Not to Fools Like Me (The Divine Comedy)

neil-zig-zag Disclosure: Neil Hannon is probably my favourite singer, songwriter, and (as The Divine Comedy) band. The distinction between “my favourite” and “the best” is obviously pretty important here. Broadly speaking, he fits my general inclination towards esoteric, obscure, and overlooked things… but so do a lot of musicians whose work I haven’t decided to analyse in exhaustive detail. Why Hannon specifically? Well, one key reason is that his music is the very essence of Father Ted, his quaintly comedic soundtrack burning itself into my brain at a time when it had barely started recording memories. Some mothers think that playing classical music for their babies will make them more intelligent. The soundtrack to my infancy, on the other hand, involved a Lovely Horse.

It was later, in my teenage years, that my analogue-radio-based excursions into this “popular music” business led me to stumble across tracks like the strange and catchy “Generation Sex”, and the enticing “Something for the Weekend”, with its jarringly hilarious closing line. I didn’t connect these songs, initially heard months apart, and nor did I link them with my favourite sitcom. However, with the endless possibilities of internet access, my childhood interest in video-game music expanded to encompass film scores and, finally, music created not to soundtrack some primary work but for its own sake. Knowing very little about bands or albums, I cast about for some way into that world, and finally arrived at something that struck every chord within my psyche – quite possibly because it had been there all along. I looked into the back-catalogue of the lad who did the Ted music. Apparently, my personal musical ideal was an unassuming Northern Irish choirboy. Before long, I’d heard every Divine Comedy track, from hit singles to B-sides to bootlegs.

Hannon’s discography is so eclectic and varied that it’s difficult to know where to begin, but a major thread is his tendency towards sweeping orchestral accompaniment – not common in pop, but something my grounding in game and film scores had left me considering essential. His subject-matter is equally eccentric, from introspective and maudlin self-inquiries to flippant and excessive camp. As a somewhat confused mixture of lapsed Catholic and lapsed Protestant, I found Hannon’s near-priestly oratorial clarity transporting; his music’s hymnal qualities, instilled as he grew up the son of an Anglican clergyman (Reverend Brian Hannon, later the Bishop of Clogher), are affecting on an atavistic level. As a bonus, the direct Father Ted connection gave me the opportunity to surprise pretty much anyone in Ireland with the fact that they already knew a couple of tracks by my relatively obscure chamber-pop band off by heart. (At this point it’s probably worth noting that I know virtually nothing about music theory, and can only really attempt to discuss lyrics and aesthetics. I’ll be covering each Hannon album and EP in detail nonetheless, so get ready for one hell of a wonky blogging project. 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. As a vocalist, Hannon is articulate, mellifluous, and distinctly upper-class, 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; we get the appeal of the music hall with none of the impracticalities. 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 or Morrissey cover is essentially an on-the-spot rewrite, rendering another writer’s lyrics new and surprising. Hannon’s covers have the added bonus that his default technique is to add copious strings, which somehow always seems to work, producing equally strong results with songs as diverse as David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” and the Smiths’ “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”.

Perhaps most importantly, Hannon’s voice has 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 a straightforward sense. As in sarcasm, his 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. (Having found self-deprecation a necessity since early childhood, I found this tone instantly familiar.) Hannon’s songs combine emotional intensity with wistful self-doubt, the secret truth – that this is probably all just a bit of a laugh – suppressed just enough to allow for the most fiery sincerity, but never so far that it can’t cushion the fall for which honest and open self-expression sets us up.

This was fairly important to me. Hannon strikes a balance between genuine passion and mannered, knowing absurdity, navigating tragedy and comedy, truth and fiction, sanity and insanity, never losing his wry indifference. It is a voice that shrugs; a voice that invites the listener to draw their own conclusions. Any why not? Shyness works to keep you safe, but obfuscation does the same job better: cloak your level of literalism, and the scope restricting the sort of thing you can articulate becomes unbounded. For me, this is a central part of what The Divine Comedy is about: the freedom of the absolutely ludicrous. I don’t think it even matters how much of what I write is true, per se – 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.

We enjoy seeing ourselves depicted, and while my demographic is hardly strapped for representation, there’s something about Hannon’s work that I connect to like nothing else. As much as I might admire the presence and showmanship of someone like Bowie, somehow it’s 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: finally, something I can relate to.

In a profession where aesthetics are key, and stratospheric and outlandish characters are often the most successful, Hannon remains resolutely himself: good-looking but not impossibly so; 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 witty, and laced with important-sounding literary references, but the singer himself is just too goofy to ever attain the numinous status of the poets he quotes. With every song of dashing romantic exploits balanced out by another of crushing awkwardness, one gets the sense of a musician who’s maybe a little bit baffled by his own success, and with whom you could probably have a pint without anybody bothering you. I think this quality is essential to understanding the appeal of his work.

I’ve found myself thinking of Bowie in relation to Hannon quite a lot. This might seem odd, as there’s no particular connection – Hannon supported Bowie once, covered him a few times, and loved his work, but no more so than millions of others. 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. And they do share a certain feeling of theatre – a quality that makes viewers and listeners wonder, “He’s not serious… is he?” In the end, do I even need to justify the association? Does an individual’s response have to be objective or intuitive, or is there value in the alien experience of being allowed to observe the inner workings of someone else’s mind? Regardless, after some thought, I think I’ve understood the link. Bowie is probably my other favourite singer; other favourite songwriter. I’m not saying that Hannon is better, but in another world, where Hannon had Bowie’s universal adoration and Bowie enjoyed Hannon’s modest inferstardom, I dare say my views on them would probably be reversed. Not because of any specific traits in either man’s work, but because that’s just where my allegiances lie. The esoteric. The obscure. The overlooked. There’s a level of popularity and acclaim beyond which declaring you love something says nothing about you. 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 homogeneous 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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