviously, this album is very different to what has gone before. The dandy has gone; the overtly pithy and humorous lyrics are on the decline; and the production is much less big band. Overall, it is a much less ‘lush’ sounding album (much seems to be made of the fact that Hannon got Neil ‘Radiohead’ Godrich involved – I mean listen to that chorus on ‘Note to Self’ and not hear something off ‘Pablo Honey’). I kind of like it. I feel like he was trying something different, and I like that. It just isn’t fully realised. I like where he is going, but I just wish he knew how to get there.

LUKE

Regeneration is the first Divine Comedy album not to feature Neil Hannon on the cover. Instead we see sketched drawings of a faceless anatomical figure appearing to break into a sprint, a Vitruvian man straining to break beyond its limitations as it ducks past an imaginary finishing line. This is the game-changer, the album where things evolve and Mr Hannon adopts a more contemporary approach.

With that in mind, it’s worth noting that this album was released in 2001, a time when Travis were the biggest band in the UK. Theirs is a clear and sometimes intrusive influence, to the point where it’s hard not to imagine a meeting wherein Hannon was told outright that he needed to emulate those Travis boys if he wanted to pay the rent.

As such, there’s a strange, aimless sound to this album. It’s imbued with the last dying echoes of Britpop, cast like signals into space in a futile search for new life where there is none. This, my friends, is the sound of the post-Oasis and pre-Strokes indie music hinterland.

It doesn’t mean it’s not interesting. It can be enjoyed as some quasi-historical document to a forgotten past. The sparse, desolate sounds of certain tracks evoke images of Hannon looking forlorn as he surveys a post-apocalyptic landscape, wondering where he’s meant to go. Imagine 24 Hours Later shot on the set of TFI Friday.

He’s attempting something new, while wondering how he can remain true to himself. This is why Bad Ambassador sounds like Blur in a boater hat, or Pavement in a blazer. On the title track his vocals sound like Thom Yorke. Perfect Lovesong is explicit with its influences, as Hannon sings of “a divine Beatles bass line/and a big ol’ Beach Boys sound”. It ends up sounding like Belle & Sebastian, and turns out to be one of the best tracks on the album.

Note To Self is track number four, as well as possibly a literal note to self for Hannon to remember that this song is too long and boring and should never be emulated. But for the most part, this makes me far more interested in the remaining albums than I would’ve expected.

There’s something exciting but almost sad in realising that Hannon sounds best when he’s trying to sound like everyone else. There’s no shame in that though, as long as it sounds good. It seems like we’re getting somewhere.

Fin de siècle (1998)

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CHRIS

Subtle Adjective; (especially of a change or distinction) so delicate or precise as to be difficult to analyse or describe: “his language expresses rich and subtle meanings”

Making use of clever and indirect methods to achieve something: “He tried a more subtle approach”.

Dear Neil, the above definition is one that may be of use to you. For the non-informed, subtlety is the opposite of ‘laying it on thick’. For example, I could say “the way Neil Hannon deals with the subject of class in National Express is exemplified by exaggerated tropes, and ill-informed ideas – some of these whilst intended as ‘funny’, come across as a bit snide and derogatory – of the general populace that travel on the National Express bus system.” I could also say “it is obvious that Neil Hannon has never been on a National Express bus’.

By the end of ‘National Express’, Neil Hannon wants us to think he knows what it is to ‘slum’ it. That the idea of travelling on a National Express bus is where we can have some sort of anthropological adventure into the underbelly of British society. I am not sure if this was his intended message, but it really feels like that. He could do with stepping back a second, maybe getting a second opinion. I am sure a ‘critical friend’ might have simply suggested “eh, Neil, bit much, eh?”. We might have had a different song.

Also, Neil, if you want to know what a ‘slumming it’ bus journey is, get the Megabus: it may only cost one pound, but you don’t know how much of your soul you have paid with when you are traveling on a four hour, delayed, bus from Milton Keynes Parkway to Scunthorpe, the windows locked and a small trail of urine seeping from the toilet and running down the walkway like a snake exploring a desert plain. Try and “ba da da” over that, eh?

Anyway, the subtlety is lacking on a large proportion of this album: ridiculous and pompous lyrics, accompanied by overblown instrumentation that harks back to the band pre-A Short Album About Love.

But, there is hope (even if it is infrequent). This album would have made a wonderful ep or mini-album. Away from the ridiculousness of the aforementioned song – and likewise Generation Sex (another maybe unintentionally snide anthem) – are some really great songs. I love the brooding sound of “Thrillseeker”; the more moody, grinding groove is a much better accompaniment to some of the pithy or eye winking lyrics and really tones it all down. It really suggests an approach that I would really welcome.

I had quite a journey with “Eric the Gardener”. We were enemies, friends, and soulmates all in the space of eight minutes. Three minutes in I had to look at my phone – is this really all this is going to do: some twinkly forgettable piano line, accompanied by a poor Hannon vocal performance?

Then something brilliant happened.

The second half of this song might be my favourite piece of Divine Comedy to date. It is lush, massive and really, really evocative. This is the sound of flying high above the ground like Raymond Briggs’s Snowman, looking across vast fields and agrarian vistas. It is truly wonderful. It really reminds me of a band I love, Grasscut: they are a band that can evoke ideas of travel and landscape in instrumental form. This track blew me away.

This is a real mix bag of old and new. Some great moments, and some crushing reminders of the slog we have been through. If this had been an EP preceded by “A Short Album About Love”, I would be in my element right now; but, realistically, I am nervous. I have read ahead a bit about what comes next and it seems the album’s title – Fin De Siecle being French for end of the century – is a sign of things to come. We supposedly get a different band, one that surprised fans (who I still can’t imagine) of the band.

I just hope we get to meet “Eric the Gardener” again. Oh, and that Hannon pays real attention to that word I introduced him to.

LUKE

After the revelation of A Short Album About Love, I’m disappointed to find that once again, I cannot take this record in one sitting. This album is only three tracks longer than the last one, so it isn’t simply a matter of length. Why, then, is it such a difficult listen?

My interest wavers during the lengthy instrumental coda at the end of Eric the Gardener. This song encapsulates what’s wrong with this album. Musically it’s very ambitious, with a broad sonic scope that sounds beautiful. But essentially it’s still just a song about a gardener, so it’s tainted with a cloying melodrama that doesn’t fit.

With National Express we’re in the familiar territory of amusing songs that are acceptable in small doses but can hamper the flow of an album. Good fun on a playlist, but only because you know there’s something different coming up next. I don’t hate it, and I’d heard it many times before, but at this point in the trawl through his albums I was hoping for more of the subtlety that was so welcome on his last record.

An unrelated note – why does he insist on being on the cover of each album? I could understand this perhaps if he was devilishly handsome, and his looks were considered a marketable asset. It only augments the general sense of self-satisfaction that emanates from the man. “Behold!”, implies his hollow face, “An artist for you to cherish! I am relevant and I don’t care who knows it!”.

But that’s by the by. A Short Album About Love promised something, though I’m not sure what. If Hannon delivered the same sort of album again I’d probably complain that he was treading old ground. I liked the last one so much as it seemed out of character. People don’t change, certainly not one who I’ve already seen posing in a top hat on the cover of his most recent album.

But then the album finishes with Sunrise. Frankly, the harpsichord can fuck off. Wes Anderson films can pull it off, but it has no place here. Still, this is one of his best songs yet. The orchestral arrangement builds and swells without descending into self-parody. It’s the closest thing to In Pursuit of Happiness, the opener and highlight of ASAAL.

A few albums ago I implored Hannon to take himself more seriously. It seems like this is what’s happening, albeit gradually. The removal of tongue from cheek is offering promise. A return to the consistency of ASAAL would be great now.

MARTIN

Neil, Neil, Neil. I thought we were getting somewhere. It turns out though, that as I feared, the previous album was an anomaly of good quality in a sea of irritating guff.

The cartoonish exaggerated character is back, and with it the renewed struggle to actually get through some of these songs to the end. Speaking of songs ending, some of the tracks on this album really feel like they are never going to. Particularly Eric The Gardener with its near infinite instrumental coda.

There are two songs I don’t mind. Thrillseeker is a welcome change of style. I’m not normally a funk man to be honest but I’ll take it over the jaunty twee overload which dominates all Divine Comedy records. Although I enjoy this song more than the others it is tarred once again by Hannon’s delivery sounded like a drunken Lord Toff Toffington sarcastically and embarrassingly trying to be “down with the kids”.

Sunrise is also OK because it manages to hold my interest with a bit of melody and bounce.

The rest of the album though leaves me cold. Freezing in fact. And National Express is even more annoying than it was 17 years ago.

A Short Album About Love (1997)

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MARTIN

The Darkness. I’ve just realised what Neil Hannon’s vocal delivery reminds me of. He’s the easy listening Justin Hawkins. No wonder it grates my nerves.

Having said that, A Short Album About Love is the best Divine Comedy album by far so far. One bonus is the length. Eight songs in half an hour. I can handle that. It doesn’t bludgeon you to death with an avalanche of overlong dull tuneless condescension.

Yes. There are times when this album feels like it’s 1974 and I’m listening to Englebert Humperdinck but there are definitely tunes here. In fact I think I like all eight songs to varying degrees. I remember Everybody Knows from the time of release but I also recognise Timewatching somehow. It’s probably my favourite song on the album. Although it’s pretty downbeat it definitely has some punch to it.

I think the main saving grace of this album is that Hannon has definitely dialled down the cartoonish caricature persona and seems, for the first time like just a guy writing and singing songs. I feel I can get behind him more because of this.

Onwards and upwards then. Hope this isn’t just a blip of decency. Although I do know National Express is on the next one, so I’m not entirely convinced.

LUKE

At least one word in the album’s title augured well, I thought, expecting more of the same hot trash. In lieu of any positive remarks, and purely out of spite, I had instead drafted a list of songs I’d like Mr Hannon to write about his precious friend “Bernice”…

Bernice Fears The Worst
Bernice Misplaces Her Catheter
Bernice Begs For Mercy
Bernice Loses The Will
Bernice Checks For Lumps
Bernice Considers Her Menopause
Bernice Mourns Her Loss
Bernice Fucks It Up
Bernice Hates Her Life
Bernice Bobs Her Hair Again
Bernice Bobs Her Hair Again
Bernice Bobs Her Hair Again
Bernice Contemplates Her Diagnosis

Sometimes, however, the AiR experience brings glorious moments when sunlight breaks through the clouds and tedium makes way for joy. Just when you think the universe isn’t listening as you wail plaintively into the abyss, it seems that someone hears you.

I wanted more sincerity from this man. I wanted less of the phoney schtick in place of something more humane and relatable. I wanted something less swaddled by gimmickry and nonsense, in favour of a beating heart, a pulse to set the rhythm of my own interest to.

Our boy Neil is In Pursuit Of Happiness on the opening track. Incredibly, he seemed to locate some proper vocals and lyrics while on his search. There is no spoken word comedy or smug posing. It’s a great song, undaunted by the vast existential scope of its title. I am pleasantly surprised.

I was interested to hear Everybody Knows (Except You) within the context of this month’s listening, as this was one of the few songs I was already familiar with. It was a song I liked, so I was worried hearing it now would be like shutting the barn door after my lovely horse had bolted. Coming as part of the surprising one-two opener to the album, it retained its appeal. Any album that starts with two good songs can only retain the pace or fuck it up royally.

The next track, Someone, brings something sonically broader than on previous albums, with the sweep and swoon of a Bond song. There are no weak songs really. Surely the length helped toward this, but it has more to do with Hannon expressing himself rather than hiding behind the barriers of irony and artifice. I’m All You Need is a fantastic closer and leaves me feeling slightly bereft at the end, the way a good record can.

And just like that, things get interesting again. The album’s length represents the biggest curiosity. It’s just over half an hour long; does it introduce a new artistic direction, or is it merely a tossed-off side project? There could be a clue in the next album’s title – Fin de Siècle. If it’s to mark the end of an era of crass Carry On shenanigans and haughty gent pomposity, then I’m all for it.

CHRIS

My Dad is the kind of man who thinks shouting at the TV gets results. If delivered with enough gusto then “person x will get back and stop person x on the wing”. If he shouts harder “person x might pick up person x at the back”. This is a character trait I admire. It shows belief, drive and, most importantly, dedication to the cause.

I am a researcher in my work life, and whilst I have yet to see any substantial evidence from my Dad’s approach, I decided to use it this month. Each night I load a playlist of Divine Comedy albums and just shout at them, very loudly, with the simple demand “make these albums shorter, don’t have some many songs”. (In hindsight, I should have used these shamanistic methods on the Beastie Boys)

I know it is for the best. Hannon will appreciate it.

So, imagine my amazement when I pressed play on the fourth Divine Comedy album: “A Short Album about Love”. It was in the title! There was the evidence. Magic works. At 31-ish minutes, this album is a massive relief from what felt like the sprawling – although not stylistically – three before it.

And, more amazingly, I really enjoyed it. In fact, on day one of listening I had three full repeat listens. For the most part, the snide, obnoxious image of Hannon that polluted the other albums has disappeared. On Casanova, I made reference to a more ‘third person’ style of song writing; the idea that these weren’t directly about him, but rather a broader storytelling that the listener can buy into. “A Short Album…” is very much in this vein. This is a universal album. You could find these themes on many an album, but I think Hannon really nails it. The slightly overblown, Georgian dinner party vibe we have become accustomed to hit its stride.

What a start: “In Pursuit of Happiness” has some beautiful swelling orchestral twinges that sound massive. “Everybody Knows” is a love song of impeccable quality. You can imagine swirling in a Wes Anderson film to it.

I had a feeling that this album reminded me of someone, but I couldn’t put my finger on it, until “If”; whilst on nowhere near the same scale, and indeed not as good, this album bears many similarities with “69 Love Songs” by The Magnetic Fields. Like Stephen Merritt, Hannon gets across that slightly strange, obsessive, and almost perverse tone that can come across in so many love songs. The following are some of my favourite lyrics I have heard in a while:

“I could put my arms around you
And you could not complain
If you were a tree
I could carve my name into your side
And you would not cry,
‘Cos trees don’t cry”

Brilliant; funny and pithy without being too absurd, or twee. This is the central song of the album, and also its highlight. For me, the only misstep would be “Timewatching”. I love that slow, looming cello at the start, but the rest verges on plodding and a little too much like the elements of his previous albums that grated on me.

A few Christmases ago, a friend of mine bought me “1000 Albums To Hear Before You Die” (as he was my housemate I wasn’t sure whether to receive this as a threat.) “A Short Album About Love” was in there. In the last few weeks I was struggling to see how the Divine Comedy could have an album that carried with it such weight. After listening I don’t feel like I am any closer to being able to die in terms of my listening habits, but, if the rest of the albums sound anything like this, I do feel like I might just get through.

Casanova (1996)

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Spotify link

JAMIE

The opening song (Something for the Weekend) is perhaps my favourite by the band so far. It made me quite nostalgic as it was very reminiscent of something off Jollification by the The Lightning Seeds. Remember that album’s strawberry scratch n’ sniff CD? No? Just me then. The song is ruined of course by Hannon fannying about at certain points with his theatrical quintessentially British spoken word bits which make me cringe. The image of him prancing about the studio recording those genuinely infuriates me.

The start of Middle-Class Heroes makes me want to smash my phone up. I skip it 45 seconds in. Shite.

I’m really regretting my months choice if I’m honest. It’s like I was in a restaurant with a wonderful menu and I chose a piece of plain white bread with a glass of water on the side for dipping.

Things don’t improve as the album progresses. Many songs sound like they are from an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, especially The Frog Princess and A Woman of the World.

I detest this album. If I didn’t choose this month I’d stop listening immediately. I can’t though. I promised Chris.

I’ll suffer on.

CHRIS

I was in Ireland when Dermot Morgan, Father Ted to you and I, died. (On a side note, I was also there when Mother Theresa and Princess Diana died – for a period I was like some bad omen for any person associated in some way with the Church). It was a very odd experience and the outpouring was immense. The nation loved him. How he had become an icon whilst – if only in a playful way – mocking one of the strongest pillars of Irish society: Catholicism.

I think it was his lack of pretention. Father Ted was, and still is, one of the greatest TV shows of all time. It demonstrated brilliantly how you can criticise yourself whilst still remaining true to those beliefs. It was also safe for all people. I particularly remember that – and this is still the case – Father Ted was something I could discuss with my grandparents. Today, whilst they, staunchly Catholic, living in a tiny village in the South of Ireland, and me ‘lapsed’, we both know the greatness of that show. It was hard not to love it, and him, Dermot Morgan.

This is becoming a recurring theme, but this can’t be said for Neil Hannon. (I should say, I don’t want every blog to just be me hung up on how annoying Hannon is, but it is really hard.) It is really hard to get past him.
Things started badly; whilst one of the most famous Divine Comedy songs “Something for the Weekend” is one of the worst. It has that sneering, self-aggrandising that cuts through everything. The sense he is looking down on everyone (This will return later on National Express).

But them, “Becoming More Like Alfie” was a revelation. One of my co-bloggers, Jamie, thought I would like Divine Comedy as I like Belle and Sebastian. This is the first time I have seen it. There is that similar jaunty, carefree sound to it. I like it.
Similarly, ‘Frog Princess’ has that B and S charm. There is something really important about this song, though. Whereas in other songs Hannon wants songs to show him as this contemporary urban dandy, ‘Frog Princess’ feels a bit more ‘third person’. I don’t feel like he is any way in this song. This is pure fiction, and all the better for it. He comes across as a great storyteller, and I think if he pulled more on the unusual, fairy-tale stuff, rather than the twee, national trust, historical slant he could go a long way. For the same reason, I also really enjoyed ‘Dogs and the Horses’. This really reminds me of the bits of Scott Walker I have heard (I read somewhere that Hannon sends all his albums to Scott Walker. Scott particularly liked ‘The Booklovers’)

This is supposedly the gateway classic; but, I felt like I was making some progress on the last album. I was getting on board, but this feels like a step back. It is like the musical equivalent of corn-on-the-cob: a lot of effort for very little back.

It has got me thinking, though. I should be able to distance performer from the music. I am all for the idea of a performance aspect of music (I mean surely I can get on board with the idea that David Bowie wasn’t actually an intergalactic sex traveller for a short period in the late 1970s, right?) I think it is the image Hannon is going for, though. It is a style, and an outlook, that I feel implausible to want to side with. Whereas it was clear with Father Ted that we were all in on the joke, this can’t be said for the Divine Comedy. We – everyone other than Hannon – are the joke.

LUKE

“Plar-stic.”

These two syllables alone are enough to permanently jam the growing wedge between myself and our month’s chosen artist. I cannot remember which song it is where Hannon says the word plastic in a way guaranteed to rile, and I refuse to go back and check, as this would mean listening to it again. But it definitely did happen.

Another thing that happened: on Middle Class Heroes we hear a sub-Leslie Phillips drawl while Hannon sleazes away dandily – “Hello? What have we here? A young lady…”. It immediately punctures the bubble of goodwill that had inflated after the breezy pop chorus of Becoming More Like Alfie.

His delivery is an impediment to any enjoyment of his albums. The preposterously-rolled R’s, the faux-haughty sneer – it’s ironic, or is it? Does he even know? I want some sincerity, just to see whether it would move me at all. There is no doubting the confidence in the craft of his songwriting, but it could all be so much better if he just took himself more seriously. Or less seriously. I’m not sure which. Does he even know?

The most sincere track is Songs Of Love, long since compromised by being synonymous with images of Ted Crilly kicking Bishop Brennan up the arse, a perfectly square piece of dirt on a window and Fintan Stack raving to techno in the wee hours.

The Barry White impersonation on Charge merely confirms him as the thinking man’s Weird Al Yankovic. He is now ensconced in territory from which there is surely no way back. I will not like any of his albums, this much I know now. It only remains for me to ask why not.

My main beef troubles me thusly: where is this meant to be pitched on the scale of irony? On what level am I meant to enjoy this? Taking it at face value simply doesn’t work, as it feels like a joke I’m too stupid to laugh along with, an in-joke I’m not privy to.

Rory nailed it in the last blog. It feels like you’re being laughed at. It’s shared humour unshared, an unwelcome reminder of any shit party you’ve been to where a group of LADS with their matching polo shirts and Magna-Doodled shoulder tattoos affect an air of superiority through the sheer cosmic force of their ladnificence.

But Hannon should be on our side. He should be one of us, and yet he’s not. He’s created this distance between us and I don’t know why. Why is this happening? Why? Why? Why Neil? Why? Why?

RORY

History with Rory. Part 1. Casanova and the end of sound.

Pre 2008 all music was distributed in hard copy. Countless resources were depleted in the process: palm oil, plastic, natural rubber and horse hoof glue. It wasn’t until the leaders of the G8 (famously reenacted musically by Bob Geldof & the Kaiser Chiefs at Live 8) decided to outlaw this bastard practice. A massive part of the decision was down to a minidisc copy of Casanova that had been doing the rounds via heads of state. It was initially distributed by Angela Merkel as a bit of a dig at the British; she felt it was absurd that the Brits were championing such nonsense. The leaders of the free world felt it was a travesty and an unnecessary drain on natural resources. Gordon Brown pleaded that for every Casanova there was a Willennium, but his harping fell on deaf ears. Shortly after poverty was ended (albeit temporarily), the physical production of music was outlawed.

LUKE

Why?

ROB

Just as Dante continues his journey through the circles of hell, so must my own trial with Neil Hannon. Only… I’m not actually hating The Divine Comedy…

So here’s where we’re at: Dante is still in the upper half of the circles of hell. He’s just encountered Cerberus and those labelled as “moneygrubbing” and “wasteful” who are stuck in their own purgatorial battle. Dante’s merely an observer though, so I think he’s getting off pretty light. He should be punished for his generous borrowing from other literary classics. Maybe we’ll come to that, which would be a nice sting in the tail…

To my surprise, I actually quite enjoyed Casanova. In fact, the worst bit is the frankly horrible intro to ‘Something for the Weekend’. ‘Becoming More Like Alfie’ is pretty great, as is ‘Songs of Love’. It’s a bit of a slog for 11 songs, and ‘Middle-Class Heroes’ can take a jump as it’s dreadful, and the last three songs are somewhat tiresome, but overall it’s considerably better than I thought.

I give Casanova a 5/5 on my Divine Comedy Hannon smugness/shitness of Dante’s journey scale. Good effort team.

LUKE

Why?

MARTIN

April 1996. The weekly installment of TFI Friday on Channel 4 was providing the latest in the torrent of Britpop bands saturating the nation’s airwaves. I was 18 and my ears were firmly rooted in alternative american rock although I could be persuaded with the occasional catchy nugget from one our own exports. Then one week who should pop up on the TFI stage but Neil Hannon. Singing Something For The Weekend from Casanova. “Ay up, here’s another Baby Bird”, I thought. But then he had the gall to release more singles.

The irony is that, faced with this album now, the initial two tracks with their nostalgic familiarity at least give me something positive. I can almost enjoy them for that alone. Becoming More like Alfie is the best song on the album. It does sound quite a lot like Belle and Sebastian but with a smugger singer.

But then after that it takes the inevitable nosedive into the usual unlistenable nonsense. Middle Class Heroes is execrable dirge. I’ve never used the word execrable in a sentence before so at least Hannon is expanding my vocabulary usage. Then comes In and Out of Paris and London. The worst Divine Comedy so far in 3 albums worth of material. “My slap and tickle made her giggle”. Why Neil I just threw up in my mouth a bit. Is this a Carry On film? The vocal delivery on this song is even worse than normal.

The rest of the album continues in much the same vein. To call Hannon a one trick pony is an insult to all actual ponies who only ever got one trick nailed. It’s been mentioned in previous people’s posts but who is this guy’s audience?

I checked on setlist.fm to see what he actually plays at gigs. I found some setlists. This means Divine Comedy gigs take place. Which must also mean that people attend them. The fact that there are Divine Comedy fans is more of a mystery to me than the whereabouts of Sasquatch or what happened at the end of The Sopranos. I write the words ‘Divine Comedy fans’ but I actually mean Neil Hannon enablers. If you are reading this, think about the consequences of your actions. I’ve got 6 more of these to listen to!

LUKE

WHY?

Promenade (1994)

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Spotify link

MARTIN

Rub a dub dub it’s time for a scrub. Have I actually put in my daughter’s “Now that’s what I call 25 children’s songs for children” CD by mistake? No. This is definitely Promenade by The Divine Comedy. Here we go again.

Ignoring what I can only imagine was some kind of clerical error in placing Bath as track one, I plow on.

The next song busts out the harpsichord. I can pretty much only tolerate harpsichord when it’s played by Tori Amos on Boys For Pele and that album is no way as twee as this one. Going Downhill Fast sounds like music for Henry VII to weep to while he feasts on lark’s tongue. The lyrics mention something about a butterfly tickling someone’s ribs. It’s just that kind of a song I suppose. We’ve all written one haven’t we?

The Book Lovers takes the smug condescension to new levels. Yes Neil, we understand you read a lot of books. Me too but I don’t list them to an indifferent audience to show off. For six minutes.

The arrival of a track called A Seafood Song leads me to expect some kind of literary critique of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The little scamp Hannon throws me a curveball by delivering a song actually about eating seafood.

At this point in the album I realise that this kind of music is never going to hit any of my sweet spots so I’m just going to have to find the positive needles in a towering negative haystack.

In order for this to happen, Hannon is going to have to provide some big old magnifying glass. Unfortunately, in the next couple of songs, not only does this not happen, but he effectively steals my spectacles leaving me myopic, irritated and losing all hope.

There are two songs on this album that I would consider passable. When The Lights Go Out All Over Europe is actually quite good. I think it’s because it’s the least like any of the other songs on the record. The final track Tonight We Fly is also ok in a jaunty kind of way. But my interest may have been piqued simply because I realised it was the last track and had zoned out a bit for the previous few.

It’s gonna take some kind of miracle or a complete change of style for The Divine Comedy to appeal to me. The next album is one I have heard songs from before albeit not for about 20 years. Apparently the *shudders* chamber pop is dialled down a bit on that one. Let’s hope so.

LUKE

Bath’s spoken word intro is not the start I had hoped for, but was pretty much what I expected. It eventually gives way to a surprising change in tempo and tone as Hannon brings the pop. This is more like it; some rich production and instrumentalism that stirs. The piano and strings to open the song sound almost like a Michael Giacchino score, or at least what a Michael Giacchino score might sound like if he grew up reading Oscar Wilde and weeping into a tub of biscuits.

And then Going Downhill Fast. It sure is HAHAHAHA! Bodybagged. Seriously though, it’s annoying. So very genteel and super. Neil Hannon performs like a man who won’t stop until the word ‘gay’ is reclaimed to mean only ‘light-hearted and carefree’ and is used solely to describe his music and nothing else. I definitely want less of this, not more. But more, indeed, is what is served up.

Booklovers is a list of authors, followed by a word association, stream-of-consciousness style retort. It’s Le Tigre’s Hot Topic reimagined for people who were most likely bullied at school. I chuckle at the mention of Jack Kerouac being met with a flat, Scouse “Me car’s broken down!”, but it’s not enough. Is there anything more pompous than someone boasting about the number of books they’ve read? The comedian Robin Ince is proof that, no, there is not.

A Seafood Song follows a similar format, with Hannon listing different types of fish to music that is at turns jaunty and dramatic, as any respectable song about fish should surely be. If you’ve ever yearned for a chamber pop song about fish, this is absolutely the one for you. However, if you happen to be the sort of person that yearns for such a thing, then you must see a doctor immediately – you are seriously ill.

Once again though I find myself unable to listen to the whole album in one sitting. I chew it down like a barium meal. This is not fun. It’s prompted some discussion among the AiR cognoscenti about Divine Comedy fans. To wit, is it possible that such a species truly exists? This is not to say that there’s nothing to like about this band at all. Promenade at least offers When The Lights Go Out All Over Europe and Tonight We Fly, parts of which have been floating around my head for days. Europop and The Pop Singer’s Fear of the Pollen Count both had a similar effect after I listened to Liberation.

But it boggles my mind that there are people out there who would call themselves ‘fans’, and would have posters on their walls, and keep signed set lists and ticket stubs and slavishly seek out gig tickets. This lacks anything human worth clinging to. There is nothing to truly embrace, no passion to nourish the soul. If you’re a fan of this, you may as well declare yourself a fan of milk or socks. With these things, as with Neil Hannon, the same principle applies: you might well like them, but you forget about them once you’re done with them.

ROB

Oh, Dante… you haven’t half found yourself in a predicament.

Our hero has entered the first circle of hell to be met by those in limbo – the people who aren’t allowed into heaven or hell. Some are angels (who are having a REALLY shit time of things) and the others are non-Christians.

It’s not all bad though, as Dante, (writing with MASSIVE kahunas) has been met by the great poet Homer and numerous philosophers, wordsmiths and artists. No delusions of grandeur there whatsoever.

Anyway, Neil Hannon would love to see his name on that list of great wordsmiths.

In fact, Neil Hannon fucking loves lists. So much so he keeps writing them and turning them into songs. I imagine his creative process runs thus:

“What’s for dinner,” he’d ask. “Seafood supper,” his patient and understanding significant other would say. “Really… that gives me an idea…” he’d reply.

Or perhaps: “Darling, could you toddle off to the billiard room [because Hannon clearly lives in a world where toddle off is acceptable and has a billiard room] and pass me a book?”

“What would you like to read, my little gobshite of a thesaurus” they’d say.

“Ooooh…. Give me two minutes and I’ll give you some options.”

And lo, a song is born.

In truth, musically, I’m enjoying the Divine Comedy a lot. It’s like the soundtrack to Jeeves & Wooster, where everything is rosy and gay and eccentric and completely harmless.

Hannon is insufferable though. He’s nowhere near as funny or as clever as he thinks he is and he grates more than I thought he ever could. That said, I’d probably like him if he was lobotomised and gagged, forced to communicate by humming tunes.

I’ve also decided to introduce something called the Divine Comedy Scale to my reviews. This handy reference guide will measure the level of Hannon’s smugness compared to the shit experiences of Dante. These will be out of 10, with 1 being least smug/less horrific and 10 being shit-eating grin, bellylaughing at your own jokes level of smugness and poking out your own eyes level of horror.

Promenade rates:

7/5 on the Divine Comedy Scale

CHRIS

I used to enjoy visiting the seaside with my Dad as a child. Cleethorpes – the living embodiment of Morrissey’s ‘seaside town they forgot to close down’ – was about thirty minutes from where I grew up in Scunthorpe. It was strange, really, to grow up in an (almost) post-industrial town surrounded by steel works and concrete, but to be so close to the beautiful escape of the sea. Fairly regularly, we would head over to ‘Cleggy’ and spend hours in the pool hall there (I don’t really know why we didn’t go to the one in town; it would be closer, and we wouldn’t have had to pay for petrol). The pool hall was dark, dingy and smoke filled. The outside was adorned with the kind of tired, jaded fluorescent signage where a shop name like ‘Janus Sounds’ is only one broken tube away from hilarity. Men sat in the corner reading the Daily Mail. Men at the bar asked for ‘one more’, and the barman didn’t need to ask what. It was great. Hours disappeared. Fluke shots rebounded off cushions, and near certain defeats turned into victories once Dad very surprisingly missed that easy pot.

As we emerged, seagulls picked at scabby, overflowing bins. Small children ran with sticky hands, their faces covered in ice-cream like Santa beards. The sun didn’t really shine, though. That wasn’t the kind of seaside Cleethorpes was. Cleethorpes was functional: slot machines, pool, chips, ice-cream, home. You didn’t see people walking hand in hand on the beach. At best, you might get a man in an ill-advised pair of Speedo’s failing to get a kite to rise whilst his only son cried in disappointment at his Dad’s lack of prowess.

It was great, though. I loved it. And I miss it.

However, this doesn’t seem to be the kind of seaside trip Neil Hannon wished for. ‘Promenade’ is a tale of two lovers sharing some time on the beach on a beautiful summer’s day. They share their literary prowess with lists of the authors they love (including a great nod to Richard Brautigan). This is a beach where birds beautifully swoop, stop motionless in the air and then glide out into the sea. One where you lie next to someone you love, sharing ice-cream, laughing at the hilarity of that dollop on their nose.

This is a place to fall in love. To be silent. To sing. To stare out to sea and wonder about how small everything seems. It is a nice place to be. A place to fall in love.

This is a place where that lover almost says the wrong thing, though. There are glances held for too long at passing walkers in their swimwear. The kind of place where a lover knows what to say and how to pull the heartstrings; a place where they almost outstay their welcome. If Hannon was trying to woo me he could have done with leaving the seaside about ten minutes earlier.

Anyway, I enjoyed my day at the seaside with Neil. I might even go back. I wouldn’t change it for Cleethorpes, though. And I wonder whether he would be up to the challenge of making Cleethorpes beautiful.

RORY

There comes a moment in every man’s life where he considers ending it all. Some over a lover lost, others an increasingly dire and crippling financial situation. For me it was the day I first sat through the song Book Lovers by The Divine Comedy.

Thing is Liberation wasn’t that bad, so why Neil decided to cream out this turnip is beyond anyone’s guess.

I’m confused as to why this album exists. How did this happen? Is this what people at Oxbridge listen to? Do I not get it due to a lack of intelligence? I feel like this music is laughing at me when I listen to it.

My confidence is at an all-time low now Neil. Thank you.

Liberation (1993)

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Spotify link

CHRIS

As my wife knows well – and indeed anyone within earshot in the last few weeks – I am very apprehensive about this month. The Divine Comedy, or Neil Hannon in particular, are a band that come with a heavy weight of prejudices: incredibly annoying; smug singer; a smattering of catchy songs; a dearth of impenetrable and grindingly unnecessary literary and cultural references. I could see this month as being a slog.

To assure myself, I did what I always do before listening to an album for the blog: I looked it up on Wikipedia. This is what I found:

“Several of the songs are inspired by (or refer to) works of literature: “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” is based on the short story of the same name by F. Scott Fitzgerald; “Three Sisters” is about the play of the same name by Anton Chekhov; “Lucy” is an amalgamation of three of the Lucy poems by William Wordsworth; “Timewatching” is inspired by the popular song “When I Fall In Love”; “Death of a Supernaturalist” is preceded by a quote from A Room with a View by E. M. Forster, spoken by Julian Sands and Daniel Day-Lewis and sampled from the Merchant-Ivory film of the same name. More playfully, “Festive Road” is a tribute to the children’s television programme Mr Benn.”

Go back and read that again. And again.

I almost gave up on the spot. This feels like a deliberate attempt to prove a point; the point being: ‘Look how many books I have read that you didn’t bother reading when you were studying English Literature at school”. I am not against these kinds of references, in fact, I revel in many bands who did things like this. But, these particular reference points – ‘the classics’ – along with my prior image of the band, this only reasserted what I felt to be the worse. The image of a guy sat in the corner, pipe in tow, extolling the virtues of Keats and Yeats. You know the guy – and it is usually a guy – I mean.

So, what actually happened when I pressed play?

Firstly, it was nowhere near as bad as it could have been. ‘Lucy’ is a nice song with some warm strumming and ‘The Pop Singers Fear of the Pollen Count’ is hard to not like (I do remember liking this when I was younger).

Problem is, that is the two standard models on this album: the big bouncy horn laden song, and the slightly more reserved pop number. And this is repeated over, and over, and over again. This album was a slog. It wasn’t that I particularly hated it at any point, I just felt that I was stuck in a loop. It reminded me of listening to Hannon’s touring partner in crime, Ben Folds. His albums – on average – have about three (sometimes less) good songs and the rest are pale imitations of those – I did enjoy this more than any Ben Folds album, though.

Also, as expected, I did find Hannon’s demeanour a bit hard going. Whilst he probably thinks – and correct me if I am wrong – that acting like a British aristocrat is fun and endearing, it becomes plain annoying. It was like being dragged round a National Trust property with an overzealous, secretly posh, friend.

So, overall, it was ok. I think that if he tones down the twee and artifice I might get on board with it. If he pushed it more in the direction of the Decemberists – talking about history rather than trying to be it – I can see some great songs. Hannon, this is your challenge.

ROB

As I established in my opening blog, my Artist in Residence experience for the month is something of a saucy little three-way between Dante, Neil Hannon and myself. I imagine it to be something akin to Come Dine With Me, with me playing the role of the straight-man as Hannon and Dante lurch from crisis to disaster…

Dante, it has to be said, is having a pretty shit time of things. He’s been trying to get somewhere yet has been railroaded by three animals – a wolf, a leopard and a lion. Armed with my B in English literature A Levels, I’m gonna stick my neck out and say these three animals are allegories for vices that stop you getting into heaven, meaning Dante’s forced to ask for help from some angels. That’s as far as I got, but I’m not hopeful for our hero (spoiler alert: I already know the Divine Comedy is about Dante’s journey through the levels of hell – so yeah, I’m guessing those angels are pretty fucking useless).

Hannon, on the other hand, seems to be enjoying himself. I imagine him writing music in a turtleneck, supping on a pipe while a kitten plays with a ball of string. He’ll laugh gaily every now and then when he conjures up a funny line or evokes a particular image, self-satisfied in his smugness…

Whisper it quietly but I didn’t actually hate ‘Liberation’. Some of it’s annoying – real fucking annoying – but a lot of it reminded me of of Montreal’s ‘Satanic Panic In the Attic’ – my favourite of Montreal record. If this is what we’re in for all month, I might actually emerge unscathed on the other side. Unlike Dante…

MARTIN

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I haven’t been looking forward to Divine Comedy month. My experience of them, however small, leads me to believe that I will gain no pleasure whatsoever from listening to these albums.

Liberation appears to confirm this when I start to play it. I used to love the children’s cartoon Mr Benn when I was a kid. But never once did I think , “Do you know what? This would lend itself well to being the subject of a dreary piano ballad as the first track of a debut album”. Because it doesn’t. This track is shockingly dismal.

Then something unexpected happens. The next two tracks, Death of a Supernaturalist and Bernice Bobs Her Hair pass by and I quite enjoy them. Good melodies. Kind of like Belle and Sebastian on their more bouncy moments. I feel like I could have spoken far too soon.

However, the rest of the album neither irks me nor jerks me. It’s simply a present sound, floating along forgettably with only a couple more songs which vaguely prick up my ears. The Pop Singer’s Fear of the Pollen Count and Lucy peep their heads marginally over the ramparts of mediocrity, only to get shot in the face by my general apathy.

So in summary it’s much better than I expected. But as I expected so little, that is not much praise I’m afraid. Some of my AIR colleagues have listened further and noted that it stays pretty samey. I’m hoping there will still be the occasional gem because at least there are two decent songs on this record which I wouldn’t turn off if I heard them again.

JAMIE

I stick on Liberation and about four songs in I think to myself, ‘this really is pleasant.’ It reminds me of vanilla ice cream, in a nice way. What’s wrong with vanilla anyway? It’s better than dog shit and broken glass flavour. I had my fill of that during Sonic Youth month incidentally.

About halfway through the album, I totally zone out. I start thinking of items I need to pick up from the shops.

1. Lemonade.
2. Shit tickets.
3. Crisps.
4. Limes…

That’s the main problem with this album. It’s really quite boring in its entirety. There are some stand out songs however. Death of a Supernaturalist is great. I actually really like Your Daddy’s Car too. The Pop Singer’s Fear of the Pollen Count is decent too (such a Morrissey song title that) despite including potent levels of extra mature cheddar in the lyrics.

As a debut, it’s not a bad record overall. It’s main problem is it’s too long at 13 tracks. 3 songs could easily have been trimmed off and it would have been stronger overall.

LUKE

The first track of the month was Festive Road. Listening to it was very much like standing at the foot of a mountain and finding you have no boots on. And the only music on your iPod is the Divine Comedy. And you strongly suspect you won’t like the Divine Comedy. And the mountain is actually a massive pile of agitated bears.

Why the trepidation? It’s remarkable how convinced I seem to be of what to expect despite only knowing a handful of songs from a lengthy career. This may well be a commendable thing. For better or worse, Neil Hannon has acquired a reputation that precedes him. That has to be better than being boring.

Such a reputation is justified in part by this album’s litany of twee song titles. It is a collection of the dowdiest jumble of words I have ever seen, evoking images of lazily thumbing through charity shop bric-a-brac on a rainy day. If you don’t believe me, have a look at the track listing for yourself:

The Battenberg Imbroglio
Your Pantaloons
Awash With Love
Deirdre Makes The Sandwiches
Wonderful Time At The Summer Fete
Grandmother Is Lovely
Larks!
On Liking You Lots
Kindly Uncle George
Me and Crumpets

None of those tracks are real of course, but the point they make most certainly is. It’s all so fey. I want to punch him about his face. There is a clear Beatles influence (Death of a Supernaturalist bears traces of Eleanor Rigby), and some of the song titles and lyrics are redolent of Morrissey. Such influences should bring more bite than this though. It’s pop as imagined by a man who never saw a nice china teapot he didn’t like.

I Was Born Yesterday starts off well, with a stomping, almost glam-rock beat, until a spoken-word passage that is the very epitome of insipid. It rivals M83’s Graveyard Girl as a good song ruined by an ill-advised monologue.

There are some high points. Europop and The Pop Singer’s Fear Of The Pollen Count are the first additions to my Best Of compilation. They are the sound not just of nicey-nicey vocals and electric organs, but of hope. More of this sort of thing and we might get along just fine.

RORY

August has traditionally been referred to as a month of grave injustice in my household. My mum’s often cited legal battle with the council over her refusal to cut an overhanging holly bush, which was as the council said ‘making it almost impossible to navigate the pavement’, came to a head around mid-August ’95 leading her to remove said bush and spend a cool two month stretch pruning park bushes in a run down Beckenham park as a punishment.

Say what you want about my mum, but she’s a woman of principle.

Anyway, August is here again. How do I know that you may ask? Well, I checked my phone and I’m 80% sure my calendar is accurate.

Upon hearing that we were listening to The Divine Comedy I feared another grave injustice would be inflicted upon me. A summer of ’95 if you will.

However Liberation is ok.

It has given me three songs I would listen to again. Bernice Bobs Her Hair, I Was Born Yesterday and Europop. I actually really love Bernice Bobs Her Hair, so thank you Neil.

It has also displeased me. I feel like if Death of a Supernaturalist was a person it would be dressed like Elton John on his wedding day, go by the name Marquis Le Flume and pickpocket poor people despite being obscenely rich. Your Daddy’s Car sounds like Marquis Le Flume mixed with the Sims.

As I review each album I will be taking particular interest in how Marquis Le Flume each album is. Harpsichord should only be used in Victorian dramas and sparingly at that.

Liberation is a mixed bag. I’m mostly indifferent to it. Roll on Promenade.

August ’15 – The Divine Comedy

Everybody knows this month’s Artist In Residence (except you)…

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CHRIS

The Divine Comedy – or more specifically their singer Neil Hannon – are the musical equivalent of the guy in the pub who only says one thing an hour. The guy who waits until he can drop a pithy – preferably erudite – zinger. He has nothing to say unless it is grounded in some literary reference, or cultural oddity. He doesn’t engage in small talk, he just waits for you to slip up and, if needs be, make a joke of the situation. Preferably with a footnote lifted from Keats or Byron. He is the guy that has been plaguing your social life for years, but no one has the heart to to ask to go away.

“Oh, Neil? Ah, yeah, that’s just the way it is. You will get used to it.”

I did previously go through a brief interest in the Divine Comedy. I heard ‘Gin Soaked Boy’ on a Daniel Kitson podcast, and I actually thought it was great. Catchy, funny, and light hearted. Due to the wonders of digital technology, I managed to acquire all the albums. I have subsequently tried on multiple occasions to work through these, and on all attempts have failed. There is something about the pomposity of it that really grinds me. It feels like every song has a knowing nod to the camera; an attempt to recognise our ‘hilarious’ leader.

I was recently referred to as ‘cultured’ at work. I didn’t take this well. I see ‘cultured’ as being someone like Neil Hannon. Someone who throws it down your throat at all times. Likewise, someone who is stuck in the past; and this is something I particularly dislike (currently, that is) about the Divine Comedy: that constant reversion to the mores of Georgian England. That constant drive to be Oscar Wilde (similarly why I always have some aversion to Stephen Fry).

But, as I am a fair man, I am going to give this month a fair shot. I already know a number of songs, and there are even a couple that I like. But, it is the volume I am concerned about. And, to quote Stephen Morrissey, I am worried about how long it will be until that “Joke isn’t funny Anymore”.

MARTIN

My initial thoughts on the Divine Comedy before commencing this month’s listening will be fairly brief.
My knowledge of them consists of these facts.

1. They are Irish.
2. The singer/band mastermind is called Neil Hannon.
3. They wrote the Father Ted theme tune.
4. They had 3 really annoying songs in the late 90s that I’m aware of. Something about a woodshed, National Express and something about Alfie.

That’s it. I fear we are not going to get on. Nine albums of that stuff seems like a challenge. But I like to think I’m open minded and surely the whole point of this blog is experiencing stuff you’ve never heard before as well as championing stuff you like. I could be proven utterly wrong. But I just remember his smarmier than thou persona dripping over those previously mentioned songs to the point of saturation.

Also, ‘chamber pop’? Have a word.

RORY

When I was head hunted for this blog I was promised the chance to freely express my opinions on all the latest tunes pumping out of Radio 1 no matter how old fashioned, irrelevant or frankly wrong they were.

Yet again I have been pissed on.

Where’s 50 Cent month? When can I kick it with some Blu Cantrell? All the kids are getting down to the Editors and Keane. So why aren’t we?

Anyway I’m a professional man about town so I will take this month seriously.

The Divine Comedy. Ol’ DC. DiCom. I mean I have nothing to say really. Currently to me they are just some band that once made some LPs.

Interestingly we are doing this band because Jamie’s boss likes them. So as I grit my teeth and think of England whilst I thoroughly un-enjoy myself I’ll imagine Jamie getting that big promotion and feel warm that I had a part to play in it.

Welcome to middle management son.

JAMIE

This month is my choice.

I know very little about this band actually. Like most, my main reference point is Father Ted as the band penned the opening theme song and a song by Norway’s finest Nin Huguen and the Huguenotes (plagiarised by Ted for My Lovely Horse).

I told my Northern Irish friend Richard that we were doing Divine Comedy this month and he told me that Neil Hannon came to his school when he was younger. This was a big deal by all accounts. He’s a big wheel over there, much like Icy Tea or Scoopy Scoopy Dog Dog. Richard says that he asked the pupils what song they wanted to hear and they said My Lovely Horse. Apparently he wasn’t best pleased.

I do not know what to expect. I think that the others hate me for making this choice. Frankly, fuck em’. I’ve suffered though Sonic Youth month in the past. Maybe it’s their time to feel the pain.

LUKE

Everybody Knows That I Love You (Except You)
National Express
At The Indie Disco
Father Ted theme tune

That’s pretty much it for me. I know his name is Neil Hannon, and that he also wrote My Lovely Horse. Otherwise, I’m going in blind.

I’m less excited than I was for the Replacements, as I expected them to be more closely aligned with my general music tastes than I anticipate the Divine Comedy to be. But then I leave Replacements month behind with a greater appreciation and understanding of the band’s story than I do for their actual music.

So who knows? I could be in for a surprise, though I doubt it very much. I fear a barrage of tweeness, if the concept of twee could ever possibly organise itself in anything so frightfully vicious as a barrage in the first place.

If all else fails, we’ll always have that sax solo…

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ROB

I’d like to think no-one would consider us here at Artist in Residence to be judgemental or close-minded. We’ve tackled Sonic Youth, The Beastie Boys and The Replacements with verve, aplomb and attitude.

I feel we’re like those marathon men who do outrageous triathlons just to test ourselves and find our limits (who am I kidding, we have no limits).

With that in mind, I’m tackling The Divine Comedy differently. I’m going to read the epic poem of the same name. And to keep on topic, I’m going to soundtrack it with a band who have a lead singer I would take great delight in ripping out his warbly vocal chords. I won’t even cheat and use The Penguin notes…

As someone who has little interest in poetry or shitty pop music this will be my Everest.

If I don’t make it to the end, someone send out a search party…

OUR LISTENING THIS MONTH

Liberation (1993)

Promenade (1994)

Casanova (1996)

A Short Album About Love (1997)

Fin de Siecle (1998)

Regeneration (2001)

Absent Friends (2004)

Victory For The Comic Muse (2006)

Bang Goes The Knighthood (2010)

NOTE: The first album, Fanfare For The Comic Muse, was released in 1990, and subsequently deleted “due to its stylistic difference from the band’s later works, heading towards a more R.E.M.-styled jangle pop direction than their more distinctive orchestral pop output”. Which is one way of saying it was probably absolute shite. As such, it is not available on Spotify. If Hannon hates it, so do we.