Genius is like money; 90 percent of it is owned by a mere 10 percent of the population. When it comes to describing songwriters, the expression is thrown about with little regard to its literal meaning; Rob Thomas, for example may be a hit maker with a knack for songwriting and a dedicated work ethic. But try as he may, he doesn’t have a speck of genius.
Not so, Neil Hannon. Divine Comedy’s diminutive frontman (and, once again, sole member), he of the booming baritone and caustic wit, is positively bursting with genius. At times, it has hindered him; 2001’s Regeneration, while a thoughtful overhaul of the baroque pop juggernaut he’s steered these last ten years, worked against Hannon’s strengths far more than it worked with them. Hannon clearly realized this, because Absent Friends, which he produced himself and played nearly singlehandedly, is a back-to-basics affair — which, of course, means that there’s nothing basic about it — with the orchestra putting in overtime to make up for taking the last album off. Lyrically, it feels like Hannon’s version of Blur’s The Great Escape; the focus is less on him and more on an assorted (and sordid) cast of imaginary friends, jet setting absentee fathers, and shiny happy people dressed head to toe in black. While he’s still as self-absorbed as he’s always been, shifting tenses has loosened Hannon up and in turn inspired one of the best albums he’s made to date.
This is all, oddly, in spite of the album’s leadoff, and title, track, which boasts a string crescendo not unlike the riff from the U.S. Beef Council. (Absent friends. They’re what’s for dinner.) The verses about Steve McQueen and Oscar Wilde, in particular, — “Oscar Wilde / Was a lonely child”, ugh — seem beneath Hannon’s abilities. The best verse, and the only verse that seems to matter, is the last one, where Hannon laments, “On happy days, we thought that they would never end / But they always end / Raise your glasses, then, to absent friends”. If nothing else, the song works as an apt metaphor for Hannon’s decision to dissolve the band, again, and go it alone.
First single “Come Home Billy Bird” has a strong autobiographical feel, what with Hannon touring the U.S. extensively in the same year he had his first child. The “international business traveler” in the title, by song’s end, has run screaming from the airport, leaving his luggage behind, in order to see his son’s football game. Hannon is undoubtedly experiencing a massive shift in priorities, and if “Billy Bird” is to be taken literally, the real reason behind Hannon’s decision to disband the group and record on his own schedule is laid bare for all to see. Either way, it’s a far more insightful love song to a child than, say, Bob Carlisle’s “Butterfly Kisses”. Fatherhood has also put him in touch with his own childhood: “My Imaginary Friend” recalls his days of spending every second with, and then abandoning, the closest friend he never had. Like the title track, it serves as a fitting metaphor.
And then there’s “The Happy Goth”, the album’s landmark achievement. A surefire new entry to any fan’s list of favorite DC songs of all time, “Goth” wraps a hilarious and note-perfect lyric around the bounciest melody Hannon’s written this side of “National Express”. But it’s his rhyming of “cloth” with the ice planet of “Hoth” from the Star Wars movies (which also doubles as metaphor for the color of his subject’s skin) that elevates the song to the stuff of, yes, genius.
Three orchestral tracks, spaced throughout the album, serve as a Suite of sorts. They share little except an affinity for minor keys, but serve as proof positive that Hannon dearly missed the boys in the pit. “Leaving Today”, overblown but admittedly powerful, seems written for a different kind of stage than he’s used to playing. As Hannon confesses to his love that it’s time to go, he hits his damsel with a line that will surely haunt her dreams for life: “I could stay if you asked me / So for God’s sake, don’t ask me to stay”. “The Wreck of the Beautiful”, true to its title, tells the tale of a once state-of-the-art ship going on its last fateful voyage, and paints a sonic landscape as vivid as the lyrics. “Our Mutual Friend” excoriates a treacherous mate who serves as matchmaker to Hannon’s lovestruck romantic, only to steal her away from Hannon the next morning. The orchestra’s haunting, swelling finale sells the last two minutes as if Hannon’s tryst led to the death scene from Romeo & Juliet.
Closing track “Charmed Life” is destined for a long life as a wedding song for hipsters, though it seems to be written about his daughter. It’s possibly the most unabashed love song Hannon has ever penned, though lines like “But I knew I’d find the one / And sure enough, she came along / And not long after that, along came you” are open to wry interpretation. Is he talking about his child, or the pursuit of love itself, and how love at first sight is almost never love at last sight? Either way, a terrific love song is a terrific love song, and Hannon hits this one out of the park.
Absent Friends must have been a hard album for Hannon to make. For all the freedoms he has given himself in order to continue his lifestyle at his own pace, he was forced to say goodbye to the very people who helped him get to this point in the first place, and as Hannon himself admits in “Charmed Life”, that kind of breaking up is so very hard to do. Had Hannon churned out another Regeneration-type rock dirge, we may be speaking of his aforementioned genius in terms of how it was squandered, not nurtured. But part of growing up means leaving people behind, and Absent Friends is Hannon’s big — if painful — first step forward as father/musician, not the other way around. Raise your glasses, then.