We’re still floundering; still not quite there. Timewatch, a three-track EP, was released in 1991 – one year on from the false start of Fanfare for the Comic Muse, but still two years short of the inspired reinvention of Liberation. Musically and lyrically, Timewatch is indistinguishable from the preceding album’s jangly, REM-influenced shoegaze – you could substitute pretty much any Fanfare track for any Timewatch song, or vice versa, and no-one would be any the wiser. It’s tempting to look at it as a single from Fanfare, but the truth is sort of the opposite – its two lead songs are entirely new, with an extended Fanfare track actually forming its B-side.
Like Fanfare, Timewatch‘s cover uses artwork of ambiguous origin, in this case what seems to be a painting of a disembodied, heavy-lidded eye. As with that album, reverse image searches show up nothing. The back cover credits one Sheila Stokes as photographer and one Hilary Turner as designer, though it’s unclear exactly what these roles entailed – the front is the only thing that could conceivably be a photograph here, but we have no way of knowing whether Turner created the painting or simply appropriated and edited one. It certainly appears weathered and cracked enough to be a section of some older painting, but the subject’s flesh – if that’s what it is – seems strangely contoured, almost like we’re looking at an unusual piece of knotted wood. Perhaps this eerie quality is simply a result of Stokes photographing an old portrait that may not have been entirely anatomically accurate, and Turner cropping most of it out while applying a creepy blue filter. (The record’s A-side is also decorated by a stylised blue eye, while the B-side sports an enigmatic blue letter “S” – I suppose it could stand for “Setanta”, but somehow that doesn’t feel entirely satisfying.) Whatever their process, the final result reminds me more than anything of a nightmarish moment in (of all things) the series finale of Courage the Cowardly Dog. In one of the show’s childhood-scarring forays into surreal horror, Courage dreams of a deformed, neotenous creature, seemingly an embodiment of his own self-doubt, who turns in its blue amniotic abyss and whispers to him, “You’re not perfect.” The Timewatch eye, floating in its blue void, evinces the same kind of soulful, detached sadness. (Look, arbitrary parallels between obscure pop-culture artefacts are largely what I live for at this point.)
Considering my take on Fanfare, I might also point out that many of Odilon Redon’s paintings depict solemn, disembodied, floating eyes. At one moment rawly alien and chillingly familiar, Redon’s creatures – if that term is even expansive enough to encompass them – often feel like things heaved onto the shores of the conscious mind from the blackest depths beneath. They do not correspond to contemporary ideas about how monsters should look, or, more pointedly, how monsters should be designed. There are no simple vampires or werewolves or aliens here; there are things which seem to demand the coining of new words to describe them. It’s tempting to liken these beings to illustrations from the Necronomicon, but that’s wrong, too – Cthulhu and his ilk are too ubiquitous, too familiar. Redon’s creations are like illustrations transcribed from the now-burnt grimoires of vanished medieval alchemists who saw too much and knew things we do not. They are unfiltered. They are pre-modern. They are the exact, exact, aesthetic opposite of the average DeviantArt page. They remind us that we’re not perfect.
So, how well does Timewatch live up to the nebulous atavistic terror I’ve projected onto its cover art? The EP begins with, well, “Timewatch”, a percussive uptempo track that sounds just like it could be an outtake from the preceding album. However, as soon as Hannon begins to sing, things get interesting: “When I fall asleep / It will be forever / So I’ll never fall asleep / When I fall apart, put me back together / And my life will be complete”. There’s a playful appropriation of Nat King Cole’s “When I Fall In Love”, yes, but more importantly, it turns out this track is actually the embryonic form of “Timewatching”, a much slower and more mature song that’ll be familiar to any Divine Comedy fan as part of Liberation. The lyrics are largely the same, but the music is completely different (with the title’s elongation apparently meant to avoid confusion with the BBC documentary series Timewatch). As a result, listening to the version of “Timewatch” on this forgotten old EP gives the sense of hearing the early, Fanfare-era Divine Comedy covering an actual proper Divine Comedy track. For the third verse, Hannon slows the tempo dramatically, and suddenly what we’re listening to is far closer – vocally, at least – to what we now know is its “Timewatching” destiny. It doesn’t last long, but it’s fun – we get to hear Hannon stumble, seemingly by accident, into a place that’s much closer to his inevitable definitive sound. This is the only moment in the EP that actually feels essential – a glimmer of the future, the first hint of a great transition.
The lyrics are those of a love song, if a somewhat unsettling one. When Hannon sings, “Maybe it’s tonight / Maybe tomorrow night / Next week, next month, next year / We have only time to fear”, it’s unclear if this hazy inevitability is love or death – whether pursuing the former or fleeing the latter, time itself is the only real enemy, the only true barrier to victory, the only thing that cannot be overcome or negotiated with. “When I fall behind in the quest for pleasure / I shall treasure this short time / We shall not be chained, we shall not be tethered / And we’ll never be unkind”. With all its bustling queues and thrashing chains, “Timewatch” seems to long for some simple escape, some human connection. Its themes may be grand, but it’s a marked change in scope from the apocalyptic overtones of Hannon’s previous releases – a retreat towards the intimate.
And above it all, there’s that odd nounness to the title. What exactly is a “timewatch”? The simple act of “watching” time? An instruction, telling us to perform it? A self-referential name for a song that fits one (or both) of those descriptions? Perhaps the real watcher of time is that wretched blue creature on the front cover.
In any case, there is some indication that this specific name may have a deeper meaning for Hannon: it shares its basic concerns and iconography with the first song he ever wrote, “Digital Watch”. Never recorded, and apparently played by Hannon using a tennis racket as a guitar, this moving little number’s complete lyrics were: “Walking down the street / Wanna know the time / Look at my wrist / I’ve got a digital watch (Yeah) / A digital watch!” Old habits die hard.
As an aside, “Timewatch” also includes three interesting lines that didn’t survive into “Timewatching”: “I need some inspiration / I need to see the sun / You are the one”. Coming at the very end of the song, they seem to clarify its idolatrous tone – maybe this one’s another ode to the Comic Muse after all.
The EP’s second track, “Jerusalem”, is one of the most applicable Hannon has ever written. This is a song that could be twisted into virtually anything, and you can bet I’m going to give it a go. Its alternating verses have wildly different sounds, and little to bind them together (apart from their single-minded vagueness). The first and third are gentle and dreamlike, with some very soft vocal work from Hannon: “Come to life / Come to life / Life is an open door / Open for / Anyone”. Just as we’re about to drift off to sleep, the guitar kicks into overdrive and Hannon becomes strident and resentful: “I undivided my attention / I uninvited my guests / For them / I undiluted my affections / And unpolluted my chest / For them”. It’s a sharp, jarring shift, and it isn’t especially easy on the ears – I have to say, I’d kind of prefer it if this one had just stayed chill for its duration. (The quieter lines return to lurk beneath the louder ones in the form of backing vocals, creating an eerie, dissonant, borderline-haunted effect – is any other Hannon song this schizophrenic, this tormented?)
The identity of the nebulous group of people Hannon is railing never becomes clear, but lines about how “I undervalued my potential” and “I uninflated my ego” (always to appease “them”) seem oddly specific, even bitter, to the point that they suggest some autobiographical underpinning. At this point in Hannon’s life, the likeliest target is his school life – he’s certainly shown no signs of a grudge against his religious upbringing, which remains a major influence on his musical work, and it’s easy to imagine the artistically-minded young Hannon being frustrated at having to conform to a homogenous educational system. The remaining lyrics support this reading: “Life is an open door” is the type of hollowly optimistic rhetoric that schools often foist on children, and “Life is a country lane / Wet with morning rain” seems just like the sort of thought-fragments that might waft through a young songwriter’s mind while gazing out the classroom window. “I underrated their credo / I undertook to read it all / Again / I alternated works of fiction / With works of scientific fact / For them”. How often does someone force you to read both fiction and science textbooks? This is just a song about studying.
Finally, cryptically, the word “Jerusalem” is sung four times – something we can hardly ignore, given that it’s where the song finds its title. But what could it mean? Well, perhaps the most notorious role of that name in literature is its recurring appearance in the works of the visionary poet William Blake. In the prologue to his epic 1804 prophecy Milton a Poem – a prologue best known for having later been co-opted by Hubert Parry to form the basis for the 1916 hymn “Jerusalem” – Blake retells the apocryphal story that Christ visited Britain as a young man. For the first two stanzas, Blake offers queries rather than declarations of truth, seemingly inviting his readers to find the answers within themselves: “And did those feet in ancient time, / Walk upon Englands mountains green:” … “And was Jerusalem builded here, / Among these dark Satanic Mills?” This rather memorable turn of phrase is commonly taken as a paean to an imagined earthly heaven, one established by Christ in the heart of the English countryside, but which has since fallen to the industrial revolution. Next Blake turns revolutionary, calling his countrymen to figurative arms: “I will not cease from Mental Fight / Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand / Till we have built Jerusalem / In England’s green & pleasant Land.”
As luck would have it, this fits perfectly with the Divine Comedy song. In much the same way, Hannon’s “Jerusalem” sharply juxtaposes a dreamlike, wistful longing for an idyllic pastoral fantasy world with an angry screed against the strictures of the society in which he has found himself. Notably, the identification of Jerusalem (sometimes termed the New Jerusalem) with heaven on Earth is particularly common in Anglican faith – the faith Hannon’s family shares. The singer who was born in Londonderry and Derry City – who grew up in Enniskillen and Inis Ceithleann, too – seems well-positioned for an oblique take on Blake’s British mythopoeia. Granted, Hannon has never shown any overt interest in Blake, but an unconscious influence on the literate young songwriter is entirely possible. If it’s not true, it’s the kind of thing that should be, especially considering that Blake spent his final days illustrating Dante Alighieri’s little-known poem The Divine Comedy. Now, Hannon’s “Jerusalem” isn’t likely to threaten the position of Blake’s as Britain’s alternative national anthem, but it’s not without its charms – as in “Timewatch”, there’s an engagement with some truly cosmic subject-matter, but it’s undercut by an introspective, entirely human self-absorption that also has the benefit of sidestepping Blake’s nationalist leanings in favour of a healthier, more generalised love of the natural world – the same primordial sublimity whose loss Hannon lamented and longed to undo in Fanfare. (Yeah, this definitely beats “God Saves the Queen”.) In addition, the nebulous “them” that Hannon accuses of flattening his self-esteem and coercing him into regrettable conformist transformations – those dark Satanic millers – could easily refer to the forces of Urizen, the malevolent demiurge whose oppressive, obsessive fixation on creating and enforcing rules and laws, on the rigid vision of Newton’s sleep, makes him the closest thing to a villain in Blake’s body of work.
Closing out the EP is “The Rise and Fall”, an extended, re-recorded version of the Fanfare song that goes by the same name. Indeed, at nearly seven minutes and twenty seconds, it’s one of the longest tracks of Hannon’s career. This is a dissected version of the song, disassembled and laid out, the new joints hard and jarring. It isn’t slower than the original, but its compartmentalised structure gives it a more contemplative feel, with instrumental sections added between verses, and an entirely new guitar solo. Perhaps the most striking addition is the quiet opening, where Hannon recites some of the lyrics in his most poetically detached voice, almost as if caught unawares, before we’re sent hurtling into a wall of guitar. During one instance of “Hold me till you break my will / And passion fills my heart”, the single syllable of “heart” is dragged out to form a lengthy bridge to the following verse. With no new lyrics, lots of looping percussion, and vocals that frequently find themselves buried under layers of echoey production or unexpected reverbs, you could be forgiven for thinking you were listening to some DJ’s electronic remix – but no, it’s a properly new take; an odd little experiment for an odd little EP. The original track has a false ending, but this version goes further – always unfolding, never progressing, it seems almost endless.
On Fanfare, this song’s story of dangerous, toxic love and sacrilegious knowledge melded with the album’s themes of ecological collapse. Here, positioned as part of a trifecta with the nascent “Timewatch” and mysterious “Jerusalem”, its meaning seems less certain. However, in light of the EP’s artwork, the lines “And you and I / Shall no longer / Look at life / Through the half-closed eye” seem to take on a strangely literal quality. Divorced from its original environmentalist context, what was once a clear metaphor now becomes an unclear reality, and the logic of dreams takes hold.
William Blake once wrote that “Jerusalem is Liberty”. If that’s the case, the Neil Hannon of Timewatch is only two years away from breaking free of the “chains” and “tethers” of his youthful influences and finding the voice that was always meant for him. All that remains is to determine the identity of that lonely, watchful entity in the cover art, and just what it is that they’re observing. In the light of the record’s cultural references, a unifying possibility emerges: if wristwatches had existed in Blake’s mythic time, one imagines Urizen would have kept a close eye on his.