Music

The Divine Comedy: Victory for the Comic Muse

Neil Hannon has largely toned down his extravagant look-at-me persona, and decided instead to rely on the quality of his song-writing.


The Divine Comedy

Victory for the Comic Muse

Label: EMI International
US Release Date: Available as import
UK Release Date: 2006-06-19
Amazon
iTunes

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

7

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Music

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

Keep reading... Show less

Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image