4 Star Review
High Art, Low Japes, Pop Glories
Career-spanning boxset celebrates a true maverick's wit and range.
The Divine Comedy - Venus, Cupid, Folly & Time: Thirty Years Of ... ****
Divine Comedy Records DCRL 117 RCDBX (24CD)
Bookworm, cinephile, lothario, crooner, technophobe... Viewed from the perspective of this on-message-lavish boxset, the many personas of The Divine Comedy's career testify to the strength and pliability in its driving force's talent. Between heartache and humour, deep thoughts and low desires, high-art leanings and populist instincts, Neil Hannon's way with wry smart-pop has formed itself around two core virtues: a fine-tuned sense of bathos and an elevating grasp of pop's ability to express it.
Even among the alarmingly teenage offerings boldly gathered under the title Juveneilia (1983-1992), you can hear the Enniskillen bishop's son's deadpan voice developing. "The pressure is killing me," laments Hannon the younger on Stream Of Unconsciousness, "and I want to go to bed!" Debut album Fanfare For The Comic Muse (1990) tilted towards earnest REM-isms, but Liberation (1993) released Hannon's voice in a sumptuous sprawl of synth-pop, orch-pop, literary nods, existential plaints and Mr Benn tributes, conveyed with pop know-how (Bernice Bobs Her Hair, Your Daddy's Car) and lush reach (Timewatching, Lucy).
An unashamedly artful figure amid beerier outfits, Hannon upped the ambition for Promenade (1994). Between Nyman-esque arrangements and an ELO-ish core concept - Hannon's pop studentship shows in the cover versions scattered among the boxset's demos, alternative takes and rarities - the songs take the strain. Stately euro-cinema homages (When The Lights Go Out All Over Europe) and melancholy reflections (The Summerhouse) share stalls seating with live show-stoppers (Tonight We Fly), all without audible gear-grinding. If the latter implies a longing for fame, Hannon applied it enthusiastically to Casanova (1996), a set of carnal confessionals in character clobber. If some of its smutty giggles induce retrospective cringes, Hannon's gutters-and-stars thinking is bracingly conveyed: in the navigation between pop rockets (Something For The Weekend, Becoming More Like Alfie) and introspective moments (Songs Of Love, Brel homage The Dogs And The Horses), the sense of a singer grabbing his moment rings out. With partner-piece A Short Album About Love (1997) as its Stephin Merritt-meets-Sondheim backdrop, his rise is reflected in a long-awaited DVD of a 1996 Shepherd's Bush Empire concert: string-lashed grandeur and stage dives merge heroically.
Fin De Siècle (1998) tipped the jokes and arrangements towards overload, though a tempering beauty emerged on Sunrise and The Certainty Of Chance. If a realignment was required, Hannon fumbled it with 2001's Nigel Godrich-produced Regeneration, a bid to sound like Radiohead that stifled Hannon's voice, pop-romantic frolic Perfect Lovesong aside. Wounds licked, band overhauled, Hannon ditched stadium ambitions to reassume old threads on Absent Friends (2004), embracing maturity in parental ballads, galloping orchestrations, and warmly wry, slyly disguised self-portraits (The Happy Goth). The eighth DC album, it steered him toward Victory For The Comic Muse (2006), which veered between songs of lust, tributes to mums, and a career high in A Lady Of A Certain Age, a tale of an aging socialite steeped in gin and empathy.
Hannon played with his persona gamely on 2010's Bang Goes The Knighthood, ranging from arch-fogey-ish indie-pop tributes to loved-up dispatches from life with new partner Cathy Davey. Satirical jabs were reserved for deserving subjects on The Complete Banker. Strings, historical name-drops, romantic sweeteners, and plush melodies numbered among the playful pleasures of 2016's Foreverland, where personal songs reassumed character drag (Davey tribute Catherine The Great), and a europhile streak endeared circa Brexit.
Finally, Office Politics (2019) confirms Hannon's position as an empathetic observer of modern befuddlement: sharp of mind, mirth, melody, and melancholia. Wherever he turns next, this amenable maverick has found a position from which to give his ambitions free rein. The comic muse's triumph is gloriously plotted here.
Kevin Harley, Record Collector Magazine, November 2020