Not to Fools Like Me (The Divine Comedy)

neil-zig-zag Disclosure: Neil Hannon is probably my favourite singer, song-writer, 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, things that don’t already have the appreciation they deserve… but why Hannon specifically? I dare say one 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 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 television 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 no more about bands or albums than I did about American football (ie, not a lot), I cast about for some way into that world, and finally arrived at something which 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 listened to every Divine Comedy album, heard even the most obscure B-sides, and was eventually reduced to trawling online archives for bootleg recordings of gigs he played when I was too young for primary school. 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 the most flippant and ridiculous nonsense. 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. Even better, the direct Father Ted connection gave me the opportunity to surprise virtually 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.)

As a vocalist, Hannon is declarative, 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. A highly melodic singer, Hannon has the vocal range to swerve from sonorous, Elvis-like baritone to a 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. One of Hannon’s main inspirations was Scott Walker, and while that vocal pattern is instantly recognisable in retrospect, there are textures in Hannon’s performance that lead to very different results. 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; the musical equivalent of Peter Capaldi delivering dialogue. Hannon’s have the added bonus that his default technique is to add copious strings, which somehow always seems to work – consider his takes on 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 I imagine Tennant would sound if he soared rather than droned. It’s a tonal inflection that’s easy to 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 learned self-deprecation as a defence mechanism in 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. In the balance Hannon struck between genuine passion and mannered, knowing absurdity, I think I found something of a model – one that would help me to transcend my innate self-consciousness and express the more ostentatious and, yes, stupid aspects of my personality. Hannon navigated tragedy and comedy, truth and fiction, sanity and insanity, never losing his wry indifference. It was a voice that shrugged; a voice that invited the listener to make their own conclusions. Any why not? Shyness works to keep you safe, yes, but why settle for shyness when obfuscation will do the same job? If you conceal your level of seriousness, the scope restricting the sort of thing you can articulate becomes unbounded. Without The Divine Comedy, I would never have decided that writing hundreds of thousands of words as “The Flan in the High Castle” was a reasonable thing to do. (OK, the jury is still out on that one… but at least it’s something a bit different, right?) For me, this is a central part of what The Divine Comedy is about: the freedom to be 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 how 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. He’s good-looking but not distantly so; clever, but keen to prove it in the way that only those of us who don’t have a lot else to fall back on are (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, 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 Hannon himself is just too goofy to ever attain the numinous status of the poets he quotes. At the end of the day, Hannon’s visibly just a fairly bright, slightly-too-posh lad from Up North; one whose every song of dashing romantic exploits is balanced out by another of crushing awkwardness; one who’s a little bit baffled by his own success, and with whom you could probably have a pint without anybody bothering you. And 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 veneer of performativity – 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 song-writer. 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? Bowie is a god, but Hannon is a person; cosmic opposites that contain one another. “Here are we, one magical movement from Kether to Malkuth.” We’ll never reach one, but perhaps we can manage the other.

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

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