After thirty years of making records, there’s just one sure thing that Neil Hannon has figured out. And it’s this. “You need just two key ingredients in order to make interesting music. Knowledge and ignorance. Knowledge is important because you need to feel like you have something to impart. But ignorance is just as important because in failing to get a certain sound or imitate your favourite band, something original happens in the process. Also, if you knew how little you knew when you were starting out, you might never summon up the wherewithal to try.”
In the gulf between knowledge and ignorance, Neil Hannon has been nothing if not productive. Since the release of The Divine Comedy’s debut release in 1990, there have been twelve albums culminating in Office Politics, which, in 2019, gave them their first ever top UK five position for a studio album. Though Neil’s teenage years in the Northern Irish town of Enniskillen were spent obsessing upon emerging rouge-streaked post-punk pin-ups such as The Human League, Adam & The Ants and The Associates, it wasn’t altogether clear to him – even as he wrote his first songs – how he might join their ranks.
For a time, that didn’t matter too much. The West London couch of his brother Brendan provided a soft landing for the newly-relocated Neil, enthused by the warm reception afforded to The Divine Comedy’s debut EPs for Keith Cullen’s tiny Setanta imprint. The learning curve ahead of him was steep, but naive optimism and nimbleness are primary requisites when scaling vertiginous curves. John O’Neill from The Undertones told Neil that his voice reminded him of Scott Walker, so Neil obligingly made a point of listening to Scott Walker and what quickly ensued was “one of the only true obsessions I’ve ever had.” The history of pop is studded with songwriters who listened to Scotts 1-4 and re-emerged into a slightly transformed world. And now Neil was one of them. The Divine Comedy’s full-length debut album Liberation fast-fossilised those records and – along with his love of F. Scott Fitzgerald, E.M. Forster, E.L.O., Winnie The Pooh – used them as creative fuel.
By his own admission, he was using novels as short-cuts to first-hand wisdom. There were, of course, exceptions. One of his first indisputable classics, Your Daddy’s Car was rooted in the experience of early driving adventures with friends in Fermanagh. Festive Road – named after the street where Mr Benn lives – felt like an apposite indicator of adventures to come. Perhaps for Neil, making records was the equivalent of the gentleman’s outfitters frequented by that programme’s eponymous protagonist where the mere act of trying on a different outfit propels him to hitherto unimaginable scenarios. In the canons of some artists, each album feels like a distinct destination. Where Neil Hannon is concerned, it’s perhaps more accurate to imagine each record as a distinct stretch along a journey where the only plan is to keep going. Released in 1994, Promenade certainly meets those criteria. By Neil’s own admission, it’s a record that can never be repeated because the circumstances of its creation are unrepeatable. Michael Nyman said he felt “flattered” when Neil approached him after a show and handed the record over to him, joking, “You can sue me if you like.” Emerging to unanimous critical rapture, other highlights on the record included Tonight We Fly and The Summerhouse. Reviewing the album for Select, Stuart Maconie declared that “Promenade is a masterpiece.”
You’d have to be insane to make an album like Promenade and think it might nudge you any closer to pop stardom. And yet, this was the record that pushed the bookcase in the chamber-pop library to reveal something that looked suspiciously like the set of T.F.I. Friday. All Neil needed to do was write the songs that would gain him entry there. And, as serendipity would have it, three unrelated catalysts would have exactly that effect.
The first was that Promenade met with considerable success in France. The resulting attention – not just directed at the music, but by admirers of the music towards the person responsible for it – gave Neil a taste of something he wasn’t expecting but didn’t want to relinquish. In one new song, Neil likened his awakening love-life to the eponymous protagonist of the film Alfie, played by Michael Caine. Which brings us to the second catalyst. Neil’s new authorial voice chimed with a sea-change in pop that seemed to be happening of its own volition. People like Jarvis Cocker and Brett Anderson were becoming pop stars. Saint Etienne’s So Tough – a record that Neil adored for the 60s pop-cultural references reflected in its magpie eyes – also enjoyed huge success. Even former Orange Juice frontman Edwyn Collins was enjoying a worldwide surprise hit with A Girl Like You – a song whose production harked back to a bygone pop age. And that brings us to the third catalyst. Edwyn was signed to the same label as The Divine Comedy. Suddenly Neil had a budget with which to replicate the playful, pacey orch-pop concept album that might – against all sensible odds – make him A Contender. “I absolutely believed 100 per cent in pop music and Top Of The Pops,” he recalls, “and I wanted it really badly.” The resulting album Casanova begat three top 40 singles (Something For The Weekend; Becoming More Like Alfie; The Frog Princess), the first of a dozen over the course of the ensuing years. His ubiquity at this time was further underscored by the instrumental of Songs Of Love, which was used as the theme tune of Channel 4’s hugely popular Father Ted sit-com.
By the end of 1996, The Divine Comedy were as much a band in the corporeal world as they once were an idea in the head of their creator. With Guildhall School of Music alumnus Joby Talbot handling arrangements, Neil set himself the objective of “knocking out the Under A Blood Red Sky to our War.” Recorded live at Shepherds Bush Empire, A Short Album About Love was the record that unequivocally proved that, if he so desired, Neil Hannon could jettison all narrative conceits, look you in the eye and – with, say, Someone or Everybody Knows (Except You) – present you with a love song to weather lifetimes. “Seven of the most heart-stoppingly gorgeous, romantic smoochers you have ever heard,” enthused Time Out magazine on hearing it.
The boost to his self-confidence from such plaudits was abundant in 1998’s Fin de Siecle. “It should have had a picture of a kitchen sink on the cover,” Neil would later joke, “Just so we could say it had one of those as well.” It was the sound of an artist who knows there’s a ready audience waiting for his next release. Emboldened by that knowledge, Generation Sex saw Neil – more in bewilderment than anger – sing about the new feudalism of these celebrity-obsessed times. He was, of course, a celebrity of sorts himself. Alighting at Knutsford Services in the middle of a tour opening for Robbie Williams, he remembers being besieged by a bunch of lads singing the album’s biggest hit National Express at him. It was, by his own admission, a small price to pay for getting to record utopian fantasies about moving to Sweden (Sweden) and soul-stirring exhalations of cosmic wonderment (The Certainty Of Chance).
With the new century came a new label. One might think that the first of The Divine Comedy’s three albums of Parlophone might have made full use of the recording budget afforded to any band on a major label in the early 2000s. But the Nigel Godrich produced Regeneration was the nearest The Divine Comedy would ever get to sounding like an indie band. The rationale, as Neil recalls, was to finally foreground the excellence of the touring band which had now been with him for half a decade. Longtime fans retain a soft spot for standouts such as Bad Ambassador and Mastermind – but this wasn’t enough to deter him from making its successor “a revolt against the guitar oriented miserabilism of Regeneration.” Absent Friends constituted the completion of a circle of sorts. The Divine Comedy’s member count was back down to one. Neil proceeded from the premise that “it’s ok to prefer Rachmaninov to the Rolling Stones; Alan Bennett to Batman Returns.” More importantly, you could run your fingers along these songs and really feel the grain of the intervening years. With joy of parenthood came the attendant anxiety at what fortune might have in store. Now a father, Charmed Life saw him singing, “This life is like being afloat/ On a raging sea/ In a little rowing boat.” With a breathtaking arrangement from Talbot, Our Mutual Friend took the ostensibly unpromising topic of a messy night out and treated it like a biblical catastrophe.
Not that you’d know to hear it, but Pet Sounds was the initial inspiration for 2006’s Victory For The Comic Music – or at least the inspiration to try and record the whole thing onto analogue tape and furthermore, to do so in just a fortnight. The unifying energy of the performances conspired to distract listeners from the disparate inspirations of the record’s contents. One of Neil’s best-loved compositions, the imperiously executed character study A Lady Of A Certain Age, was originally conceived for Jane Birkin, but not offered for fear that its title might be taken as a sleight. The Light Of Day and Snowball In Negative are both moments of hair-raisingly beautiful candour (“the closest I came to discussing the unravelling of my personal life at the time”). With the Choice Music Prize for the best album by an Irish artist and The Guardian hailing the record as “a triumphant comeback, this seemed like a suitable high on which to place a full stop on The Divine Comedy’s time at Parlophone.
As it turned out, 2010 was a good time for Neil to go it alone. The venture capitalists who bought his old label might have dismissed the underachieving cottage industry outlook of the indie ethic. But then if The Divine Comedy’s tenth album Bang Goes The Knighthood was anything to go by, the disdain was mutual. “I caused the second great depression/What can I say/I guess I got a bit carried away,” he sang on The Complete Banker. Neapolitan Girl underscored his continuing ability to alchemise his fancy for light orchestral ornamentation into something that sounds like sublime pop music in any era. And this being a full twenty years since he first stepped into a recording studio, Neil had now – rather like Tom Waits and Randy Newman before him – grown into a voice that could lift all the baggage of the accumulated years. Were Neil singing in French, it would be hard to believe that the When A Man Cries – written in the painful throes of separation – hadn’t come from the pen of Charles Aznavour.
Perhaps the most gratifying measure of Neil Hannon’s success as an artist is the fact that, over the years, the special relationship enjoyed between The Divine Comedy and their fans has merely intensified with the years. Charting at Number 7 in the Official UK Album Chart, Foreverland was hailed by Mojo as “a funny, learned and poignant chamber-pop record” and gave Neil his best first week showing in eighteen years. Three years later, Office Politics entered the Top Five to comparable hosannas, inspiring Uncut to hail the record as “a funny, peculiar, epic piece of pop minimalism.” This was no meagre achievement for an album that constituted a more radical sonic departure than any of its predecessors. Lurching from absurdist tributes to beloved modern classical composers (Philip & Steve’s Furniture Removal Company) to elegiac paeans to protagonists left all but exiled by the very innovations that are supposed to expedite a more harmonious day-to-day life (I’m A Stranger Here), Office Politics co-opted new synth textures and machine-tooled pop deviations into the sonic template. And yet, what emerged was still unmistakably a Divine Comedy album – endowed with all the heart, humour and hooks that fans have come to associate with the source of Something For The Weekend, Everybody Knows (Except You) and National Express. October 2020 also saw a comprehensive programme of fully remastered, annotated expanded vinyl and CD reissues, including a 12 volume CD box set Venus, Cupid, Folly And Time - Thirty Years Of The Divine Comedy, described by Clash as “one of the most beautiful deluxe editions you’re ever likely to see.”
Having now completed his third full decade as a recording artist, Neil says he has resigned himself to the fact that he’ll “probably always feel like a competition winner doing this for a living.” Talking about that brief, aberrant period of pop stardom, he says he feels “it was one of those eras that accidentally let some interesting people into mainstream media.” The fame was fun, but the main thing, he adds, is “the time, goodwill and freedom it bought me.”
It’s a freedom that, in recent years, Neil Hannon has been determined
not to squander. Along the way, there have been musicals and classical
pieces: Neil’s songs for the Bristol Old Vic’s 2010 adaptation of Swallows and Amazons and To Our Fathers In Distress, written for Neil’s father and premiered in 2014 at the Royal Festival Hall. There have also been opera commissions – 2012’s Sevastopol and 2013’s In May
(respectively based on books by Leo Tolstoy and Frank Alva Buecheler) –
and cricket-based Ivor Novello-winning side project The Duckworth Lewis
Method, a collaboration with Thomas Walsh which earned them both an
Ivor Novello nomination. But there will never not be The Divine Comedy.
The clear blue space between “Neil Hannon” and Neil Hannon has been
eroded by the weather of life. “My identity is totally intertwined with
my work. In that sense, I’m like a lot of the characters I sing about on
this record. But unlike those characters, I can’t think of anything
else I’d rather be doing.” For those of us who have followed The Divine
Comedy's story this far, it’s also hard to think of anything we’d rather
he was doing. “It is just an astonishment to me that I’m here,” he
smiles, “Even with the oddities, I was always trying to make pop
Written By Pete Paphides.
Photography By Kevin Westenberg.