The Irish Times: Interview With Neil Hannon

May, 2019

"It’s like whistling a happy tune as the ship goes down"

For three decades, Neil Hannon has been an astute observer of contemporary life, playfully skewering social and sexual mores in his songs for his band, The Divine Comedy. But so grim is the world these days that the singer has reached a tipping point. Hannon, it seems, is on the cusp of a radical transformation, from laconic purveyor of immaculately crafted pop songs into political street activist.

“I joined Extinction Rebellion a few days ago, so the next time you see me I’ll be chained to the gates of the Dáil,” Hannon says, between sips of coffee. “I just Googled them and their website said, ‘join Extinction Rebellion’. All right. Because I’m rebelling against my extinction. I think that’s perfectly reasonable, isn’t it?”

Reclining in a comfortable armchair, his sensible slacks and striped blazer topped off by a floppy fringe, Hannon seems an unlikely eco-warrior. For all his sincerity in joining the ecological protest movement, the 48-year-old singer isn’t about to ditch a career that has brought him through cult obscurity, unexpected pop stardom and commercial decline to his current status as a versatile, self-sustaining musician, about to release his ninth album as The Divine Comedy.

The new album, entitled Office Politics, carries many of Hannon’s trademarks, from effortlessly catchy melodies to bitingly clever wordplay. It also has a distinctly bleak worldview. Whether evoking political divisions on Dark Days Are Here Again, workplace humiliations on Absolutely Obsolete or digital displacement on You’ll Never Work In This Town Again, the songs are attuned to the gross inequities of our times, albeit delivered with the band’s customary brio.

“The record is pretty much like me,” Hannon says. “I’m generally an optimistic sort, but underneath I’m ranting against the end of the world as we know it. It’s like whistling a happy tune as the ship goes down.” But he’s always been politically aware, he says, he’s just previously preferred dealing with the subject more obliquely.

“I’m a thoroughly leftie, Guardian-reading chap, but of the champagne socialist variety,” he says. “I don’t take it to extremes. I wouldn’t be quite on the Corbyn level, though I like some of what he does and then he makes me despair at other moments. But I’ve never seen that as a particularly good reason to make a record. But a lot of this album is to do with ordinary people being pissed on from a great height.”

Though the album runs a hugely enjoyable gamut of styles, overall the sound echoes smart 1980s synth-pop, chiming with Hannon’s vignettes about the uncertainty and inequality of everyday life in an era of technological disruption. He calls these tracks “crazy socioeconomic synth songs”, though it’s not a concept album per se.

“To be honest, you don’t make records by thinking what’s this album going to be about. It’s you at a certain age and time, with things happening outside that you’re taking notice of, so the songs tend to coalesce around some umbrella theme. On this one, more than most.”

Read the rest of Neil's interview at The Irish Times website.

Mick Heaney
The Irish Times, May 2019