In 1989, Neil Hannon cast aside the name of October and declared his band… The Cherry Orchard. The band, already the revolving door of members we love so well, recorded five demos in Active Studio before it occurred to anyone that the title of this particular Anton Chekhov play did not make for a very catchy name. And so it was that, after much soul-searching, Hannon turned to his father and announced that his band was now called… The Passion. At this point, the Reverend Brian Hannon of the Church of Ireland informed his son that this new name was a bit offensive, and so Neil started digging about his bookshelves looking for another one. He found one book by some lad named Dante Alighieri. It was called The Divine Comedy. That will do, thought Neil.
The Active Studio demo was reworked and re-recorded, with its three core songs surviving the process. The result, Fanfare for the Comic Muse, is the first thing Hannon released under the name of The Divine Comedy. With a grand total of seven tracks, it’s as short an album as The Divine Comedy will ever come out with. It’s also Hannon’s last album before figuring out what sort of a musician he actually wanted to be, and, arguably, his last real failure. Having worked the U2 and Sting influences out of his system as October, Hannon made a valiant effort to channel his new favourite, REM. (He was also keen on emulating the Pixies, as well as more obscure shoegaze groups like the Pale Saints, Chapterhouse, and Ride.) In this respect, at least, he was successful: Fanfare is the most derivative thing he’d ever do. Shuffle between Fanfare and an early REM album, and the wall of jangly guitars and brisk percussive rhythms will leave you hard-pressed to tell which one you’re listening to at any given moment. The only clear difference lies in the vocals: Hannon makes to attempt to match Michael Stipe’s folksy looseness, and probably couldn’t be as indecipherable if he tried.
That said, the production frequently submerges Hannon’s still-thin voice beneath the band’s instruments, so the lyrics – probably his most vital strength as a musician – are still a challenge to hear on certain tracks. Amidst all this dreamy, shoegazey softness, the vocals never really soar the way Divine Comedy vocals should, but it’s doubtful that a clearer mix would have been enough to save the album – these songs are too peculiar and insular to succeed as the inspiring alt-rock they’re styled after. REM sound like farmers bestowed with a kind of magical ability to weave their folklore into shining music, but there are no farms in the world of Fanfare: this is an album set within the lurid and romantic landscapes of an introspective mind.
Where October 1st was a foreboding work born in wartime, Fanfare is a meditation on a different kind of potential doom: ecological disaster. Some tracks deal with this theme more subtly than others, to the point that it’s not immediately apparent that this is actually what the album is about – the title and artwork, for instance, offer scant clues. Instead it’s two late songs that illuminate the real centre of gravity here, after which a re-listen will reveal oblique environmental references in every other track.
The album title is quite one of Hannon’s more puzzling. The most obvious touchstone is Fanfare for the Common Man, a 1942 piece composed by Aaron Copland for brass band and percussion. Copland’s slow, sombre composition was itself inspired by a speech given by US Vice President Henry Wallace the previous year, where he spoke of a “century of the common man” which would emerge from World War II. The Comic Muse, on the other hand, is a title for Thalia, the figure in Greek myth who served to inspire comedic and idyllic poetry. It might seem that Hannon was simply playing on words, replacing one “CM” with another, but that’s not all: the demo version of “Secret Garden” contains two alternative lines, “A picture of her, a picture of you / A worn-out copy of A Room with a View”. On one level, this is interesting simply because it’s a discarded early attempt at literary reference, a technique Hannon will soon come to rely on quite heavily. On a level more relevant to the current album, the aforementioned EM Forster novel actually mentions the Comic Muse specifically, and even has one of its characters, in a moment of jubilation, declare “I, even I, have won a great victory for the Comic Muse … the cause of Comedy and the cause of Truth are really the same.” (Victory for the Comic Muse, of course, is what Hannon called his 2006 Divine Comedy album.) So, it appears that the title “Fanfare for the Comic Muse” is the result of hybridising the name of Copland’s composition with a throwaway Forster line. We know that Forster was important to Hannon, who would later say, “Something happened to me when I read his books: it was like they were made for me. He spoke to me,” before lamenting that he could never write a novel. Now, it’s entirely possible that Hannon simply liked the rhythm of the phrase – his removal of the Room with a View reference from the final version certainly undercuts its importance – but the decision to paraphrase this specific line for the album title seems significant, especially considering that this is the first release under the band’s truest name.
The Divine Comedy. Fanfare for the Comic Muse. “The cause of Comedy and the cause of Truth are really the same.” Is Hannon declaring, on some level, that honesty and sincerity are part of his band’s objective or ethos? In 1999, he divulged, or made up, or perhaps divulged that he’d since made up, the supposed truth behind the name: “At the risk of sounding a bit crap, the actual meaning of the title of the band is what I’m consistently trying to do on record, which is the sort of sacred and profane battle within all of us. We all yearn to be monks, but we all, er, want to get down and dirty, you know.” Is this the key, then – the sacred and the profane, the wicked and the divine? A synthesis of sex and religion – the unification of a shifty choirboy’s conflicting impulses as the paradox at the heart of the human condition?
The cover artwork is an impressionistic painting of an angel lounging dramatically on some rocks, head turned to the sky. While at first glance it seems like it might be of classical origin, Google image searches turn up nothing predating the album, so it would seem that the uncredited artist was a friend or relative of someone in the band. The painting is simplistic and low on detail, with the positioning of the angel’s left leg a particular anatomical improbability, but it has an odd power nonetheless. Maybe it’s the vaguely mythic backdrop; maybe it’s the juxtaposition of the image with the inexplicable poetry of the band and album names; maybe it’s simply the indistinct, forlorn expression, and the way it makes the subject look like the bastard offspring of an Antony Gormley sculpture and a Metal Gear Solid 1 character. Could this be a depiction of the fall of Lucifer – a dramatisation of the paradise was lost?
But really, what the cover reminds me of more than anything is the work of symbolist painter Odilon Redon. While his creations ranged from vibrant and lurid depictions of the natural world to unnervingly detailed studies of nightmarish creatures, Redon’s work stands unified in its conscious disengagement with realism – its refusal to venture beyond the infinite confines of the human mind. Like the comics work of Jae Lee, Redon’s art feels disjointed, overly mannered and posed, but its rejection of spatial clarity only makes it stronger, more mythic – even his portraits feel haunted by ominous pastel truths. Salvador Dalí’s omnipresent desert seems a mundane and comfortably familiar setting by comparison.
For our purposes, the most relevant is Redon’s sequence of paintings depicting angels. These indistinct, androgynous figures, often drawn entirely in bold broad brushstrokes, generally appear to be of the fallen variety; they wander a barren Earth, naked and cold and alone. The Fanfare angel, gazing up at what he has lost, is easy to imagine as one of their brothers; a forgotten Redon.
The idea of using Redon-style artwork on the cover for an album also seems to have occurred to 1980s post-punk band Magazine, since they literally used Odilon Redon artwork on several of their releases; the imagery is so strong it can be difficult to talk about the music without getting diverted. Their 1978 single “Shot By Both Sides” featured Redon’s The Chimera Looks with Horror at All Things on its inner sleeve, with his Cactus Man making the front of their follow-up track, “Give Me Everything”. (Redon would eventually grace the front of an LP in 2011, with The Misshapen Polyp Floated on the Shores, a Sort of Smiling and Hideous Cyclops featuring on Magazine’s great reunion album No Thyself.) They never used his angels, but the appeal, and the logic, is the same – taking a unique and unnerving piece of art and plastering it across your leftie polemic is exactly the sort of weirdly literate griminess that Hannon found so inspiring in the post-punk movement. Is this too tenuous a connection to justify illustrating this post with a bunch of Redon angels in lieu of a proper photoshoot? Probably. Do I care? Nah. (Here’s an eloquent little essay Guillermo del Toro wrote on him while we’re at it.)
OK, I’ll actually talk Fanfare now. We open with “Ignorance Is Bliss”, a tinny little pop song whose title may well be the first ever literary reference in a Hannon song (though it’s possible that he was just echoing the common phrase rather than consciously quoting the Thomas Gray poem in which it originated). Taken on its own, this track resembles the story of a love affair, a tangled relationship where one person stifles the other: “I rely upon your charity to survive / I deny myself to prove that I’m alive / I plead guilty if sweet innocence is this / I support the motion, ignorance is bliss”. However, if we consider the ecological concerns of the later tracks, a corresponding meaning emerges. It’s easy to read “Kill me with your kiss / Bliss, whoops, apocalypse / Ignorance must be bliss” as part of some torrid break-up story, but the rest of the album suggests a more literal interpretation of “apocalypse”. Yes, this is something loftier: a song about the complex, sometimes dangerously antagonistic relationship between mankind and Earth; a song about flirting with the end of the world, and the unease we feel when we accept responsibility for our actions. In its middle verse, it’s remarkably unambiguous about this: “I deny myself to keep this world alive / You walk out and off the edge of the abyss / I oppose the motion, ignorance is bliss”. It’s an ascetic environmentalist singing to a climate change denier. However, it’s also wilfully inconsistent about which perspective it’s coming from, with Hannon claiming to “support”, “oppose”, and “propose” the same motion at various points. There’s no really coherent way to interpret this, but perhaps that’s fitting – Gray’s nostalgic reflection on a simpler time in his life is so commonly misunderstood to mean “ignorance is superior to knowledge” that it’s often difficult to know whether someone quoting it is saying what they mean or something quite different.
On another level, this engagement with the idea that gaining knowledge may be uncomfortable – or at least not straightforwardly desirable – ties in with the album cover’s depiction of a fallen angel. The fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is notoriously bitter, but that’s revolution for you.
One night in 2010, Hannon performs at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin. Standing alone onstage with an acoustic guitar, he asks the audience for requests. After a few moments of turning down the usual tedious calls for “My Lovely Horse“, he reflects, “I’ve written too many songs, haven’t I? Is there any way of, sort of starting, you know, from here, working backwards, writing less and less songs? Sort of… Martin Amis-style…” As if in answer, some strange soul shouts, “Play ‘Ignorance Is Bliss’!” Sounding slightly perplexed, Hannon obliges, performing an abbreviated version of the partly-forgotten song. The first half he spends parodying his younger self’s strained vocals: “I rely upon your something to survive … I’m an angst-ridden seventeen-year-old.” He then shifts into a richer, more mature register, giving us a glimpse at how Fanfare could have sounded had it been recorded at a time when Hannon really knew what he was doing. “I love this bit,” he interjects before the final line, “Ignorance must be bliss.” Some cheer, some laugh, and Hannon offers us his final verdict: “What a way to wrap up a chorus. Okay, that’s that… but you gotta start somewhere!”
The second song on the album, “Indian Rain”, is a particularly odd one. Its weather imagery and rhythm of abandon give it a rocking momentum that sometimes suggests the sea-shanty of a crew at the mercy of nature, while the lilting, ever-descending nostalgia of the chorus verging on a kind of doo-wop pastiche (maybe via David Bowie’s “Drive-In Saturday”). Hannon begins with an insistent, poetic verse that’s more murmured than sung: “I feel as if I / Have been buried alive / For the best part of five hundred years”. From the first line it’s clear that this is a simile, so the song should probably be taken as the tale of a singer prone to flights of melodramatic fancy rather than that of an entombed pentacentenarian. In quick succession, the album’s wider themes surface: Hannon refers to the “mountain of waste” that he feels has been suppressing him, and says that his limbs are now free to “emancipate” him “from the celibacy of this hole”. Even aside from the odd sexuality in this choice of words, the description of extricating oneself from a big pile of rubbish as “emancipation” is interesting: the choice between pollution and freedom is linked to becoming a man. To growing up. To gaining knowledge.
After the soft refrain, “Turn in your grave / Hold back the Indian rain”, Hannon dives into another lively poetic monologue. First, his character encounters a lover: “Warm wind in my face / Like the linen and lace / Soft surrounding her waist like a mask”. This is elaborated on, but only through references to the natural world: “Pleasure tripping our tongues through the grass / New blood in my veins / Like red Indian rain / Stripping us of all shame we possess”. After this liberation, this conflation of sexuality and ecology, has been framed as the only alternative to celibate imprisonment in a grave of trash, our narrator drops a shocking twist: “With tears in my eyes / And with anguish I cry / I was free all the time, I confess”. Hannon, or his character here, is complicit in his own suffering, responsible for his own past actions, while his reference to the couple being “stripped of shame” is an interesting inversion of the Eden story – of the fall. Life is ignorance; knowledge is loss. Finally, the song’s soft refrain is repeated half a dozen times, with “incoming rain” eventually changing to the “Indian rain” of Hannon’s blood; a kind of haunted and ominous lullaby.
“Bleak Landscape” is the album’s gentlest, most introspective track, but the first thing we hear of it is a man asking, “You’re all right?” The line is presumably another band member, and was presumably recorded by accident and left in the final edit because Hannon thought it would be a bit amusing, but it creates an interesting disconnect with the preceding songs. They were self-contained little fables, but this track is set in our world: this track is about the man who wrote them. We’ve been woken from a dream. “I cannot reconcile myself to this / I wish I could / I cannot live the life I ought to live / I know I should”. There’s an internal conflict here, a struggle to do the right thing, and it’s one that any half-hearted eco-warrior should recognise. Yes, knowledge can be difficult, and yeah, ignorance may well be bliss, but that’s no excuse for letting that mountain of waste pile up, and there’s a girl out there with linen and lace and stuff. (Is my interpretation flawed if it makes the young Hannon look a bit like he’s talking the talk but not walking the walk with regards to his environmental commitments?)
Before the title drop, the song goes decidedly meta: “I cannot bring myself to pray / Except to wish these words away / They echo round my head / But soon they will escape / Across the bleak landscape”. (The fact that prayer is even considered as an option is unusual for Hannon, and one of several odd religious references that pop up throughout the album.) In a later verse, it’s “I cannot bring myself to sing”, and in another, Hannon laments, “Every word unuttered / Only serves to clutter up my head”, so this is definitely, to some extent, a song about creativity, and songwriting in particular. We also get the Fanfare-requisite reference to the beauty of the natural world: “There is a tree that grows out of this earth / It stands alone / There is a wind that shaped it from its birth / By whom the seed was sown”.
However, it’s not at all clear what the eponymous term actually means. A “bleak landscape” doesn’t sound very pleasant, and could (for instance) be taken to refer to a desolate post-industrial wasteland. However, we’re specifically told that words and songs can escape across it, and the final lines, which Hannon sings as if they explain something, say: “And when I go to bed / I dream that soon I will escape / Across the bleak landscape / And soon we shall escape / Across our very own bleak landscape”. Hannon wants to follow his songs to that place they go, and then he wants us all to find our way to somewhere like it. Well, I suppose there can be a kind of beauty in bleakness. It’s a pleasant thought, and one that makes a lot of sense if you think about it in terms of artistic expression – that we should all find a way to say our words, or sing our songs, as he’s trying to – but it’s also faintly sad that he feels this can only happen in the world of dreams. If this song began with an awakening, it ends by drifting off to sleep…
…but the following dream, perhaps brought on by that alarming electric guitar feedback, is a bit of a nightmare. “Tailspin” is a strident, blistering, accusatory track that’s the most overtly environmentalist on the album, and comfortably bags the Lifetime Achievement Award for Neil Hannon Song Sounding Most Like It Was Recorded In A Garage. It’s also the only one where it seems like Hannon might actually be trying to emulate Michael Stipe’s vocal style, with a weirdly keening, sometimes difficult-to-understand performance suggestive of a particularly fast REM track (perhaps the climax of “Can’t Get There From Here”). Performed by another singer, this could have been a vicious screed, but Hannon’s voice never quite loses its note of campy theatricality – its acute awareness that it’s participating in an indie-rock deep cut with zero chance of contributing in any way to the societal changes it’s entirely about. This song knows full-well it won’t change the world, but it’s still going to muster up all the angry, abstract, post-punkish energy it can.
This song’s title imagines the Earth as an aeroplane spiralling out of control, with climate change sending us to our doom, and even makes direct reference to rising sea levels: “Huge tailspin / Is the world gonna win? / Is the ocean gonna open up and let us in?” But as in the previous songs, there’s an element of prevarication, a reluctance on Hannon’s part to commit to the environmentally responsible lifestyle he’s advocating: “This crime / Is hard to define / So watch the leaves turn brown for the last time”. Later, we get the similar “Tailspin, I repent my sins / But when I get to heaven will you let me in?”, which seems to dramatise Hannon’s struggle to live up to his own standards as a tense confrontation with Saint Peter at the pearly gates. At least the young Hannon is aware that scribbling down some tunes about the apocalypse isn’t the most effective method of averting it.
We also get an attempt at political commentary: “Hard luck / Your policies suck / Your rhetoric will save your face but not your skin”, but in the venom department, Hannon is no Morrissey. As on October 1st, he’ll make vague – and quite probably heartfelt – political statements, but he’ll never actually call out any specific politician, or party, or even policy. For an artist literally living in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, Hannon was awfully unvitriolic. He could have been writing a Divine Comedy answer to V for Vendetta or The Happiness Patrol, but instead he’s content to give us stupid brilliance like “The forests pine and the willows weep”. Maybe this album’s wishy-washiness can be attributed, at least in part, to Thatcher’s environmental policies actually being… kind of all right.
This track is one of the two so single-mindedly focused on the environment that they betrays the importance of what might otherwise seem like off-hand references to trees in the others. (Even the cover of the Active Studio demo starts to look like an Earth letting its oceans pour away while a symbol of patriarchal oppression looms over it. Or maybe it’s just a Holy Hand Grenade.) Really, with these lyrics you can take your pick: we’ve got a shout-out to the ozone layer (“The air’s getting thin”) followed immediately by a line about water pollution (“The ocean’s getting sick of all the crap you’re pumping in”). It goes on and on, insistent and wheedling. “The message we are sending / Is a very real one / The world we are defending / Could be a very green one”. But at least we’ve got that catchy, oddly enthusiastic two-line chorus, “I hate unhappy endings / And there doesn’t have to be one!” In the final verse, Hannon replaces that “I” with a “we”, the same technique he used to give the closing lines of “Bleak Landscape” their broad, climactic sweep: “We all hate unhappy endings / And there doesn’t have to be one! There doesn’t have to be one! There doesn’t have to be a tailspin!”
The next track, “The Rise and Fall”, takes us back to slow, introspective, ambiguous territory. With lines like, “The rise and fall, the fall and rise / The freezing breath, the frightened eyes”, it seems to suggest – as many of Hannon’s songs do – a physical encounter with a woman. This becomes overt later: “My lady laughs, my lady cries / She cries / Hold me in your arms / Hold me till you kill me / Hold me till you break my will / And passion fills my heart”. On a superficial level, or in isolation, the song seems to depict a feverish, perhaps destructive relationship between two partners. However, not all is what it seems: references to “The naked truth, the naked eye” tie in with the album’s theme of forbidden knowledge, and how difficult it can be to confront one’s responsibilities. This notion is revisited later: “And you and I / Shall no longer / Look at life / Through the half-closed eye”. While this is clearly, on some level, a love song, it’s also a song about resolving to change the way you live in response to disturbing new information while others bury their heads in the sand.
“The Holy Ghost is exorcised”, a line which presages one of the song’s climactic moments, was perhaps the most cleverly sacrilegious lyric about the Third Hypostasis until the Rubberbandits had Éamon de Valera spread it on toast. It also reinforces the environmentalist reading of the album if we take it as a lamentation for the decay mankind has wrought on the world. When we sinned and were removed from God’s presence, he was also effectively removed from ours, leaving us free to trash his creation as we see fit. It’s also interesting to note that it’s specifically the Holy Ghost that’s invoked here, not the Father or the Son – in other words, the aspect of the Trinity that’s used to stand in for the sublimity of the natural world is also the only one that isn’t overtly masculine. That’s very fitting… even if it’s just a pun with ideas above its station. The “rise and fall” concept doesn’t tie directly into the album’s themes, and seems simply to describe the motion of the song’s two partners, perhaps seeking solace in one another in dark and precarious times. Unusually for a Divine Comedy song, this one has a false ending followed by an additional verse – a rhythmic, wave-like structure that ties into its title nicely.
“Logic Versus Emotion” is the only song on Fanfare that’s as explicitly, unapologetically environmentalist as “Tailspin”, and its tale is told by two clearly delineated narrators. Jumping directly into the natural imagery, we find Hannon softly reflecting: “I stood upon the listed bridge / Dividing different images / Logic versus emotion / A mountain stream versus the ocean / Will we ever learn?” It’s the latest manifestation of this album’s seemingly inexhaustible navel-gazing about people failing to care quite enough for the environment, and if those of you playing Fanfare bingo at home guessed that some vague political commentary was in the offing, you’d be correct: “Politicians carry the motion / Will we ever learn?” (Later in the song, he echoes this with “Politicians go through the motions” in what’s actually a quietly clever play on words.)
Things get a lot more interesting in the second verse, which is unambiguously sung from the perspective of an anthropomorphised river: “I’ll take you upstream / Up to my origin / My water pure as glass / My beauty everlasting”. It’s one of the rare moments the music’s subject-matter even attempts to fulfil the sublimity promised by the artwork; one of the only songs in Hannon’s discography that actually find him giving a voice to the divine. After illustrating its majesty, the river draws our attention to the alternative: “I’ll take you downstream / Down where they turn me green / I suffer the indignity / Of administering your poisons to the sea”.
With this scene set, a drama begins to unfold. Standing upon his bridge, from which he can apparently perceive both extremes, Hannon sees a woman who seems to be begging for mercy: “Leave my house alone / I won’t leave my home / Said the old lady / Kneeling by the river-bank, crying”. (I don’t think this works musically – with lines like “I was here before you / A million years before / I can only warn you / I’ll be here when you’re gone”, the song struck an intelligent balance between the playful and the cosmic, and Hannon’s sudden swerve into the plaintive and shrill recalls the bathos of Bowie’s unintentionally funny “Glass Spider”. The delirious backing vocals, “Leave them alone / I love my home”, also sound a bit like something from one of Hannon’s Father Ted songs.) The animals of the valley join in the woman’s pleas, “Watching as their paradise disappeared / Under the water”. Now, there’s some artistic shorthand here – the kind of waste that gets dumped in rivers is probably not a major cause of rising sea levels – but nonetheless it gets the thematic point across succinctly. The most obvious interpretation is that the old woman simply represents humanity, and is begging the personified river (and by extension the natural world) to have mercy, but it’s equally possible that she herself is the song’s Mother Earth figure, crying out for her children to think of her lest she – and they – be lost. The fact that it works both ways is particularly fitting for a metaphorical scenario describing such a symbiotic relationship, and the way the song specifies and combines the river’s distinct spatial and temporal drifts towards pollution quietly gives it some real heft, turning human intransigence into an assault on the sanctity of the ancient.
Watching these aquatic shenanigans play out, Hannon ponders the environment in that detached, procrastinating manner that’s becoming a Fanfare trademark: “Logic versus emotion / Seems to be a lot of confusion / There is no forgone conclusion / There is no simple solution”. He really doesn’t stick the landing here: the closing line asks the world’s people to “Listen to your emotions”… in a song titled “Logic vs Emotion”, leading to the unintentional implication that the conservation Hannon’s advocating is not a logical goal. Really, it makes you wonder why a logic–emotion dichotomy is being invoked here at all – one might have been appropriate for a song about a conflicted love affair, for instance, but the environment? Even if you don’t believe that climate change is a real problem, your sense of logic and emotions are still likely to agree with each other. The gulf is interpersonal, not intrapersonal, but the song seems aimed at converting some imagined demographic of emotionally stunted anti-Vulcans whose adherence to logic somehow leads them to conclude the exact opposite of the truth. Screwing up a metaphor is one thing, but naming an entire song after your screw-up is quite another. Maybe it’s appropriate that a song largely about water pollution should have its meaning clouded, in the end, by unclear metaphors.
Like October 1st, Fanfare saves the best for last, and in this case, that means the otherworldly, shimmering, guitar-driven “Secret Garden”. The song begins with a noxious, undulating verse where an introspective Hannon considers a woman who seems somehow unattainable or lost: “So much time and so little to do / I furnish my mind with pictures of you”. Next Hannon becomes desperate and needy (finally succeeding where the shrill parts in “Ignorance Is Bliss” and “Logic vs Emotion” stumbled): “Take me inside you / There I will find you / Quietly sleeping / Water is seeping / Down from the skies and / Into your eyes and / Into the secret garden”. This wording has obvious sexual connotations, but on closer inspection, it seems that something more interesting is going on here. Coming right after “Logic vs Emotion”, the introduction of water here can be no accident: this ties the song into the album’s broader ecological concerns. The positioning of the eponymous “Secret Garden” within the woman’s eyes clarifies that Hannon’s desire to be taken inside her is metaphorical, a desire for mental or spiritual rather than sexual communion. It’s certainly nothing to do with the Frances Hodgson Burnett novel.
Hannon sang softly in the background of certain sections in October 1st, and as “Secret Garden” spirals up towards its instrumental conclusion, we can similarly hear his voice low in the mix – not singing, but speaking quietly and deliberately, as if reciting a poem… or a eulogy. This lasts for about 25 seconds. The point of the technique was unclear on the earlier release, but here Hannon seems intent on being obscure and baroque. Coming at the end of an apocalyptic album, the effect is downright eerie. At about the 3:53 mark, I think I can hear him saying, “…and the song is seen…”, but that’s it. What do you think?
“Secret Garden” is the only track on this misfire that’s easy to imagine as a really great Divine Comedy song, and indeed, it’s the only one that Hannon, of his own volition, seems to have deemed worthy of resurrection long after its release.
“Would you like to hear a really old song?” asks Hannon in La Cigale, Paris, during a 2006 concert to promote Victory for the Comic Muse. The crowd cheers. “No, no, a really old song… The oldest song possible,” he continues, seemingly either hoping that nobody will ever upload October 1st to YouTube or literally not remembering that he has released music prior to 1990. “Ehh, you asked for it! This is from Fanfare. It’s called ‘Secret Garden’.” This live version of the song benefits greatly from Hannon’s more mature and dramatic vocal work, the addition of a brooding orchestra, a significantly larger band, and a climactic conclusion that throws every instrument into the kitchen sink in a manner that recalls “A Day in the Life” (that is, if Paul McCartney had shouted out “Okay, you can stop now… Arrêtez! Well… that was 1990.” halfway through the final piano chord). It may not have the stripped-down sincerity of the original recording, but it’s a welcome illustration of Hannon’s musical evolution, and hints at the possibilities of reimagining one’s past.
So, who is this woman whose eyes contain a garden? One possibility that leaps to mind is that she’s Gaia, Mother Earth, the ultimate expression of the personified Earth for which the characters of “Logic vs Emotion” lay the groundwork. When “Secret Garden” crescendoes, Hannon’s voice growing more desperate, it’s easy to imagine the apocalyptic environmentalist longing for the embrace of some benevolent maternal goddess as the rest of mankind blunders on and sea levels rise. As a conclusion to Fanfare for the Comic Muse, it works. But certain lines hint at other possibilities: “The icon hangs alone on the wall / Her sweet mouth is saying nothing at all / Golden fragments of moments in time / Tarnished with guilt for an innocent crime”. In Christian terminology, the word “icon” refers to a certain type of sacred art, and when it’s applied specifically to an image of an inexpressive woman hanging alone in a golden frame, it’s hard not to think of the Virgin Mary. As an Anglican household, Hannon’s family probably wouldn’t have venerated Mary quite the way their Catholic neighbours did, but nonetheless she remains the closest thing to a mother goddess in the canonical Christian tradition. And if Mary is, as doctrine suggests, the New Eve, then this “Secret Garden” is a kind of Eden. Logically, the only crime ever committed in a state of complete innocence was the Original Sin… which brings us neatly back to the cover artwork.
Human and angel alike, this is an album about falling from grace; about the struggle to balance one’s own interests with the responsibility of stewardship for the world. Hannon dreams of returning to a lost primordial state; a time before humanity and its sins; before the pettiness of crime and intelligence; before industry and pollution and the ravaging of the Earth. Ignorance is bliss twofold: we demanded more knowledge in the garden, yet now we revel in our ignorance of the oncoming Anthropocene.
Another possibility, not necessarily exclusive, is that the icon hanging alone on the wall is simply the Comic Muse herself. Thalia also has rural associations, which ties in with the album’s hope for a return to a more balanced relationship between humanity and the ecology. Our words and songs may echo across a bleak landscape, but it’s that secret garden they really long for – the garden we lost, and can now reach only through art.
In hindsight, the jangly garage-band sound of Fanfare (not to mention its pervasive fretting about environmental apocalypse) clearly marks it out as a creative cul-de-sac for Hannon. It’s a far cry from the mix of daft orchestral pop and emotional resonance that he’d soon adopt as his style for life, but nonetheless it’s an intriguing glimpse into what could have been, and remains one of Hannon’s most thematically focused releases. An artist discarding his idols to seek his own voice, only tbecome mireo d even more deeply in his other influences – out of the frying pan, into the fire. Hannon has allegedly dismissed Fanfare as “sub-REM baby steps”, but coming from a musician who’d go on to deal so very heavily in heterosexual romance, this album’s focus on the beauty and fragility of the world seems exhilarating and expansive, even if it’s not expressed with the lyrical or musical sophistication of his later work. In fact, I would go so far as to say that certain of Hannon’s later albums might have done well to take a few notes from this youthful paeon, not to any mortal woman, but to the Earth herself.