Neil Hannon has largely toned down his extravagant look-at-me persona, and decided instead to rely on the quality of his song-writing.
Back in the day you had been part of the smart set
You’d holidayed with kings, dined out with starlets
From London to New York, Cap Ferrat to Capri
In perfume by Chanel, and clothes by Givenchy
You sipped Camparis with David and Vita
At Noel’s parties by Lake Geneva
Scaling the dizzy heights of high society
Armed only with a chequebook and a family tree
-- "A Lady of a Certain Age"
The very first Divine Comedy album was the long-deleted and hard-to-acquire Fanfare for the Comic Muse. Clearly then, there's a suggestion that Victory for the Comic Muse might mark an ending of some kind or other. But it's pointless to speculate on Neil Hannon's intentions -- if any, so let's just focus on the here and the now.
In my previous experience, a little of Neil Hannon has always gone a long way. Indeed, A Short Album About Love is my favourite Divine Comedy album precisely because it's, well, short. While stand-out tracks such as "Tonight We Fly", "Becoming More Like Alfie", and "Everybody Knows (Except You)" will always have a place on my iPod, I've found the albums themselves hard to swallow. Though charming in miniature, when taken in large doses, his wry role-playing, character studies, and over-acting have tended to come across as contrived and over-bearing rather than sophisticated and witty. His music as aspirational rather than inspirational. Victory for the Comic Muse, however, puts most of these criticisms to the sword. Having first encouraged them in spades.
"If there's a war, I'll sleep with you before you get killed..."
Regretfully, the first words you hear when you slip Victory into your CD player are delivered in the plummy tones of an English actress giving her very best eccentric upper class tease. I don't know the source, but I suspect it comes from an early '90s British TV adaptation of Mary Wesley's The Camomile Lawn. And if it doesn't, it certainly should. But really, this is such a tired old gimmick that I winced when I heard it -- like Prometheus reading Wodehouse on Vultures.
I've long suspected that people who open their albums with this kind of dialogue are also much given to planning their own funerals, and spend far too many hours each day fantasising about their appearance on the BBC's Desert Island Discs. In short, they tend to have their heads up their arses. So I was already mentally filing Victory away under Y (for Why Doesn't He Just Give It Up?) when the splendidly string-driven thing called "To Die a Virgin" popped up behind the dialogue to persuade me otherwise.
Well, we've been going together
Since the eighth of November
And though it seems like forever
I very clearly remember
You told me on our first date
What you'd do on my birthday
Well hooray! it's my birthday!
And frankly, baby, I can't wait.
-- "To Die a Virgin"
"To Die a Virgin" is a charming, catchy little story about a schoolboy who's been wearing out all his brother's magazines and his mother's tissues, while waiting for a very special birthday present, worrying all the time that either bird flu or terrorism would get to him first. And while you don't need to know that Hannon's birthday is November 7th to enjoy "To Die a Virgin", it certainly doesn't hurt to think of the singer waiting 364 days for a shag. Longer if it was a leap year.
I've heard Neil Hannon has described Victory as his least auto-biographical work to-date. Well, as Morrissey might say, I wonder...
It was not so long ago
That it first occured to me
That my mother was a person in her own right
-- "Mother Dear"
Every bit as likeable as "To Dee a Vee", Victory's second song, "Mother Dear", builds upon a country banjo theme to present the confessions of a boy who used to think he was adopted, behaved atrociously to his parents, and now hopes his Mommie Dearest doesn't feel too let down by what he's done and what he's become.
Although Neil Hannon was born in Northern Ireland and now resides in Dublin, his work has always seemed almost entirely and archetypically English in nature. At least as English, let's say, as Shaw or Wilde. And the boy is clearly mad for Noel Coward. Apparently inspired by a thorough reading of The Master's diaries, "A Lady of a Certain Age" certainly drops his name with a resounding clunk. It's a touching tale of the lonely winter years of a society belle fallen on less golden times. Rich in detail and pathos, "A Lady of a Certain Age" is sung plainly, free of almost all the vocal dramatics that Hannon often affects. Less being more and all that, the song carries the singer and not the other way around.
And this is the joy of the greater part of Victory. Hannon has largely toned down his extravagant look-at-me persona, and decided instead to rely on the quality of his song-writing. Always and undeniably clever, he's mostly stopped the clever-clever. Although he sadly couldn't resist the temptation to divide Victory into two parts with a brief piano interlude entitled "Threesome". Named no doubt to reflect that it was played by three pairs of hands, and not at all to hint at "sophisticated" or "louche" sexual practices.
There seems to be no thematic reason for this division. Just as there seems to be no justification for the inclusion of the song that follows it -- a dire, orchestrated cover of the Associates' "Party Fears Two" which actually manages to be worse than the original simply because Hannon's enunciation is so clear that you can hear every single awful word. Happily the four remaining songs are a varied and intriguing bunch -- even the outrageous musical theatre of "The Plough". The best, without doubt, is "Arthur C Clarke's Mysterious World" -- my new favourite Divine Comedy song.
She's a mass of contraditions
A pick-and-mix of strange conviction
Which can be a source of friction
But there are worse afflictions
Love doesn't make distinctions
-- "Arthur C Clarke's Mysterious World"
An absolute pop joy detailed with horns and strings, "Arthur C Clarke's Mysterious World" compares the singer's girlfriend to all the unsolved mysteries of the natural world. Decides that science can do a better job of explaining precisely how an already infinite universe can continue to expand -- and where to -- than it can of understanding her. And then concludes that it really doesn't matter anyway because their love is as deep as the Baltic Sea.
Victory has all the usual Divine Comedy trappings, of course, both literary and musical. Here a riff copped from Dostoevsky; there a theme borrowed from Holst; and over in the corner, a song that sounds like Babybird meets the Teardrop Explodes in a harpsichord shop. I haven't counted, but I think there are more Cor Anglais solos than guitar solos on Victory for the Comic Muse. This alone should be enough to make Mrs Hannon proud. I shall be watching her little boy's progress with interest.
The Divine Comedy - Diva Lady