Ten albums in, and Neil Hannon proves himself to be as able as ever -- with fewer dirty jokes.
Neil Hannon has made an interesting journey over his lengthy career as the sole continuous member of the Divine Comedy, turning from an almost Leslie Philips-esque level of knowingly gaudy British humor to a far more opulent artistic sensibility. Though he’s still capable of the odd blue joke, he is now just as good at writing adult and incredibly affecting songs along the lines of Tindersticks, or any number of more melodramatic artist. Bang Goes the Knighthood, with its silly artwork depicting Hannon in the bath wearing a bowler hat with a dog, might initially convince some that the new level of seriousness achieved on previous records like Absent Friends and Victory for the Comic Muse had been cast aside for the time being, but it’s a bit more complex than that.
The divide between those humorous and serious songwriting guises, though, is completely bridged by the opening "Down in the Street Below". A Lloyd-Webber-ian romp that mutates seamlessly from plaintive love song of doubted commitment to a Vaudevillian pomp shuffle, it’s a five minute tour of Neil Hannon, the songwriter. That is, nagging truths delightfully evoked in the lyrics and impeccably arranged musical exposition to rival even the most skilled and studied of composers. As a miniature work, it really is impressively realized -- a cavalcade of oscillating piano and pastoral string melodies, all underpinned by the narrative. As bold as it is interesting, this is Hannon at his very best.
The Divine Comedy’s history of singles is surprisingly good, and the lead from Bang Goes the Knighthood is no exception. "At the Indie Disco" is a knowing (and more than slightly affectionate) critique of the culture of the indie disco, and quite a hip-swinger to boot. The name-checking of certain turntable stalwarts are totally spot-on, from "Blue Monday" to the Wannadies, and to have it quietly governed by another acute relationship observation is only icing on the cake. It leaves the listener with the impression that this is a subcultural guilty pleasure for Hannon, far away from the mocking tone it might initially suggest.
Later, Hannon is painfully eloquent on the rather mature "When a Man Cries". Despite its oddly Bon Jovi-esque title, the dissection of the average Joe’s grief is dramatic, true-to-life and rendered stellar by that chiming tenor. If any assurance was needed that Hannon is now a more mature songwriter than ever, this is the song to provide it. Of course, it’s never straight-forward with such a varied artist. The following track, "Can You Stand Upon One Leg", is just shy of being totally ridiculous, building up to one hilarious climax -- an obscenely long (clocked at roughly 30 seconds) and high finishing note. Far from the strongest joke that Hannon has ever wangled into a song, but it still raises a smile.
Despite the constant lurches between whimsy and harsh-focused storytelling and the lack of flow that it results in, there are several highlights throughout Bang Goes the Knighthood that fare favorably when lined up to Neil Hannon’s strongest material. We ought to thank goodness that he got the majority of his whimsical leanings out of his system via the obscurely delightful Duckworth Lewis Method (a cricket-themed, Ivor Novello-nominated side-project from last year), because the substance here is more easily found in the softer, slower, serious numbers. At 10 albums in, too, there’s little to worry about for the Divine Comedy for the future -- and that Knighthood might still be in the cards.