With the Divine Comedy's 11th studio album songwriter Neil Hannon delivers romance, comedy, and 18th century Russian history.
Plenty of bands and artists have tried to perfect chamber pop into an ideal mixture classical ideas, instrumentation, and compositions with modern sensibilities and textures. Some end up landing mostly in the pop category with a few strings and horns sprinkled in, other veer far into the experimental and lose any pop appeal entirely. But Neil Hannon, leader and only consistent member of the Divine Comedy, apparently hit the ideal balance sometime in the late ‘90s and just keeps running with it. But Foreverland doesn’t sound like the result of an artist that’s been at it for over two decades. It’s still fresh and impressively in tune with the rest of the musical landscape.
Hannon has built his career at least partially on very clever, wink-nudge songwriting. His ability to write odd little songs about standing one one leg and beating your dad at chess one moment, then turn around and and perform a heart-wrenching ballad of lost love the next moment is utterly singular. He’s quirky and funny without being seen as a childish novelty artist and he’s poetic and thoughtful without appearing aloof or elitist. And he makes that delicate balance seem almost easy, especially on this new album.
Foreverland is rich with intricate orchestral arrangements right from the beginning. “Napoleon Complex” fairly shimmers with lively strings and bouncy percussion. Hannon delivers a clever and comedic -- if historically innacurate -- lyrical story that sets the tone for the rest of the album. It’s very musically complex and serious in its composition, but the lyrical content, well, that’s where the charm really kicks in. “Catherine the Great” sits a jangly pop tune on top of classical period harpsichord as Hannon sings the praises of Russia’s 18th century Empress in only semi-accurate terms. And the duet of “Funny Peculiar” is light and cute and ultimately charming even for all of it’s cloying sweetness.
For some Absent Friends was a high point for Hannon. The album exuded a sense of the fact that he had essentially just become a solo artist and it came off as moody. Bang Goes the Knighthood also stands out as a successful work, but it was heavily cynical and sarcastic which took away from the music’s charm. But with an album that centers primarily around love and personal relationships, Hannon seems to have less to be cynical about. So many of the songs are uncharacteristically uplifting like “My Happy Place” and “To the Rescue”. Even the solemn and tender song “Other People”, after setting a contemplative mood with emotionally swelling strings and words that tug at the heartstrings, ends abruptly with Hannon stopping mid thought and trailing of saying “And blah, blah, blah". That’s one way to lighten the mood back up again and it’s moments like that that are unexpected but effectively balance the feeling.
The album’s low points don’t necessarily have a single notable weakness, they just seem mostly superfluous surrounded by the more successful tracks. After an initial listen, the listener wants to return to memorable stories like “I Joined the Foreign Legion (To Forget)” or to relatable and unique takes on standard love songs like “How Can You Leave Me on My Own”. Songs like the title track seem too predictable or understated to have the same initial quality that makes you want to put the song on repeat.
After over 25 years of tweaking the formula, Neil Hannon clearly still fits into his niche. But it’s expanding and morphing with every iteration and Foreverland is one of the more notable ones. He and his band seem to not only have perfected the genre of orchestral pop, but to have perfected their own balance of goofiness and sincerity. It’s a peculiar kind of funny and it’s strangely attractive.