Not to Fools Like Me (The Divine Comedy)

neil-zig-zagThere are a great many reasons to like the music of Neil Hannon, also known as The Divine Comedy: the compelling baroque-rock sound, the strange and ineffable Irishness, the cultural magnetism of the esoteric and overlooked. Perhaps the most unique draw is that Hannon’s connection to Father Ted: his music suffuses the world of the sitcom, which may well be his greatest legacy. But that’s a tangent: we’ll begin with the basics.

Hannon’s discography is so eclectic and varied that it’s difficult to know where to start, but a major element is his proclivity for sweeping orchestral accompaniment – not common in contemporaneous pop, and perhaps giving his music a feeling evocative of film scores. His subject-matter is equally eccentric, from introspective and maudlin self-inquiries to flippant and excessive camp. Hannon’s work also retains a lingering Christianity: his music’s hymnal qualities, and the near-priestly oratorial clarity of his delivery – instilled as he grew up the son of an Anglican clergyman (Reverend Brian Hannon, later the Bishop of Clogher) – function on an almost atavistic level for listeners in certain demographics. (At this point it’s probably worth stating that music theory is not my area, so my focus will be more on lyrics and aesthetics. I’ll be covering each Hannon album and EP in detail nonetheless, so get ready for some spectacularly uneven analysis. I should also acknowledge the invaluable encyclopedic resource that is A Short Site About the Divine Comedy, without which I wouldn’t even be able to attempt this.)

The sound of The Divine Comedy can be summarised – really quite accurately – as “Electric Light Orchestra with Scott Walker on lead vocals”. ELO were the soundtrack to Hannon’s own childhood, and while their effusive, irrepressible, heavy-produced, hook-driven pop filtered through to the very core of his musical sensibilities, he finds originality by fusing this influence with a gravid, treacly lowing developed via a more conscious emulation of Walker’s orchestral-rock singing. Equally important are Hannon’s lyrics, which range from straightforward romance to Mozzerian drollery all the way to Kraftwerk techno-abstraction. As a vocalist, he’s articulate and mellifluous, but in a way that’s continuously undercut by an element of wry, self-aware humour. It invites the listeners, making us complicit in the joke, bottling the live energy of the music hall. Hannon has the vocal range to swerve from sonorous, Elvis-like baritone to an incongruously feminine falsetto within seconds; even in the saddest, angriest, most honest Divine Comedy songs, subversion is always possible. Irony and sincerity can complement one another; pathos and bathos can be deployed at an instant’s notice. There are textures in Hannon’s performance that lead to results quite different from those of his influences. Much like Morrissey, Hannon has the ability to perform lyrics with such specificity and shading that their meaning can be transformed radically. A Hannon cover is essentially an on-the-spot rewrite, rendering another writer’s lyrics new and surprising, his ironic style of delivery always revealing new semiotic layers. Meanwhile, Hannon’s default musical technique is to add copious strings and baroque production, which reliably casts pop songs in an interesting new light, producing equally strong results with compositions as diverse as David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” and the Smiths’ “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”.

Perhaps most importantly of all, there’s that voice: Hannon sings with a weary, schoolmasterly detachment; a kind of grand objectivity. In this respect, he has a lot in common with the Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant – or how one imagines Tennant might sound if he soared rather than droned. It’s a tonal inflection that some would dismiss as sarcasm, but Hannon is not sarcastic – at least, not in any straightforward sense. Lines are often delivered in such a way as to undermine or contradict their superficial lyrical content, but there’s no trace of the cheap malignancy or easy cynicism often found in sarcastic jibes – instead, we find a sort of diffidence, so dry as to verge on the autocritical. The tonal ambiguity never quite resolves, and the listener is never certain where the joke ends and the truth begins.

Furthering the sense of lofty airiness, Hannon is quite distinctly upper-class. When pop musicians have comfortable origins, it’s generally something they try to conceal or downplay, but Hannon, perhaps seeing that “cool” was a bit of an ask, decides to go in the opposite direction, using opulence as an aesthetic. While this approach has its drawbacks, putting the bleak vividness of working-class bands like Pulp out of The Divine Comedy’s range, it allows for a very different idiom: largely insulated from earthly concerns, the music drifts instead to uncommonly elevated and scholarly territory, with songs about literature and history all woven from Hannon’s peculiar mixture of British and Irish culture.

Hannon strikes a balance between genuine passion and mannered, knowing absurdity, navigating tragedy and comedy, truth and fiction, sanity and madness, never quite losing that sense of wry detachment from the world – the listener is invited to draw their own conclusions. Cloak your level of literalism, and the scope restricting the sort of thing you can articulate becomes unbounded. This is a central part of what The Divine Comedy is about: the freedom of the absolutely ludicrous. More broadly, exaggerations and half-truths, when deployed responsibly, can convey ideas and create artistic effects that neither straightforward fiction nor unadorned reality ever could. This is one way myths are made.

The aura of diffidence isn’t a weakness in Hannon’s work – quite the contrary. As much as we might admire the presence and showmanship of someone like Bowie, sometimes it can even more engaging, more important, to see someone who’s not entirely comfortable on-camera; someone whose otherwise flashy photoshoots are marred by an inability to keep a straight face; someone who never entirely moved past the “Laughing Gnome” phase of his career. Plenty of singers have success with acting, but it takes a really unique talent to give an unconvincing performance as yourself in your own music videos. (Relatable.)

In a profession whose currency is aesthetic extremism, and where stratospheric and outlandish characters are often the most successful, Hannon remains resolutely himself – disarming in manner; clever, but keen to prove it in the way that will be familiar to those without a lot else to fall back on (and certainly not too clever to forget his own lines at every other gig). His image evolves gradually from one album to the next, but his costumes are modest and elegant rather than spectacular and attention-grabbing. Even his vague efforts to develop characters, like Casanova and Mr Lewis, are self-evidently just performative fun, with none of the method-driven, drug-addled intensity and artistic-mindedness of Bowie’s Thin White Duke. Hannon’s lyrics are often witty, and laced with important-sounding literary references, but the singer himself is just slightly too preposterous to attain the numinous status of the poets he quotes.

I’ve found myself thinking of Hannon in relation to Bowie quite a lot, so let’s run with that arbitrary binary. There are certain connections – Hannon supported Bowie once, covered him a few times, and loved his work, but no more so than millions of others. They also share a certain feeling of theatre – a quality that makes viewers and listeners wonder if it’s all a joke, or if the artists even know. Perhaps most pertinently, both were massively influenced by Scott Walker, and there’s a certain weight to that shared heritage – the way Bowie eventually came to influence their mutual idol, while Hannon never did. This contrast brings us to a key appeal of The Divine Comedy: the draw of the obscure, the quietly marginal. If you’re going to get invested in something, the path less travelled is often the better one – why speak if you’ll only be drowned out by an infinite chorus of homogenous worshippers? Here are we, one magical movement from Kether to Malkuth: if Bowie is a god, Hannon is a person, and I know which one I prefer.

After all, why choose the divine when you can have something that’s… well, yours?

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