Neil Hannon, the diminutive blond Englishman who is the heart and soul of The Divine Comedy, named his band’s last studio CD Fin de Siecle. It’s French for “End of the Century” and that title couldn’t be more apt for the band’s trajectory. Where that last record’s themes and moods were dark takes on pre-millennial paranoia wrapped in strings, horns and choirs, Regeneration is the morning-after hangover, all fuzzy and distracted.
Hannon made his name on heavily orchestrated mini-epics; it was Britpop for the English Lit professors of the world. Clad in dark undertaker’s suits and perfectly kempt hair, he looked and played the man who would never let a wrinkle show in his songwriting or his clothes. The new CD abandons that ethos for a journey into the new century’s post-Radiohead landscape.
The sound is legit enough. Having Radiohead’s producer, Nigel Godrich, at the helm would naturally make it so. All the pieces are set up for an easy transformation to 21st-century mope-rock. So why does a lot of Regeneration sound like Hannon fell asleep on the job? I’m all for artists branching out into new sounds, but The Divine Comedy’s abandonment of their precious, nose-thumbing snobbery is abandoning what made them so great in the first place. The dour photograph on the back sleeve shows the new democracy (all band members present, not just Neil) and slacker wardrobe choices. After hearing tracks like “Note to Self” and “Eye of the Needle”, it’s clear Radiohead-frenzy is apparent in sound and not just in Hannon’s shaggy new haircut and trainers.
The production is clean and beautiful, but somewhat pedestrian. It’s the curse of the Travises and Coldplays of the world. Radiohead’s bastard children have turned out as having everything in place, everyone looking the part and still…a sense of boredom remains.
Not all is lost on Regeneration. Hannon’s lyrical wit still packs a punch and his rich, deep voice swirls around more successful tracks like “Perfect Lovesong” and “Love What You Do”. These songs marry the sharp melodies and panache of older Divine Comedy tracks with restrained post-rock touches. They end of the CD on a smashing note with “The Beauty Regime”, lambasting celebrity culture while building another one of Hannon’s brittle but gorgeous sonic epics. All is not lost. There may be a dapper, dark suit under those baggy jeans after all.