At the very brink of consummation, The Divine Comedy’s inevitable evolution into what it was always meant to be experienced a slight hiccup: Neil Hannon decided to stop singing. That’s right: the year was 1991, and Hannon, newly enamoured of Blur guitarist Graham Coxon, had concluded that he must step down as vocalist to focus his performative efforts entirely on the instrument. Accordingly, he recruited his friend John Allen to replace him as lead singer for the new Divine Comedy EP: Europop.
In retrospect, this is perhaps the single most absurd moment in the entire discography – a twist that puts its most fanciful lyrics to shame. As the saying goes, Neil Hannon is The Divine Comedy. He’s the band’s founder, its sole constant member, its essence, its synonym. As anyone who likes the band should agree, Hannon’s voice is one of their greatest strengths, every bit as important as his songwriting. (As an instrumentalist, he’s really nothing special – nobody ever says that their favourite guitarist is Neil Hannon.) While his vocal performance up to this point had admittedly been somewhat fey, not yet having achieved the rich sweep and fullness he’d display on later albums, it’s still difficult to imagine the leaps of logic that must have led to this diversion. One imagines that Hannon’s love for Blur – who by now had released only one album, that year’s Leisure – was just one factor, as he could easily have recorded guitar and vocals separately (unless the prospect of inconsistency between studio recordings and live performances was the deciding factor). This seems as much an aesthetic whim as a crisis of confidence. For Hannon to place another at the front and centre of The Divine Comedy seems bizarre, an obvious misstep… and that’s exactly what it’s like to listen to.
Europop was recorded as 1991 drew to a close, and released early the next year. The jangly guitars and grimy, garagey production of Fanfare for the Comic Muse haven’t quite been discarded, but at least Hannon’s drastic resignation as frontman of his own band stands to show that he was still very keen on the idea of musical reinvention. This persistent spirit will soon, finally, pay off – just not quite yet.
Hannon only seems to have publicly discussed the EP once, briefly, in a 1994 interview with Les Inrockuptibles. He mentions his fascination with the “intellectual” musician Coxon, and how he liked to be able “to stay in my corner, set back with my guitar”, but recalls it as an unpleasant era overall. They didn’t have fun, and thought only of copying others; Hannon calls the resulting music “very soft”, comparing it to the output of Galaxie 500 and the Cowboy Junkies. He admits that he always knew he was a better singer than Allen.
Now, I don’t know anything about John Allen as a person – only that he was a friend of Hannon’s, and that he remained involved with the band (in a smaller capacity) for years to come. This is not a hatchet-job. I won’t make any attempt to discuss his life, which remains as mysterious as it is irrelevant – just his sound.
Allen’s coarse, quick, working-class vocals are an enormous change from Hannon’s airy, over-enunciated delivery – regardless of what his background might be, he’s positively cockneyish here. Without Hannon on vocals, the perspective of the songs feels radically different. Coming from Allen, the lyrics take on a very worldly quality, like the internal monologue of an unfazed spiv who knows he’s every bit as good as those who sneer at him from ivory towers. But for all the difference in texture Allen’s vocals bring, the music of Europop is uninspiringly close to the simple, energetic indie rock of Fanfare and Timewatch (the latter even being tacked on as a series of bonus tracks for the CD version). On the bright side, Hannon makes sure to give himself some oddly lovely guitar intros and bridges that he might not have bothered with if he’d been the one singing.
One remarkable aspect of Allen’s performance is how utterly devoid of irony it is. He’s never knowing, never campy, neither self-aggrandising nor self-effacing. There’s none of the careful dance between sincerity and absurdity that’s since come to be a Divine Comedy hallmark… he just sort sort of belts out the lyrics that were written down for him. His voice does have a forcefulness that makes it quite compelling at times, but this completely fails him when the lyrics call for reflectiveness. The overall effect has some commonality with Hannon’s distinctive world-weariness, but Allen reads as roguish and irritable where Hannon would have read as introspective. He reminds me of Alan Moore and John Constantine, of all things – an interesting thought to consider in light of the EP’s proto-Britpop influences.
Despite his uncertainty, Hannon couldn’t bring himself to stop singing entirely, instead limiting himself to providing backing vocals. Perhaps in an effort to balance out Allen’s flat, husky delivery, Hannon seems to have given his own voice an unusual prominence. Indeed, his buoyant, hymnal aaahhh-ing forms an ever-present aura around Allen’s voice – one that never lets you forget that you’re listening to a dynamic far more complex than writer–performer. (It’s primarily these backing vocals that justify the Galaxie 500 comparison.) While a fan can recognise this as a bit of back-seat driving – even puppeteering – I imagine you’d still find Hannon’s contribution more compelling than the lead’s even if this was your first exposure to either of them. How often do you hear pop music where the backing vocals are so clearly the highlight? Europop is a refreshingly strange listening experience for this alone.
Nonetheless, as a glimpse into how The Divine Comedy might perhaps have sounded had Hannon been born into less privileged circumstances, it’s genuinely interesting – it’s just a pity a more capable vocalist wasn’t found for the experiment, as Allen’s performance on these tracks is nowhere near as layered and knowing as Hannon’s would have been (something we can confirm in the case of “Europop”, understandably the only track he would deem worth revisiting). The lyrics themselves are still the reasonably lofty and artistic stuff we’ve come to expect from an early Divine Comedy release, but there’s a very alien sense that, for the first and last time, we have a singer who isn’t really thinking very hard about them. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that what this EP really needs is specifically the English singer Joe Jackson – listen to his guest vocals on William Shatner’s “Common People” to see how Allen would have sounded on Europop if he’d actually had some real power and righteous ferocity in his voice.
What’s striking about the cover artwork, by the same designer as Timewatch, is how little effort seems to have been put into it: it’s literally just the flag of the European Union with “The Divine Comedy” printed above it and “Europop” in the middle. (Actually, it says “EuroPOP” if you take the stylisation into account, which we might as well.) In fairness, the packaging commits to the concept, with the back cover’s credits and track list printed dark blue against a cheery EU-yellow backdrop punctuated by one dark-blue star.
At first glance, it’s easy to dismiss the EU flag as obviously related to the title “Europop”, but of course the two concepts have very little in the way of an actual relationship. Hannon was only two years old when his native countries (both Ireland and the United Kingdom) joined the EU, and in any case has never seemed particularly interested in questions of sovereignty, with his occasional political songs generally just suggesting that people in Northern Ireland stop killing each other. Rather, it appears that the flag is being used to evoke Europe itself rather than the Union; aesthetics rather than politics. A self-described Europhile, Hannon has a long-time romantic fascination with the continent, its people, and its artistic output. (His feelings towards the UK seem more fluid; at times he has expressed discomfort with its Americanisation, and at other times he has claimed to love both the UK and the US as much as France.) While the European influence is surprisingly indirect for an EP called “Europop”, it’ll soon become quite prominent, with a host of references to the culture of Europe – especially France, which seems to be the epicentre of Hannon’s fixation – manifesting throughout the coming albums.
Just like the Timewatch EP, Europop opens with an eponymous track that’s impossible to hear without comparing it to the superior reworking which appears in the middle of Liberation. In this case, “Europop”. Now, when you’re writing music that deals directly with musical scenes or genres – topics which are obviously of natural interest to musicians – there are two basic ways to approach it: straight-up recreation or ironic detachment; to instantiate the topic or subvert it. Hannon has resolved this dilemma in different ways throughout his career, and the two studio recordings of “Europop” offer a rare chance to see the same song interpreted both ways. While the later version, complete with Hannon vocals, is an authentic synth-driven ode to the genre, the original iteration on this EP instead sounds much like the standard 90s indie rock surrounding it. The music itself is broadly similar in both versions, but the production is so radically different that you’d hardly notice they were the same song if not for the lyrics (which aren’t even entirely the same – the version on Liberation has an extra verse).
On the surface, “Europop” seems to be the monologue (partly verbal, partly internal) of a man trying to pick up a girl in a nightclub (because Hannon is nothing if not straight). He introduces himself, “Hello! / What would you like to know? / What would you like to hear? / What if I just disappear inside myself?” One of these questions is obviously a bit more cryptic than the others, but perhaps indicates a certain nervousness or lack of confidence on the part of our hero. The narrator repeats his routine, this time tweaking the latter two queries: “Who would you like to see? / Who would you like me to be if not myself?” This evidently doesn’t work either, as the chorus seems to represent him getting immensely distracted by the dance music being played at the venue: “And the Europop, pop, makes me dizzy / And I just can’t stop, stop, till it’s finished / And I don’t know what, what, you find funny / ‘Bout the Europop and the love of money”. What’s interesting about these lines is that they connect the song’s focus on music to the otherwise inscrutable musings on finance that serve as its prelude and interlude: “Financial gain / Is a very pleasant thing / The transitory pleasure that it brings / Counts for nothing”. Now, these lines have the weight of a semiotic key, but are difficult to interpret – on the surface, they seem to contradict each other, but Hannon doesn’t really write songs with multiple viewpoint characters, and besides, Allen sings the lines as if they were linked and naturally cohesive. By some unclear process of memory and association, all this Europop seems to send the narrator, who is presumably pissed out of his mind at this point in the night, into delirious, defensive, rambling tangents about how nice it’d be to have some more disposable income. (Look, I don’t fully get this one either, but at least it’s got a nice complex protagonist. One who probably has strong feelings about the EU, one way or the other.)
In the later verses, the line of inquiry continues: “Hello! / Where is it cool to go? / When is it cool to leave? / What is it cool to breathe inside myself?” (this last one providing the earliest proper drug reference in the Divine Comedy discography). The remaining questions also fit the scenario I’ve outlined above, and hint that the narrator has a slightly deeper aspiration for the night, with a bit of introspective self-discovery on the side: “Don’t tell me what I already know / Don’t show me what I’ve already seen / Don’t take me where I’ve already been / Inside myself.” Notably, each string of questions in the song is preceded by a “Hello!”, but it’s ambiguous how literally this should be taken – whether the narrator is starting from scratch with different girls between bouts of Europop fever, or pestering the same one on-and-off all night.
The relentless percussion in this version of “Europop” makes it feel a lot faster and scrappier than the more contemplative reimagining on Liberation, even though the two move along at about the same clip. Eventually, Allen’s dejected protagonist asks, “So / What is there left to know? / What is there left to say?”, then gives up his quest with a dramatic sigh. (Presumably it’s three o’clock in the morning and he has to wander out in search of a taxi home.) Actually, one could credibly defend this as the strongest part of the song, as poor Allen’s poor vocals are replaced by lots of nice clapping and Coxon-esque flanged guitars. Best of all, Hannon begins singing the words “Frères Jacques” in the background – apparently a last-minute addition he tacked on after hearing the band’s producer singing it to himself, but one that works remarkably well, a fragment of continental culture scrawled across the recording like the token gibberish of a Eurovision winner.
And if I were examining the song in a vacuum, that’s all I’d have to say about it. Approaching it with knowledge of its circumstances, however, a very different meaning suggests itself: “Europop” is something of a confessional. This would never occur to someone listening to the finished version on Liberation, but in light of Hannon’s strange attempt to reposition himself as The Divine Comedy’s songwriter-guitarist, the Europop version is a perfect illustration of this crisis. When Allen sings, it’s Hannon’s words he’s singing – words riddled with self-doubt and prevarication. Never mind clubbing, never mind the narrative: Hannon is asking us what we’d like to see and hear, who we’d like to see and know. Lines like “What if I just disappear inside myself?” and “Who would you like me to be if not myself?” become much sharper when we remember that they were written by someone in the midst of a decision to step down as frontman of the band he founded. The first Divine Comedy album had been a failure, and Hannon had felt forced to try something new.
The paradoxical lines about the transient pleasures of wealth also fit this interpretation, and in a couple of different ways. If Hannon thinks that rejigging the band will make them more financially successful, the “very pleasant thing” that “counts for nothing” describes the bittersweet feeling of stepping out of the limelight. (This also provides a more credible link between the song’s musical and monetary themes, though this is also a little bit of a leap in that The Divine Comedy were never actually a Europop band.) With the gift of hindsight, the song can also be interpreted as the story of Hannon’s ultimate decision not to step down – in this reading, anything to be gained by switching to another singer is what ultimately “counts for nothing”. Since these lines appear at the song’s beginning and recur at the halfway point, we can even interpret the song’s first half as a dramatisation of Hannon’s soul-searching process, and his journey from making the decision to reversing it. Helpfully, Allen’s muttered “So / What is there left to know? / What is there left to say? / [sigh]” comes immediately after this point, and therefore works as a hilarious (though obviously accidental!) depiction of Hannon firing him, with an encore to make things nice and amicable.
Curiously, the second track also shares its name with a musical subgenre: “New Wave”. This reference is a little harder to untangle, as that term has a much wider variety of meanings, originating in the 1960s as a descriptor for the social-realist films made by French directors like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, and being co-opted soon afterwards for the variety of socially conscious science fiction written by people like JG Ballard and Ursula K Le Guin. The cinematic and literary iterations are not straightforwardly equivalent, and nor is the aural: “new-wave music” is itself an umbrella term used for a dizzyingly diverse genre which emerged in the late 1970s. An alternative to the overly artistic and avant-garde proclivities of post-punk, new-wave groups preferred to focus on clean and simple pop music, the clearest common traits being a dedication to strong pop hooks, copious synthesisers, and David Bowie. Looking at Hannon’s work, it’s easy to see echoes of the oddball ballads of XTC, the lurid synth-rock of Gary Numan, the wry robotic drama of The Human League, or the breathy octave leaps of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.
New-wave musicians were also pretty much all leftists; as Gina Vivinetto points out, the genre was shaped in the trans-Atlantic crucible of Thatcherism and Reaganomics. Unlike their punk forebears, the new-wavers didn’t sing about burning down the establishment – they sang about running away, or even just being somewhere else. Bolstered by MTV and the advent of the music video, new wave came to dominate the mainstream in the early 1980s, the accompanying visuals bringing into focus the geographical longing at the heart of the gestalt. These people weren’t revolutionaries – they were dreamers. Aesthetics were more important than practicalities. A dark and mysteriously beautiful Europe seemed the most popular destination of these flights of fancy, from the efforts of the subtly named band Berlin to those of Ultravox, whose frontman Father Benny Cake penned “Vienna” without knowing anything about the real city; an act of pure escapist fantasy. First this EP celebrates Europe for its daft and frothy pop output, then it celebrates new wave’s impossible dream of Europe as unreal paradise. In invoking this ancestry, these associations, Hannon’s “New Wave” begins to justify the front cover of Europop in a way the title track alone could not.
Just as “Europop” was Hannon’s indirect tribute to those continental dance anthems, “New Wave” takes an oblique approach to its eponymous genre. The first track’s narrator loved Europop music, but wasn’t in a Europop song – likewise, this narrator is the type of person who probably loves new wave, but he’s trapped in yet another REM-esque indie rock number, albeit one with interesting lyrics. The continued presence of jangly guitar and over-enthusiastic drumming might make this one sound a bit too similar to “Europop” for comfort, but the lilting, tumbling, dizzying rhythm soon gives the song a distinctly different feel – one that’s tied directly to its central image.
“From the Suicide Solution / To the Velvet Revolution / Has there ever been a time / More unquestionably mine?” asks Allen. In the space of five seconds, Hannon’s lyrics have name-checked the Ozzy Osbourne song and the anti-authoritarian Czechoslovakian protest that together bookend, almost precisely, the 1980s. Ambiguity is afforded no space – we’re told exactly what we’re listening to. The next lines are essentially another draft of the same introduction: “From the free-love generation / To the student demonstration / I have never felt the way I feel today / Hey, hey, hey, hey”. Like Hannon’s earlier efforts in the arena of political songwriting, this is superficial; largely content to mention issues he considers important and gesture vaguely at them. But where those songs were plaintive, this one is celebratory – rather than calling for change, it turns inwards, seeking to capture and elevate the very culture from which those songs emerged. “New Wave” is about a kind of social camaraderie that lies more in the idea of revolution than in the reality. It doesn’t matter that Hannon glosses over the particulars of Osbourne’s music, or whether he’s even referring to that song or just borrowing its eponymous pun on alcohol. This is a brisk and animated tour of a leftie college student’s world circa 1990, pure and simple. Exploring the geopolitical origins of the Czech Republic in any more detail would be dishonest – in the new wave, the aesthetics of escape and rebellion are what matter most.
It’s with the chorus that the song comes into its own: “I ride the wave / You ride it too / We’ll ride the wave / All the way through / In from the cold / Out of the blue / Drowning the old / To make way for the…” The idea of youthful social revolution is framed explicitly in terms of a wave that the narrator and his subject are surfing together. This image seems simple, but it’s deceptively evocative, effectively capturing the momentous passion of the song’s young heroes, the short half-life of their political rebellion, and the intense intimacy of powerful shared beliefs, all while the lilting, tumbling guitar melody subtly evokes and reinforces the tidal-wave motif. This is damn clever stuff, with Hannon’s decision to leave “make way for the new” an unfinished, implicit rhyme adding an interesting element of abruptness – mid-surf conversations are never easy, and the entire song seems to take place in a single exploded moment, like an unspoken message hidden in the electric telepathy of eye contact. (And though the political dimension is clearly what’s intended, the allusion to the phrase also fits with Hannon’s recent decision to step down as lead singer. “To make way for the…”)
As the song goes on, it reveals an interesting dichotomy, with the verses making specific and general references to real-world politics, and the chorus counterpointing this with its wave imagery. (Of course, the structure cleverly mirrors the motion of a wave itself – a somewhat more successful water metaphor than the faintly campy river in Fanfare‘s “Logic vs Emotion”). Next, the song takes a lurch into the Troubles: “From the nation’s separation / To its reunification / Has there ever been a time / More likely mine?” This is a clear reference to the counties of Ireland being split between the Republic and the UK, but the idea of reunification is much more common as a vague fantasy than a real proposal; perhaps “the nation” here is an abstraction, a paean to the idea of unification in a more general, idealistic sense. Notably, Hannon doesn’t take this opportunity to advocate directly for republicanism or loyalism – it’s even possible that the narrator is claiming national disharmony as part of what makes this “his time”, in that it gives him and his comrades something to come together and rail against.
“From the Cold War to the Coal War / I have done what I’ve been told for / Far too long, that is to say / Until today”. Not only is this song a moment of college rebellion frozen in amber, it’s the moment of college rebellion – the instant its narrator commits most fully to his beliefs and values.
Just when we think we’ve got a handle on the song, it veers into strange religious territory: “I ride the wave / You ride it too / Forgive our foolish ways / We know not what we do”, a casual but rather complex reference to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Hannon’s Anglican upbringing is a clear recurring element in his work, but it’s generally a lot easier to parse than this – there’s quite a bit to unravel here. First things first: Hannon is paraphrasing Luke 23:34, “Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. And they parted his raiment, and cast lots.” (I’m going with the undefeated King James Version, of course.) In the Bible, this line is spoken by Jesus addressing God, and requests forgiveness for the ignorant masses currently torturing him to death. In changing the pronoun, however, Hannon makes it difficult to tell just what the allusion is meant to convey. The song’s narrator seems to abruptly turn from the comrade he’s been serenading, but who is he turning to? Is he asking the socially conservative establishment he’s just been railing against – which would seem to risk siding with them on a meta level and admitting that the song’s protagonists are naïve and foolish – or is the question aimed, as in the Bible, at God himself? In requesting forgiveness, is Hannon identifying with Jesus, or with the sinners Jesus attempted to save?
After a fake ending and rock instrumental bridge, the song ends with a key-shifted reprise of the opening verse, suggesting that the narrator has just attained a new certainty about his place in the world, at least for now: the question “Has there ever been a time more unquestionably mine?” has evolved into an assured declaration, “There has never been a time more unquestionably mine.” That may be the biblical reference solved, then – it was nothing but a brief loss of faith, a low point; just like the one Jesus overcame on the cross, a moment of failure at the time of ultimate triumph. (This is something to keep in mind, actually, as overcoming low points is something of an accidental theme for this EP.)
Initially, “Intifada” seems like a drastic departure from what was shaping up to be the EP’s concept. The first two tracks were named after primarily European musical subgenres, and revolved (albeit, in the case of “New Wave”, elliptically) around those movements. “Intifada” is a difficult-to-translate Arabic word with a meaning somewhere between “shudder”, “struggle”, and “uprising”. Hannon likely heard the term in connection with what is now known as the First Intifada – then just “The Intifada” – an attempt by the people of Palestine to drive the Israeli occupation from their homeland. This iteration of the conflict was drawing to a close as the band recorded the EP, and while the choice of title may seem jarring and heavy-handed, the song itself is a surprisingly delicate one. Given his stated politics, one imagines the 21-year-old Hannon standing with the invaded and displaced Palestinians, but “Intifada” makes no overt reference to the struggle – instead, it’s a simple emotional message from one person to another, with only its title linking it to the idealistic rebellion of “New Wave”.
The introduction features some beautiful and understated guitar playing by Hannon, a glimmer of what he will one day achieve on the subtle instrumental masterpiece “Laika’s Theme”, but this is soon discarded in favour of what can only be described as another fairly conventional indie rock song, at least in terms of its music. Allen’s voice surges in: “Something is eating you up from inside / Something is keeping you up every night / Something is sleeping that you thought had died / Something is beating the rhythm of life”. The song continues in this vein, its subject-matter even more ethereal and abstract than the previous track’s.
It’s easy to dismiss “Intifada” as a love song, but that’s not right – it never makes any reference to the narrator’s feelings or beliefs. Instead, it’s a work of psychoanalysis. There’s no love here, no empathy, just understanding; diagnosis. It’s almost medical. While the level of ambiguity in the lyrics makes just about any interpretation feasible, I think there’s only one reading that fits with the literal content of the lyrics: this is a song about pregnancy. Now, I realise that I found a very similar meaning in October 1st’s “Passion Fruit”, and while it seems unlikely that any kind of parental anxiety was weighing heavily on Hannon’s subconscious at the time – he wouldn’t have a child for nearly another decade – I just feel that this interpretation is the only way to give the song some meaningful specificity; to weave its snatches of vague “Something”s into a coherent narrative, even if it’s not strictly an autobiographical one. With “Ebbing / Flowing / Always knowing / Something / Is growing / Deep within you”, the water imagery of “New Wave” gives way to the amniotic; we can imagine a child conceived in the singular chaos of that song’s drug-fuelled youthful abandon. The gentle guitar opening becomes those first embryonic stirrings. When Hannon’s songs are directed at an individual, the subject is virtually always a woman – well, what do men generally understand sometimes grows within women, beating a steady rhythm and keeping them up at night, thinking, knowing?
After the respite of another false ending and the rush of a sudden drum breakdown, we get an electric organ solo, and it’s quite possibly the best part of the track – partly because it gives us a break from Allen’s voice in a song which requires him to hold notes far longer than is wise, but mostly because it’s great to finally hear Hannon getting to use one of his signature instruments. Combine that with backing vocals that threaten to submerge Allen’s lead performance, and you’ve got something that actually resembles a proper Divine Comedy song in places.
“Something is sleeping that you thought had died” is the only line that doesn’t quite fit with this reading in a straightforward way, but like certain lyrics in the preceding songs, we can retrofit this as a reference to the difficulties Hannon was experiencing at the time – he thought he could not sing, but in truth this talent was latent, developing, and would soon shine forth fully for the first time. Fittingly, it’s followed by “Something is beating the rhythm of life / Rhythm of life”, which closes out the song by merging musical and embryonic imagery, bassline and natal heartbeat. The electric organ, particularly the quiet turn which serves as an outro, calls to mind churches and ceremonies; baptism and wedding and funeral. Just like the previous song, this one’s about drowning the old to make way for the new; a process it gilds with an air of sanctity and holiness.
As the EP goes on, its songs generally grow weaker, and their titles certainly grow more puzzling. Saving the worst for last, Europop concludes with “Monitor”, a shouty and blundering love song. The searing guitar opening suggests something like the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter”, but this promise evaporates as soon as the vocals begin and we encounter the song’s core refrain: “I see myself in you / I see myself in you / I don’t know why I do / But I see myself in you”. It’s a thunderingly clumsy line, and while it might have worked as a final emotional outburst wrung from a pained and incoherent narrator – an attempt to explain human attraction and compassion through the raw power of kinship and commonality – it just makes for a bathetically silly beginning. Straight to the point, with no build-up, no storytelling whatsoever, it’s practically the opposite of what you’d expect from a Divine Comedy song. Where Hannon’s delivery might at least have couched it in some kind of self-awareness, might have found some way to save it, Allen essentially just starts shouting it – and it’s the frequently-repeated opening line.
An examination of the liner credits reveals the dark truth: “All songs by Hannon except Monitor by Hannon/Allen”. That’s right – not only has Hannon given up as vocalist, he’s also allowed a less talented musician to co-write a Divine Comedy song. Needless to say, Lennon–McCartney have nothing to fear. While Hannon will go on to co-write numerous songs with other lyricists and composers, these are always credited to “Neil Hannon” – the Divine Comedy moniker, reserved for Hannon’s self-generated and solitary works, is in a sense his purer and truer one. (Well, that’s a slight exaggeration: a couple of Divine Comedy songs were co-composed with Joby Talbot, but he’s practically identical to Hannon anyway.) Not to keep ragging on poor Allen, but there’s a real feeling that this is the band’s nadir, especially as it’s both unprecedented and unrepeated. Again, I’ve nothing against the man – he just had the bad fortune to find himself at the centre of a very unwise musical decision made by his bandmate.
In what one imagines must have been Hannon’s lyrical contribution, Allen continues with a quieter verse: “Let me take you / To a warm and gentle place / Where I shall kiss / Your warm and perfect face / And I shall laugh / When you call yourself imperfect / For if you are imperfect / What am I?” There’s still a lot that jars here – the boring rhyming of “place” with “face”, the near-claustrophobic density of “perfect”s and “imperfect”s – but at its core this section has a sweet selflessness, a bashful diffidence. This is immediately lost when Allen goes in for a another round of “I see myself in you”s, but it’s still glaring how much more competent the song would have been if it had simply begun with this verse rather than the one-note chorus. Instead, the verse just gets regurgitated with virtually no variation, and the song spirals deliriously into its overwrought conclusion. At this point, it makes the indescribable decision to have the repeating “I see myself in you” overlap with itself several times, intensifying its repetitiveness to the point of comedy. Just as soon as you start to laugh, this unwise idea of a record fades into peaceful oblivion, like some sophomore mistake that Dr Frankenstein decided to pull the plug on.
There are no separate credits for music and lyrics, so presumably this short-lived songwriting duo collaborated on both, which might go some way towards explaining why neither are much good. The melody almost matches the monotony of the words, and consists largely of a single note played on an electric guitar while someone thrashes away on a drumkit in the background. It does have some bright spots – Hannon tries to balance the vocals by going overboard with the flanged guitar effects, lending an interestingly alien, almost voice-like texture – but there’e just nothing substantial to latch onto here. No hooks, no story, just… noise. It’s like watching a talented musician repeatedly hit his head against a wall. Do you want to know how many times Allen sings “I see myself in you” in this three-minute song? Twelve. With another two from Hannon in the back. And it’s said in the exact same way each time, too – the same six-note fall. The only way to make this thing funnier is to play it on a loop.
As I said, “Monitor” is a puzzling name for this song. It’s about a person, and generally speaking, you don’t go around “monitoring” those unless you’re a stalker. (Or an obsessive fan. Ahem.) Neither does the song seem to be about television monitors, nor monitor lizards (tempting though it might be to interpret it as the experiences of a stoned Hannon staring at his own reflection in a flickering telly while a nature documentary is on). No, I think I have a reading that makes sense, but it requires all four tracks on Europop to work. In short, if “Europop” is about being a nightclub chancer, “New Wave” is about finding someone, and “Intifada” is about the conception of a new life, then “Monitor” is about the narrator meeting that child.
There aren’t many songs whose lyrics can apply just as well to one’s offspring as one’s partner, the genre likely owing its sparse population to the delicate semantic tightrope such tracks must walk. Nonetheless, a handful of examples have proven it a valid format, with songs like Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine” and Hannon’s own subsequent “Charmed Life” among its perfectly non-creepy ranks. On a meta level, a reproductive theme makes sense for a song which is a weird genetic aberration in itself, but more importantly, all the lyrics fit this interpretation – and more than that, they’re improved by it. The declaration of empathy, “I see myself in you / Fuck knows just why I do” isn’t an inarticulate lover’s feeble attempt to explicate his feelings – instead, it’s a humbled, self-deprecating expression of parental awe, a literal reference to familial resemblance, its aesthetically jarring “fuck” – not a word Hannon normally uses in song – suddenly made fitting by its uniquely personal context. “And I shall laugh / When you call yourself imperfect” isn’t a stilted conversation between a couple – instead, it’s a projection of a relationship spanning decades, the stunned daydream of a father dumbly imagining the distant day his daughter makes the absurd suggestion that there could be anything wrong with her. The eponymous “monitor” – this thing in which our imperfect narrator finds his own perfect reflection – is a baby monitor.
John Allen would continue to provide vocals on demo versions of a few Liberation songs, but would be replaced on the final album by Hannon himself, a newly confident solo artist who decided to keep his old band’s name. Legend says that Allen is the one who finally convinced Neil that, yes, he could indeed sing a bit like Scott Walker. For this, if nothing else, we are forever in his debt.
Before we move on, though, let’s take a moment to savour the strange and wrong-headed concoction that is the last hurrah of nascent, experimental Divine Comedy. The one EP that truly has a sound entirely its own, and which, by slight or by chance, manages to encapsulate the entire human experience in a story of lost innocence and found purpose. One whose narrator never quite forgot what he loved about Europop, but who came to find it in other places – in the rhythm of life.