You may recall that back in 1992 I wrote in praise of bands’ earlier stuff. In that instance, the band in question was Pulp. This time around it’s The Divine Comedy.
The term “band” should, of course, be applied loosely. For two reasons. Firstly, The Divine Comedy is little more than a pseudonym for Neil Hannon, the only constant acting as a frontman to a variable line-up of supporting musicians.
Secondly, those supporting musicians are not the guitarists and bass players you would expect to see in a pop music combo. More often, when it comes to The Divine Comedy, we’re talking about a chamber orchestra.
Hannon’s outfit is probably most famous for the stuff that came from two albums: 1996’s Casanova and Fin de Siècle from 1998. Across those two records you will find the most familiar songs: ‘Something for the Weekend’, ‘Alfie’, ‘Songs of Love’ (that’s the theme to Father Ted to you and me), ‘National Express’ and ‘Generation Sex’.
But there is something particularly alluring about the contents of an earlier album: 1994’s Promenade. As anyone who’s heard Casanova (or any of its constituent parts) will testify, Neil Hannon cuts a rather rakish figure – albeit an incredibly well-read rakish figure – in keeping with the character of that album’s inspiration.
Casanova’s predecessor shows that, if at all possible, the well-read, bookish element of Hannon’s character was scaled back for 1996. By contrast, Promenade hits listeners with a barrage of highbrow references. And when not introducing listeners to European cinema or outlining a case for atheism against the backdrop of a fairground, Hannon is singing about fish.
Promenade in particular (and The Divine Comedy in general) will not appeal to many. I readily accept this.
There is a certain apparent affectation and pretention about much of the early stuff that will doubtlessly leave many a listener cold. For this listener though, that is part of the appeal. It’s arch and knowing and ironic and all those other things that 6th form grammar school boys find utterly enticing.
You might as well know: a part of me will always be a 6th form grammar school boy.
And so, when, in ‘The Book Lovers’, Neil Hannon follows a sample of Audrey Hepburn talking about epiphenomenalism in Funny Face with a list of classic authors, listeners like this one will immediately think “and why not?”. It seems like an eminently sensible (if slightly off-the-wall) thing to do on a pop record.
After that, they’ll start rifling through the list to pick out novels to add to their “to read” list. If Hannon and co. like Simone de Beauvoir, Richard Brautigan and A. S. Byatt, maybe we will too.
Songs from Promenade provided solace for bookworms and geeks around two decades before such traits became socially acceptable.
And for that, Mr Hannon, I salute you.