ALBUM REVIEW: The Divine Comedy – Bang Goes The Knighthood
Published on July 16th, 2010 | Jonny Abrams
The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon is punk. There, I said it.
Not punk like The Ramones or The Sex Pistols, of course. You might recall erstwhile hit singles like ‘Something for the Weekend’ and ‘National Express’ possessing a wry musicality and knowingly clever lyrics that may or may not have made you want to smash up everything in sight.However, those whose curiosity led them to delve a little deeper were rewarded with the discovery that these occasional, flamboyant transmissions were woven into the fabrics of a succession of long players which rank among the most ambitious, best executed and most fully realised albums of the last…well, however many billion years.From 1993’s Liberation through to 2006’s Victory for the Comic Muse, Hannon has emerged every few years or so to deliver records of consistently jaw-dropping scope which, were they not branded with the Divine Comedy moniker that through those (wrongly) chastised singles has arguably come to blot his copybook, would be hailed far and wide as masterpieces. All of them. Really.
One thing that unites each and every component of this glorious back catalogue is Hannon’s flagrant disregard for anything even remotely resembling a trend. Sure, you might find his Scott-Walker-meets-Noel-Coward vocal delivery and orchestral swell-filled arrangements to be annoying, pretentious or lacking in innovation. But, after all these years, he still doesn’t care. And therein lies the punk.In any case, Hannon’s wittier ditties have always been punctuated by compositions so achingly beautiful and genuinely tender that they leave you feeling at once uplifted and reflective, as if you’ve just received an enema made up of every poignant memory and emotion you’ve ever known. This dichotomy has puzzled many reviewers, who tend to side with the heartfelt Hannon, but it is a juxtaposition that yields endlessly fascinating – as well as musically staggering – results.
So, where does Bang Goes The Knighthood rank in the Hannon canon? Well, long gone is the sophisticated mania of the epic run of albums that took in Promenade, Casanova, A Short Album About Love and Fin de Ciecle. It’s not as lush as Absent Friends and doesn’t wrong foot you in the way that Regeneration or Victory… did. In fact, long-term fans might find plenty of gripes with this measured and satisfied – but not self-satisfied – collection of songs. For starters, Hannon’s croon only once (briefly, during the breakdown of ‘When a Man Cries’) rises to the kind of earth-encompassing bellow heard on such past Divine Comedy classics as ‘Sunrise’, ‘In Pursuit of Happiness’ and ‘Through a Long and Sleepless Night’. But that’s not where Hannon the man is at these days.The song-writing and melodies, though, still dazzle; it’s only the emotional peaks and troughs that have been reigned in. With Hannon still able to churn out an album full of songs this good, any old school fans would be foolish to renounce him out of yearning for past stylings. “Never go back,” they say, whoever they are. And they have a point.
Those songs in full, then:
1. ‘Down in the Street Below’ – A softly uttered, piano-backed intro soon gives way to the kind of delirious, loved-up gallop that characterised songs like ‘Your Daddy’s Car’ and ‘Bath’, before resolving itself with a piano line reminiscent of Victory…‘s jaw-dropping closing trio of tracks. The lyrics seem to be inspired by that very distinct feeling of being huddled up indoors watching the rain fall outside through the window, as Hannon sings first of returning home to his girlfriend, before later finding himself feeling out of place in a plush, celebrity-populated bar “way up high in a phallic tower”. He continues: “The table’s round and your glass is square / The clientele’s straight out of this month’s Vanity Fair / Look around the room and something’s not quite right / Yours is the only face that you don’t recognise”. Melodically, ‘Down in the Street Below’ is one of the slowest burners on the album but, once it’s fully absorbed, it might as well be encrypted into your DNA. You will sing, by gum, you will.
2. ‘The Complete Banker’ – Hannon’s wry take on the credit crunch is bound to rile those who suffer from the chronic taking of everything too seriously; and, after a while, that becomes part of its charm. Its minor key verse unravels expertly into a gleeful stomp of a chorus (see also: the verse of ‘Meeting Mr Miandad’ from last year’s superb Duckworth Lewis Method album, Hannon’s collaboration with Thomas Walsh of Pugwash, who supplies fantastic ELO-esque harmonies across BGTK), and all of a sudden it’s a masterclass in song-writing as well as an ‘iron fist in a velvet glove’-style denouncement of those whose fiscal imprudence led to this recession. “We went to war on the floor of the exchange / To all of us it was just a big game / But god I loved it, making a profit from somebody’s loss / I never knew exactly whose money it was” – it’s not revelatory stuff but it’s a sharp, concise and insanely catchy number that would be even more enjoyable in the company of a wincing Radiohead fan.
3. ‘Neapolitan Girl’ – Whereas Victory…‘s ‘A Lady of a Certain Age’ cast a sympathetic eye over a formerly glamorous bon viveur lamenting her lonely descent into old age, ‘Neapolitan Girl’ provides an equally absorbing character portrait of a girl who “doesn’t care about right or wrong, just about where her next meal’s coming from”. Its subtly sophisticated melody line is draped over a breezy jaunt of a backing track, putting it in mind of Ray Davies’ minor classic ‘Monica’ from The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society (a song which just so happens to deal with more or less the same subject matter). As with ‘Monica’, the arrangement makes you feel like you’re frolicking in Italian countryside while the lyrics betray something altogether less innocent and more urban at play: “She takes a ride on the 133 / Through the city to the cemetery / Where the Neapolitan girls go / Down beneath the headstones / Oh, the quickening breath and muffled cries / As life and death become entwined”. Beats the hell out of ‘I Predict a Riot’, no? Granted, sunny pop songs about prostitutes may be nothing new – heck, Hannon’s Neapolitan Girl is even named Lola – but it would take a whacking great dollop of joylessness not to luxuriate in this gem.
4. ‘Bang Goes the Knighthood’ – A slightly sinister, plinky plonky piano part accompanies a rueful snapshot of a presumably prominent and esteemed member of society arriving furtively at “an innocuous London address” to engage in sordid S&M games with a whip-brandishing dominatrix. However, the characterisation is a sympathetic one, with Hannon singing as the protagonist: “You make me feel something / And feeling something beats feeling nothing at all / And nothing at all is what I feel all the rest of the time”. The man (Max Mosley?), who acknowledges that he could lose everything he holds dear, including a potential knighthood, if he is caught, goes on to reveal in a clever lyrical twist that his taste for sexual roughhousing stems from being disciplined with a cane at boarding school. This title track is not one of Hannon’s more affecting compositions but it still manages to fit an awful lot of good ideas into its 2 minutes and 48 seconds.
5. ‘At the Indie Disco’ – The album’s first single and another guaranteed cause for consternation, ‘At the Indie Disco’ is the more playful cousin of Absent Friends‘ still breath-taking ‘Our Mutual Friend’. The lyrics appear to be mocking but the gentle delivery renders them genuinely sweet (an effective microcosm of his whole back catalogue?), telling a tale of a couple of courting youngsters who go to the indie disco every Thursday night – “We’ve got a table in the corner that is always ours / Under the poster of Morrissey with a bunch of flowers” – to dance to the usual array of indie classics while wondering if they fancy each other. The last verse captures one of our protagonists “freezing on the night bus home” thinking of the other while his or her heart beats “the same way as at the start of ‘Blue Monday'”. On ‘National Express’, Hannon was ludicrously accused of making fun of the lower classes and he will no doubt be accused of taking the piss out of indie kids here. ‘At the Indie Disco’, however, has too much affection at its core not to come across as a charming little picture frame for the adrenaline rush of blossoming romance.
6. ‘Have You Ever Been in Love?’ – So far, we’ve had pensive Hannon, witty Hannon and voyeuristic Hannon; it’s time, then, to make way for loved-up Hannon. Make no mistake: ‘Have You Ever Been in Love?’ is worthy of a classic Sinatra number and is every bit as joyous as, say, ‘Let There Be Love’ by Nat King Cole. The almost ever-present piano lilts gently and jazzily along as Hannon tests our lover credentials with questions such as “Have you ever sung along to all the silly love songs you hate?” Present day Hannon is a family man, and a much happier man than the morbid, escape-fantasising Hannon of Regeneration, but his knack for tugging the heartstrings as only he can remains as vivid as ever. “Have you ever felt like you could float into the sky / Like the laws of physics simply don’t apply? / Have you ever been in love?” With this song, yes.
7. ‘Assume the Perpendicular’ – Whereas with ‘At the Indie Disco’ you wonder whether he’s taking the micky or not, with ‘Assume the Perpendicular’ you come to the conclusion that he almost certainly is. But not to the detriment of the song; in fact, so free does this song feel of any mean spiritedness that it may take you a few listens before you notice Hannon gently poking fun at middle class sightseeing trips: “Lavinia loves the lintels, Anna, the architraves / Ben’s impressed by the buttresses thrust up the chapel knave”. However, the song’s marching rhythm and uplifting chorus – perhaps the finest on the album – make it feel more like a call-to-arms than any kind of hatchet job, while it’s arguable that the line “to see what we can see see see” was intended to invoke the acronym for County Cricket Club – which, given the success of last year’s Duckworth Lewis Method, could be construed as self-deprecation on Hannon’s part.
8. ‘The Lost Art of Conversation’ – This playful, Randy Newman-esque caper appears to be daring you to figure out some sort of game: “Let’s start by talking tactics / With pepper pots and matchsticks / Here’s how we practise the lost art of conversation / David Jason / Francis Bacon / Frank Lampard” (further example sequences include “The League of Nations / The English Patient / Joan of Arc” and “Hallucinations / Good Vibrations / Van Dyke Parks”). At its essence, however, the clue is in the title: ‘The Lost Art of Conversation’ is a ringing endorsement of finding something – anything – to talk about with your fellow man, the eloquent Hannon no doubt dismayed by the isolating effects of personal technology. The whole song is a seamless mix of erudite and plain silly, effectively summing up the entire album, and the bounding melody is pure liquid happiness. And while happiness is not among the greatest gifts that Hannon possesses – such as his song-writing, voice and musicianship – he wears it very well indeed.
9. ‘Island Life’ – Mildly disturbing soundscapes bookend this gorgeous, luxurious duet between Hannon and the gorgeous and luxurious voice of Cathy Davey. “Washing your face in the morning dew – island life / Gathering wood for the breakfast brew – island life”: this is the sound of Hannon, if not yearning for, then romanticising and idealising a simpler life of “sea and sun, earth and sky”, again harking back to a Ray Davies composition, in this case ‘Apeman’. Some will no doubt see ‘Island Life’ as disposable or forgettable but Hannon is well within his rights to forego poignancy and drama as long as the tune is sufficiently beautiful to manage without the gravitas. In ‘Island Life’, he has resoundingly managed to do just that.
10. ‘When a Man Cries’ – Finally, a spot of drama for those Divine Comedy fans who would count ‘Timewatching’ or ‘Commuter Love’ amongst their favourites. The hushed, minor key verses compare and contrast the easily induced and quickly resolved crying of a child to that of a full grown man: “When a man cries, his body shakes / And his eyeballs ache / And his mind vibrates / But he doesn’t make a sound / Don’t want to wake the house, now”. Here, Hannon forces us to consider the deep well of sadness that would bring a man to cry to himself in private, which may not sit comfortably with the proud male psyche but blows you away with a universality that peaks when Hannon bellows – for, as previously mentioned, the only time on the album – the words “but who can explain why a man cries?”, the effect of which is so vast that it goes beyond universal and into universe-encompassing. For that moment, it could be not just a man crying, but a whole planet. Despite his domestic bliss, Hannon remains capable of being powerfully emotive and sympathetic to the human condition. If anything, Hannon’s contentedness forces him to express sorrow felt on behalf of mankind, as opposed to the more individual and subjective misery of, say, Regeneration.
11. ‘Can You Stand Upon One Leg?’ – The reaction to this song has been about as positive as a review of a Danny Dyer film, but few seem to have acknowledged it as having been written by Hannon specifically for his eight year-old daughter. Another jolly piano jaunt, Hannon poses a series of questions such as “can you write a silly song?” and “can you beat your dad at chess?”, before ending with a sustained high note which lasts the best part of thirty seconds. This is about as anti-cool as it gets, and some may argue that there’s no place on a Divine Comedy album for a song based almost entirely on familial in-jokes, but it’s an endearing and melodic representation of involved parenting, with a father and young daughter bonding over a mutual love for utter daftness.
12. ‘I Like’ – The second single to be released from the album is this elated closing track, an energised and randy version of Absent Friends closer ‘Charmed Life’. Had this song been turned in by a new band enjoying the crest of a publicity wave, it would likely have gone on to be an absolutely massive hit and a staple crowd-pleaser ‘at the indie disco’. Hannon is too busy expressing the joy of his relationship here to bother too much with intellectual rhyming couplets, with lines such as: “I like you ’cause you’re sexy / I like the sexy things you dress in / I like it when you’re sitting next to me texting me sexy things,” as likely to elicit a cringe as a smile from the uninitiated. For those who know and love Hannon’s output and have charted his progress from playful bookworm to hopeless romantic to pop star dandy to lovelorn crooner to apocalyptic foreboder to spiritual depressive to luxurious balladeer…this ecstatic pop nugget is heart-warming proof that he has finally found true love. If ‘Can You Stand Upon One Leg?’ is a gift to his daughter, ‘I Like’ is Hannon leaning into his girlfriend’s ear and whispering, with a lascivious wink, “You’ll get *yours* later!”
You’ve got to love a happy ending. But what about an abrupt one?
Bang Goes the Knighthood is out now on Divine Comedy records. Neil Hannon will perform solo at London’s Somerset House this Saturday. For a list of live dates, visit myspace.com/thedivinecomedy