June 19, 2006
Out today: The Divine Comedy
I sometimes think the age of the album is really over. It only happens for me once or twice a year, that I can say "Wow that is great!" Most albums to me are now just collections of songs, which is fine in the iPod age. Neil Hannon and Divine Comedy delivered a solid record in 2004 with Absent Friends, but it was marred by a few marginal, silly songs. The follow-up Victory For The Comic Muse is in many ways a more complete album, if not perfect.
Recorded live in the studio on analogue equipment, the album opens with a whopping potential hit, "To Die A Virgin" - one wonders if the pussy label execs will even allow that song to actually be a single. The song is a galloping tribute to teen boys trying to get laid. It encapsulates all that is great about DC: witty lyrics that lock together like a puzzle, a sense of humor, a galloping orchestra (nice horns!) and really expressive vocals. Neil should go into acting - he manages to describe a horny boy reading porn under his bed covers, but it comes across as endearing !
Nothing else on the record quite lives up to the promise of "To Die A Virgin," but there are a handful of great tunes. The bonbon of a single, "Diva Lady," is brutally underrated by fans. Spend some time with it and you'll pick up the great lyrics, ripped right out of today's tabloids: "She makes him look hetero / He helps her profile." All the details are here: the shouted backing vocals on the middle eight, the reference to contract riders and special needs, the way he calls the woman Diva, as if it's her name.
"The Light Of Day" is one of those beautiful, chill-inducing Neil mid-tempos (think of "Tonight We Fly"). The oboes and woodwinds are perfect. This one manages to make the end of a relationship sound lovely and optimistic. It's totally wistful in a Frank Sinatra kind of way: "Why must the summer always turn into the fall? / Why must we lose love to ever know love at all?"
"A Lady Of A Certain Age" is a 6-minute narrative in the vein of the epic "Our Mutual Friend." This one is more mellow because the topic is more complex: a rich woman of international stature who is finally aging. She's got young male suitors she's keeping as she jet sets around the world: "And if a nice young man would buy you a drink/ You'd say with a conspiratorial wink / 'You wouldn't think that I was 70?" / And he'd say 'No, you couldn't be!" Throughout the song, the age keeps lowering - a great detail that is typical of Neil's writing. The whole song begs for a video starring Charlotte Rampling or Jane Birkin!
There are a few songs that push too far: "The Plough" features Neil's most arch, theatrical voice, not to my liking. It's pretentious Broadway music, though a lot of fans have raved about it. Similarly, "Count DeGrassi's Passage Over Piedmont" is a too enigmatic, with it's deep intonations about the Adriatic Sea, Catalonia and Fabergé eggs. I think Neil just likes the sound of the words, but it's more a curio than a song.
The album concludes with a poetic image: "Snowball In Negative." The song, a sort of aural version of Merchant Ivory films, is a tinkly slow-burn, delicate and beautiful, with vocals practically whispered. The spiraling piano in the final minute is chill-inducing. I couldn't tell you what the song is about, it's just so brief and pretty. Songs like these make me think we'll see Neil Hannon accepting an Oscar for Best Song or Score in the next 30 years. I heartily recommend Victory For The Comic Muse. Listen to it with hot tea, poured into a bone china teacup so delicate you can see light through it.