The divine Divine Comedy

by Stephen Tall on June 25, 2006

The Divine Comedy – the popular musical beat combo, not Dante Alighieri’s epic poem, m’lud – divide music fans and critics alike.

Those who cannot stand them find their lyrics poncy, archly knowing, just too damn clever-by-half; and their music a retro-pastiche melding Scott Walker, the Beach Boys and Debussy. All of which means that those of us who love them can happily agree with those who don’t.

Neil Hannon is the Divine Comedy, its musical auteur. His love of language, widely read gawkiness, and raunchy politeness, are never far from the surface. Here’s a typical DivCom lyric, exemplifying his fey, punning, lustily aching soulfulness:

I cannot remember
The last time that I saw such a young ballerina
In love with the loveless
In tune with a tuneless old upright piano
Standing en pointe
Going through each position with gentle precision
She measures each movement
Her classical features and elegant waistline
Are going to waste as she pleases her parents

(‘I was born yesterday’, Liberation (1993))

Hannon refuses ever to countenance taking anything too seriously, constantly under-cutting even the most heartfelt emotional agonies. Here’s a breathlessly intense journey into the dark soul of a lothario whose life has no meaning except its own momentum:

“You deserve to be horse-whipped
But I’ve no horse”, that joke’s so shit
And whips would only make it worse
Don’t tempt the lonely and perverse
The casualties of casual sex
The child of three with X-ray specs
The conman low in self esteem
The Casanova in your dreams
I’ll scream and scream and scream until
I’ve made myself critically ill
In hospital, in case you’re there
In uniform, intensive care
I know you’ll be the death of me
But what a cool death that would be
I’d rather die than be deprived
Of Wonderbras and thunder thighs

(‘Through a long and sleepless night’, Casanova (1996))

DivCom’s latest album, their ninth – Victory For The Comic Muse – has just been released, and is another triumph. Hannon has a gift for recognising the lonely sullenness of adolescent yearnings – many of which we never grow out of – and to translate these into touchingly funny universal truths.

The first track from the album, ‘To Die A Virgin’ – as well as having the best orchestral arrangement you will hear this year – brilliantly recalls a teenage boy’s seedy frustration (updating the desperate sophistry so familiar from Andrew Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’):

With all the bombs and the bird-flu
We’re probably gonna be dead soon
And here we are in your bedroom
Oh did I tell you I love you I love you
I love you
I can feel your heart beating
And your breathing increasing
Your folks are out for the evening
I really hope I’m not dreaming
I don’t want to die a virgin.

(Listen to it here.)

Hannon is proof that cleverness and intelligence in pop music are not antithetical. But that the combination is not always welcomed.

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Stephen, you might be interested to know that I have been in correspondence with the grandson of “Woodbine Willie”. Following the mention of “Woodbine Willie” (aka Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy) in Divine Comedy’s superb “Absent Friends”, I looked WW up on the web and read a book about him. I was so inspired that I did some searching and found that the grandson of Woodbine Willie is a vicar quite near me in Marlborough, Wiltshire. I wrote to him in appreciation of his grandfather and he wrote back enclosing a tribute to the great man from the Church Times. I have a Pub Quiz question forming in my mind: Name three figures in popular music who are the sons of bishops. Unfortunately, so far I have only two of which I know: Neil Hannon and Tim Westwood of Radio One. I’d love to find a third to complete my question!

by Paul Walter on June 25, 2006 at 5:39 pm. Reply #

Thanks for that snippet, Paul! Only other famous bishop’s son I can think of is Hugh Dennis – who was on Radio 1 for the Mary Whitehouse Experience; but has never (to my knowledge) been a popular musician, though neither has Tim Westwood.

by Stephen Tall on June 25, 2006 at 6:15 pm. Reply #

Thanks for the link, Stephen. Very good track. Also I think the first time I’ve heard “Handy Andy” used as a euphemism…

by Will on June 25, 2006 at 7:28 pm. Reply #

I bought “Victory for the Comic Muse” on Saturday and would have posted something about it if I hadn’t been rushing to go on holiday.

Clearly, we need to found Lib Dem Bloggers For The Divine Comedy.

by Jonathan on June 26, 2006 at 10:39 am. Reply #

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