After six long years, one of the most unique and acclaimed songwriters in pop is back doing what he does best. “The Divine Comedy is me at my purest,” says Neil Hannon. “It's like potcheen, completely unadulterated 100 per cent proof Hannon brain. Whether that's a good thing or not may depend on your taste.”
Foreverland is The Divine Comedy's eleventh album and features twelve flamboyantly melodic, lyrically audacious, sumptuously arranged, fantastically overblown and quietly moving songs of everyday relationships.
“Perhaps this is my imperial phase,”says Hannon of an album that sets ordinary life to an extraordinary musical accompaniment. It's crammed with vivid orchestrations, lusty horns, luxurious strings, vast choral harmonies, a rocking rhythm section and the unexpected intrusion of a braying donkey. “I like glorifying mundanity,”explains Hannon.
From first single Catherine The Great (“the kind of love song you write if you have been watching too much BBC4”) to Broadway-style duet, Funny Peculiar (featuring Hannon's better half, Irish singer-songwriter Cathy Davey); from wittily self-pitying romp How Can You Leave Me On My Own, to the tender, wistful ballad Other People (“I may have been in danger of getting a little heartfelt there”), Hannon somewhat abashedly admits that “on the whole, the album is just a great big love song.”
Foreverland represents Hannon at his most emotionally autobiographical, whilst simultaneously cloaking his life in oblique allusion. The composer of Father Ted's celebrated Eurosong anthem My Lovely Horse frankly admits that straight ahead sincerity has never been his strong suit. “Music that is too heart on the sleeve can be a little bit cloying I find. I've done my fair share of love songs but it's hard to do it in a way that doesn't make you want to throw up. So the challenge is to write about love in ways that make the experience new and interesting, and actually in that way approximates the substance of the feeling."
Born in Derry, Northern Ireland in 1970, Hannon is the son of a Bishop of the Church of Ireland. “Possibly not a typical pop star background,” he acknowledges. He is the founder and only consistent member of The Divine Comedy, who achieved unlikely pop stardom during the Britpop boom of the nineties with a slightly preposterous mix of archaic musical styles, hook laden melodies and audaciously witty lyrics.
The Divine Comedy released ten albums between Fanfare for the Comic Muse in 1990 and Bang Goes The Knighthood in 2010. The past six years, though, have seen him explore other avenues. “My extra-pop activities are pressure valves allowing me to let off musical steam,” says Hannon. He penned the tunes for an acclaimed musical version of Swallows And Amazons, which premiered at the Bristol Old Vic in 2010.
A year later he set the words of German playwright Frank Alva Buecheler to music in the short but powerful chamber opera, In May. Then in 2014 the Royal Festival Hall commissioned him to write a piece for their newly refurbished organ. The resulting work, To Our Fathers In Distress, he dedicated to his dad, Brian, who suffers from Alzheimer's. “They gave me a choir so I basically turned it into a long hymn. Being brought up in a clergy family, I was raised on the Anglican hymnal, most of which I found out later was arranged by the brilliant Ralph Vaughn Williams. Like Vaughn Williams, I don't do the religion but I certainly do the music."
On a lighter note, he has made two much loved cricket themed albums with his friend Thomas Walsh of Irish band Pugwash, under the moniker The Duckworth Lewis Method. These slick ELO/Kinks inspired gems came, Hannon explains, from every musicians need "to lighten up and put your foot up on the monitor every once in a while."
With Foreverland, Hannon has returned to what he does without compare: create intelligent, hook laden, life affirming pop music from a vast array of diverse and downright unlikely musical sources. “It was really a matter of taking what I could do as far as it could go and challenging myself every time I write a song. I didn't want the album to rest on its laurels at any point. I wanted the music to keep evolving, with arrangements that change from verse to verse and cast the lyrics in different lights."
(Foreverland) embraces Irish traditional music. “It has a yearning quality that I have previously avoided but this time I went the whole hog and broke out the penny whistle.” The delightful Funny Peculiar is in the vein of a classic Hollywood Broadway musical duet. “I've been trying to write one of those for years, and this time I nailed it. So I can stop trying to write it now”. The Pact is his take on French chanson “I went the full Edith Piaf.” To The Rescue indulges a lifelong fetish for Serge Gainsbourg. “Serge has a lot to answer for.”
The eerily lovely Other People was recorded as it was composed a capella into an iPhone in a hotel room on Kilburn High Road. “You can hear the traffic going by,” says Hannon, who delighted in adding a complex orchestration to this tinny, sincere vocal. “I really didn't think I could sing it any better than I did that first time, with the intimacy you get when you are talking quietly into your own phone.”
How Can You Leave Me On My Own goes to the opposite extreme, a big 70s soft rock blast channelling 10CC and Supertramp in exuberant fashion with a sharply turned lyric to make every man cringe in recognition (“I drink too many cups of tea and eat too many biscuits / I think about going outside but decide not to risk it / I look at naked ladies cause I'm too weak to resist it”). It opens with the sound of a braying donkey called Wayne who occupies a field adjacent to Hannon's home studio. “When I got to the end of a vocal take, I could hear Wayne braying outside, and I thought well, that pretty much sums up the song, so I went out and recorded him for real."
As Hannon describes his musical inspirations, he conjures up an array of absurdly diverse sources, including Noel Coward, The Pet Shop Boys, The Beach Boys, The Byrds and Johnny Cash mixed in with piano etudes, percussive orchestras, Ealing film soundtracks, music hall and Russian symphonies.
Or, as he says of the album's delightful closing track, The One Who Loves You, “Bit of banjo, bit of orchestra, nice shuffly rhythm, two key changes, bish bash bosh, job done. It's about recognising what you've got and being grateful for it."
Which could be the theme of the whole album. “Sometimes I struggle to say exactly what I mean. That's probably the repressed Ulsterman in me. The music is definitely trying to say something completely sincere but finds it hard to come out with it. But isn't most of the best music like that? For me, it is all about the travelling rather than the arriving. I'll get there one day, then what will I do?"
Foreverland photography by Raphaël Neal