After several years – and several records – spent cycling from the influence of one overwhelming monolith to the next, The Divine Comedy, a band which has essentially been a shifting progression of tribute acts with glimmers of promise, suddenly snaps into lucid perfection. Territory is delineated. Muses are secured. Neil Hannon has arrived.
What we’ve come to recognise as the distinctive Divine Comedy sound is an aural cocktail with numerous ingredients, but what’s really remarkable about 1993’s Liberation is just how many of them are added at once. It’s not difficult to see why Hannon used to refer to this as his first album, hoping to brush his previous efforts under the rug – it doesn’t feel like an evolution of those varying experiments in indie rock so much as a wholesale replacement. Hannon has made a key decision here: anything released before 1993 does not matter. It’s juvenilia, a sequence of curiosities, to be mentioned with disclaimers if at all. As far the paying public are concerned? Liberation is ground zero.
In some ways, it’s unfortunate that this should coincide so precisely with The Divine Comedy becoming a solo act. Up to this point, they’d been a more conventional band, albeit one with Hannon as its clear creative director and only consistent member. From Liberation onwards, he’ll keep the band’s name, but other members will essentially be hired on a freelance basis, performing when necessary, both live and in the studio. Generally friends, yes, and talented people, but never again as anything approaching full equals in the group. Considering the results, though, it’s hard to argue with the change of technique.
The most obvious changes are to the instrumentation: the shoegazey, indie-rock guitar and percussion of Fanfare for the Comic Muse are banished, and in their place is a delicate, clear mix favouring strings, harpsichord, and piano – instruments which have never before appeared on a Divine Comedy release, and which instantly become essential. The instrumentation is rich, but still manages to feel stripped-down and precise compared to that former wall of sound – it’s the shift from indie rock to orchestral pop, and the band will never turn back. Additionally, Hannon’s vocals are given far more prominence than in preceding releases, the singer now unabashedly channelling his hero, Scott Walker, with a newly assured baritone croon – a softer, subtler mode of singing, and one that foregrounds lyricism and articulation. After trying out and discarding so many others, Hannon has finally stumbled across the correct template, the influence that he can spend the rest of his career mining and never exhaust: the time for radical reinvention is past. Attempting to please his idol, Hannon would send Walker offerings of each new album he released over the following years, eventually stopping after he read an interview in which Walker remarked, “Yeah, this wee Irishman keeps sending me his records – I don’t know why.” Walker had moved on, now focusing his efforts on increasingly strange avant-garde music, but Hannon did not follow, respecting the newer work but only truly connecting to the earlier pop material.
Despite a genuine admiration for Walker’s original writing, Hannon owes the singer a deeper debt for introducing him to the works of Jacques Brel, whose sweeping, narratory songs conjured a vivid Europe of passion and literary adventure. It’s Scott Walker Sings Jacques Brel, the English-language cover album, that Hannon singles out as Walker’s most important work. In Brel, Hannon found another powerful inspiration: a way to elevate mundane life to the height of drama, to render grimy social interactions and real lived experiences to the realm of sentiment and story, and with all with the exotic romance of the continent.
If Walker is the hero Hannon consciously seeks to emulate, in vocal performance and sheer moment-to-moment performance if not in songwriting, then Electric Light Orchestra is the native influence whose gravity he can’t quite escape – his older brother played their cheesy pop records constantly when Hannon was six or seven years old, and their sound burnt itself into his mind. Not quite a guilty pleasure, but not quite a proud influence either, ELO would manifest decades later in The Divine Comedy’s lavish, colourful instrumentation and reliance on strong, high-contrast backing vocals, the hymnal ahh-ing with which Hannon accompanied John Allen on Europop now employed in unison with his own lead performance.
Decorating the album is what seems to be Hannon’s first professional photoshoot, and the aesthetics on display here are already far more innovative than the generic black-and-white loitering of October 1st: Hannon is decked out in formal wear, an understated black suit with shirt and tie, allowing the small but strange choice of goggle-like circular sunglasses to dominate the image effortlessly. (On the front cover, grabbing the corners of that little fenced enclosure, he looks a bit like a toff riding some kind of weird fop motorbike.) A possible inspiration suggests itself in Dave Couse, frontman of Hannon’s Setanta labelmates A House; two years earlier, they’d released their biggest single, “Endless Art”, whose video had Couse wearing similar shades, facing the audience dead-oo. In addition, the Liberation shoot uses a lurid yellow-green filter, transposing Hannon from what would otherwise have looked like cheap field-lounging to a universe of saturated ultra-sepia dreams. (Special mention for the one where he’s standing in a stream, where a trick of the light somehow makes him look like one of the Engineers out of Prometheus.) Aside from photos, the packaging is adorned with art-nouveau patterns, illustrated seas of leaves and flowers. There’s an echo of the nature fixation of Fanfare here, but this time it’s just window dressing: Hannon is unambiguously front and centre.
The first track, “Festive Road”, is a short and sweet piano piece in which Hannon pays tribute to Mr Benn, a British children’s animated series, written and animated by David McKee, based on his own storybooks. “An ordinary day / Down on Festive Road / The children will play / And never will know / That when Mr Benn of number five-two / Walks in through that door / Peculiar events will ensue”. The show ran for twelve fifteen-minute episodes in the 1971 and 1972. Like a great deal of children’s telly, it followed an extremely rigid, almost ritualistic narrative formula: Mr Benn goes to the local costume shop, tries on some clothes, finds himself magically transported to the time and place they signify, and returns after a brief adventure. It’s clear that the shopkeeper directing events is some sort of powerful sorcerer, or in possession of some incredible technology, but the nature of his abilities and his relationship with Mr Benn are never treated as remotely important, his carefully engineered trans-temporal imperialism taken as read. It’s not difficult to see why Hannon would find this distinctly upper-class dress-up portal fantasy more compelling that grittier fare like, say, Postman Pat.
With a solitary Hannon playing just one instrument, and with only the ethereal backing vocals he perfected on Europop for accompaniment, the song serves as something of a palate-cleanser. Even though it’s not much like the album that follows it – a fan who’d been following Hannon up to this point might well have wondered, “God, he’s not gone and done a children’s album, has he?” – it certainly serves to wash away any expectations an audience might have accrued over the course of the previous records. “The shopkeeper peers / Through spectacles round / As Benn wanders in / And shuts out the town / The shopkeeper wears / His customary grin / ‘Cause he knows when they go / To try on his clothes / Each fantasy chosen begins”. The lyrics themselves are a straightforward description of the events which transpire at the beginning of each episode, albeit with a little poetic licence. One of the intriguing qualities of music, as a medium, is its seeming imperviousness to copyright concerns: Hannon has basically released a piece of Mr Benn fanfiction, with nothing to indicate that he’s been given authorisation by the BBC, something difficult to imagine happening in any other mass medium. There’s no effort at parody or satire here: this is an unreconstructed, sweetly nostalgic love letter.
Quietly beginning with the sound of morning birdsong, “Festive Road” is hardly the most arresting lead track. However, its positioning is essential, as it provides the framework through which the entire album can be understood. It’s clearly no mistake that the opening song should describe an opening scene – that it should mark the beginning of a story. The only question is what, exactly, we should take that story to be. If Hannon is the shopkeeper, what are we shopping for, and what world will the door in the far corner take us to? With Hannon largely treating Liberation as a debut album, it’s possible to interpret this song as the entry point to his entire oeuvre, with each subsequent album just another costume tried on by Mr Benn; another magical jaunt in a different identity, a different time and place. This is perfectly fair, but I think such an interpretation works even better if it’s limited to Liberation itself. Two series of Mr Benn were produced, with six episodes in the first and seven in the second, making for a grand total of thirteen. How many tracks are in Liberation? That’s right: thirteen. Each of these songs deals, in some way or other, with the idea of casting off oppression and setting oneself free – the same impulse that underlies Hannon’s decision to go solo, and the same fantasy that drives Mr Benn‘s safe, Saturday-morning escapism. In other words… Liberation is a Mr Benn concept album. The listening experience supports this, with many tracks spilling over into the opening seconds of the next – an anthology of separate stories, yes, but they have just enough of a flow that you feel like you’re not experiencing it quite correctly if you don’t listen to them in order. Look at the front cover: Hannon even resembles the show’s smiling, well-dressed Englishman, the switch from bowler hat to sunglasses making less of a difference to the overall effect than you’d think. Mr Benn and the Shopkeeper – just two more roles to play.
If the album’s songs have another unifying theme, that theme is culture itself. Liberation is a densely referential work, with almost every song bearing a close intertextual relationship to some other individual work of art. Between them, they quote, pastiche, remake, or retell a children’s television programme, a film based on a novel, a short story, a stage play, a sequence of poems, a song by another musician, two songs from Hannon’s own back-catalogue, and even, recursively, multiple songs within this very album. In light of the album’s up-front liberatory ambitions, this suggests a conception of art as an avenue of escape from the drudgery and miserablism. Is this album about consuming art or creating it? Hannon takes a third option, crafting a series of original songs, each of which is in itself a response to another artistic work – criticism via creation, part of an ongoing feedback cycle; a healthy creative ecosystem.
The second track is “Death of a Supernaturalist”, a darkly energetic tale that’s essentially Hannon’s answer to the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”. It begins, unusually enough for Hannon, with a sample of dialogue: “My father says there’s only one perfect view, and that’s the view of the sky over our heads!” … “I expect your father has been reading Dante.” This totemic exchange is taken from the Merchant-Ivory partnership’s 1985 film A Room with a View, based on EM Forster’s 1908 novel of the same name. What really stands out here is the sheer commitment to reference: a song that pastiches a kids’ TV show segues into a quotation of dialogue from a film adaptation of a novel, the dialogue itself referencing Dante, whose Divine Comedy gave the band its name. (The reference itself may have been inspired by Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love, one of Hannon’s favourite albums, which similarly begins its second track with a film sample – in her case, Night of the Demon.) The music is similarly dense, introducing strings and an insistent, high-speed harpsichord rhythm within seconds – again, key instruments never before heard in Hannon’s music, immediately combined to lively gothic effect, jabby and keen.
Seeing it for the first time in an Enniskillen cinema at the age of sixteen, Hannon found A Room with a View astonishingly powerful. He frequently makes literary references, often to works he admits he hasn’t even read, but this is clearly something very different. As he says in a 1997 interview, “Without A Room with a View I’d probably never have written anything I’ve written. After seeing the film I read everything by Forster. I threw off the shackles of indie-pop and I was able to write music. It was a ‘Liberation’ by name and nature.” The title refers to freeing oneself from genre; it’s about broadening one’s set of artistic influences to attain a vast new scope. It isn’t clear exactly when Hannon did all that reading, as the generally weak Fanfare also references Forster, but he only seems to have taken the influence to heart when working on Liberation. (The newer album’s one-word name feels like a reaction against the previous album’s long, baroque title, its detached nature freeing it to meditate on its chosen concept without necessarily forwarding an argument.)
Hannon seems to have difficulty articulating why he found the film so affecting, saying only, “I didn’t really associate to anything solid, just knew it was where I wanted to go. Because it was all about living life as art, rather than just living life to get through another day.” A Room with a View – both the novel and its remarkably faithful film adaptation – is the story of Lucy Honeychurch, a wealthy young English girl who becomes embroiled in a love triangle with taciturn working-class George Emerson and self-centred aristocrat Cecil Vyse. It’s an exchange between George (Julian Sands) and Cecil (Daniel Day-Lewis) that Hannon samples for the beginning of “Death of a Supernaturalist”. Forster’s book is largely a work of satire, with the absurd concerns and behaviour of Lucy’s prissy, controlling, easily-offended family providing much of its entertainment value. Characters speak in clipped euphemisms and evasions, their emotions repressed and channelled, comedy and drama unfolding obliquely. Initially, Lucy is repressed and unsure of herself, the piano her only emotional outlet; her rejection of the social mores Cecil embodies in favour of freedom with George is portrayed explicity as Lucy learning to “live as she plays”. It’s not difficult to see why Forster’s perspective, his humanity, his sheer sense of fun, would appeal to the musically inclined, mildly wayward socialist son of an Anglican bishop. Hannon’s fixation on the stultifying world of Edwardian literature, and the idea of turn-of-the-century upper-class society in general, seems to be much the same as Terry Gilliam’s relationship with bureaucracy: he knows it’s ridiculous and wrong, as do we all, but the sheer frequency with which he mentions it and enthusiasm with which he mocks it betrays a secret paradoxical fascination, an inherent aesthetic fetishism. He loves it, this world where every trivial word or action is part of some complex web of social proprieties and carefully-laid ironies, waiting to be deformed and warped and sent into convulsions by any straight-thinking interloper. Liberation: it is, on a fundamental level, what he’s about.
Searching for a way to explain Forster’s allure, Hannon brings up an Albert Camus quotation he found printed on the back of Scott Walker’s 1969 album Scott 4: “A man’s life is nothing but a slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those one or two great and simple images in whose presence his heart is first opened.” Hannon elaborates: “And that is exactly what I am trying to do, in the same sense that I was opened up to such experiences through the movie A Room with a View and people like Scott. Those moments of purity are what it’s all about, but reconnecting with all that gets more difficult as time goes on.” In other words, he views Forster’s romantic satire and Walker’s grandiose, string-laden crooning as obviously equivalent. That they have nothing to do with each other in any objective sense is glossed over, irrelevant: what matters is that, for this particular audience member, they both provide a glimpse of something sublime. They’ve pierced the veil of Hannon’s mind, becoming his guiding stars. Now he’s going to triangulate them, and show us what they showed him – through art. Just as Mr Benn remains the quintessential polite little English gent, never changing no matter what costume he’s wearing or what world he spends a given morning in, the personas Hannon adopts in his music aren’t distinct David Bowie-style characters but mildly distorted facets of Hannon himself – facets which, when viewed simultaneously across time, will perhaps reveal some complete truth. Magic Eye images are only three-dimensional; luckily, we’re not restricted to using our eyes.
Inferno, the first part of Dante’s Divine Comedy, concludes with Dante and Virgil ascending from hell: “We mounted up, he first and I the second / Till I beheld through a round aperture / Some of the beauteous things that heaven doth bear / Thence we came forth to rebehold the stars”. The next section, Purgatorio, ends with the travellers finally beginning their ascent into the celestial spheres, while Paradiso comes to a close with Dante, at the end of his journey, experiencing a profound sense of connection between his own spirit of the divine movements of the heavenly bodies. All three parts end with the word “stars”. The film doesn’t use Forster’s precise words, and nor does Forster’s novel quote Dante’s poem exactly, but in selecting this line, Hannon achieves a remarkable alignment between his own basic symbology and his stated artistic goals. Camus, via Walker, wrote of the importance of specific individual experiences to art and life. To experience art is to read, to consume, to look. In this one sample of dialogue, we can hear Hannon watching Merchant-Ivory; Merchant-Ivory dramatising Forster; Forster reading Dante; Dante stargazing the creation of God himself. An unbroken chain, each artist striving to capture with their own work the sublimity of the one above; each of them struggling to liberate those treasured moments from the abyss of personal perception so that they may be seen and heard and felt by others. An ouroboros, one Divine Comedy at its beginning, another Divine Comedy at its end. Me, trying to frame some semblance of what Hannon achieved here. You, reading this, and perhaps creating something else with it nagging faintly at the back of your mind. It’s more than literature – it’s physics.
As in Fanfare, the role of the Forster novel in “Death of a Supernaturalist” is largely talismanic – something to revere, to marvel at, to be worn proudly as an icon, but not something Hannon can meaningfully match or replicate. The song’s lyrics are as morbid as they are wilfully obtuse: “See my solitude / Where once was truth now only doubt / Touch my tortured skin / Torn from within and from without / Kiss my blistered lips / My fingertips frost-bitten and grey / Heal my wound within / And watch the dead skin fall away”. Hannon continues in this vein for some time, making rhyming, paradoxical pleas of some unknown companion, at times slipping into indulging his love of list songs. Eventually, the monologue takes on a more personal note: “Only you and I / Know exactly how it feels / To unblinker a narrow mind / And by doing so reveal / The obscurity of life / The intensity of dreams”. At its decaying heart, this is a love song, albeit one with paranormal overtones: the narrator feels some powerful kinship with his target, and wants to share something ineffable with her. The romantic component is clear, but I think the song has an artistic aspect that’s more interesting – it’s almost as if Hannon is singing to a specific listener, as if he’s trying to convey some complex and profound meaning, something that only a chosen one who obsessively pores over his every word has any hope of understanding. (Ahem.)
We’re not told who (or what) this dying “supernaturalist” is – especially strange in that Hannon is not normally one to coin words – but logically, it should refer to something which bears the same relationship to “naturalist” that “supernatural” bears to “natural”. However, this complicates things further, as “naturalist” has numerous meanings of its own. In the most common sense of “naturalist”, meaning “one who studies nature”, a “supernaturalist” might be an individual who spends their time analysing the world of the numinous or the strange, while the philosophical sense, “one who believes only in natural forces”, suggests it might be someone with reverse-atheist’s logical commitment to the unreal. In the artistic or literary sense, “one who portrays the world realistically”, it would seem that a “supernaturalist” is an artist who paints or writes according to their own supernatural perceptions – in other words, a Blakean visionary, quite distinct from a mere fantasist. These all seem to be plausible readings. Lines like “See what can’t be seen / Between the table and the chair / Touch what can’t be touched / The National Trust don’t own the air” seem to support the former idea of supernaturalist-as-observer, while the song’s repeating command to “feel the dead skin fall away” suggests a kind of gothic transhumanism; an escape from the flesh.
The eponymous character is mentioned only once – “Touch the autumn sky / Burned by the supernaturalist” – but the use of the third person is enough for us to infer that it’s not the one Hannon is singing to. In short, it’s just an unknowable other; someone with the power to burn the sky, and someone whose death this song must indirectly describe (unless its title is ironic). Is the supernaturalist Mr Emerson, the father from A Room with a View, who “burns” the sky with his admiration – changing it in the eyes of others? Is it Dante himself, cataloguing the circles of heaven and hell in all their transcendent architecture? It’s one of the album’s quiet mysteries.
The third track, “Bernice Bobs Her Hair”, continues the narrative and referential themes in the most literal way possible: it’s a direct retelling of a 1920 F Scott Fitzgerald story. Like A Room with a View, it’s set in the early 20th century, and deals largely with upper-class frivolities. In this case, the story of a young socialite, Bernice, who is staying with her cousin Marjorie. At first, Marjorie helps Bernice to fit in her new surroundings, but she soon grows jealous when her social advice proves too effective. She sabotages Bernice’s luck by persuading her to have her hair unfashionably, and Bernice gets revenge by cutting the sleeping Marjorie’s hair before sneaking off to catch her train.
Setting a poem or story to music represents an impressive level of reader engagement, but paraphrasing a story, adapting it, retelling it imprecisely and in your own words, suggests a much deeper appreciation of the source material. That’s what Hannon does here, carefully abbreviating and rephrasing the key beats of Fitzgerald’s story to match the cadence of his song. “Bernice bobs her hair / In the barber’s in the square / All her new-found friends are there / To see it done / Bernice bobs her hair / She’s been driven to despair / ‘Cause her cousin doesn’t care / About anyone”. As a 170-odd-word lyrical summary of a story just under 9,000 words long, it’s more than adequate. It’s quite a bit longer if you count the “Ba ba-ba-ba ba”s with which Hannon begins and concludes it, in one of his occasional feats of extended non-lexical singing. Musically, this is accentuated with the same frantic harpsichord we heard on the previous track, with a throwback to the jangly guitar sound of Fanfare. It’s a catchy song, light and airy, with a literary element that makes for uncommonly classy pop music, and a story that ties to the album’s theme of rebelling against those who seek to control us – it’s a bit straightforward, and not entirely a product of Hannon’s imagination, but there’s really nothing not to like here.
Track four, “I Was Born Yesterday”, is a play on the saying “I wasn’t born yesterday”, an assertion of wisdom. (“I didn’t come down in the last shower” is a more obscure and colourful variant; I like to imagine that Hannon also considered “I Came Down in the Last Shower”.) The cheery, upbeat chorus, at least, assumes the perspective of the imaginary dolt who is conceptually implied by the phrase – the ultimate embodiment of gullibility. “I, I was born yesterday / And I believe all that you say / I have no choice, I must obey / You”. Remarkably, the song’s two verses are spoken-word, meaning that it lurches madly between singing and wry monologuing. The first verse reads like the diary entry of an obsessive stalker: “Saturday morning, eighteenth of December / I cannot remember the last time that I saw / Such a young ballerina / In love with the loveless / In tune with the tuneless old upright piano”. Admiring her delicate movements, he concludes, “Her classical features and elegant waistline / Are going to waste while she pleases her parents”.
In the second verse, the stalker segues from observation to fantasy, daydreaming about what might happen to the ballerina if her parents should be killed: “What if they died on the road to Rathmines / Where a dog in two minds times his run to perfection? / An orphan at last, she’d be sick in the loo-bowl / Then go to the funeral and cry by the graveside / Then she would sleep with the first man she sees / And she’d catch some disease, which she’d give to her doctor / And she’d, she’d cook her own breakfast, and she’d cook his as well / And they’d both get on swell, even though he was married”. Obsessive or unhealthy love is a recurring theme in Hannon’s work, and this murmured, self-absorbed spiral into madness is one of his darker examples. The reference to Rathmines, an area in Dublin, seems to hint at an autobiographical inspiration, but this is presumably just a joke. It’s not even clear what the narrator is getting out of this, really – is he the doctor?
It’s difficult to link the abstractedly rebellious chorus to the stalkery verses. One possibility is that they reflect the young and naïve ballerina’s perspective as the stalker attempts to seduce her, but Hannon generally doesn’t write songs as conversations, and probably wouldn’t do so this ambiguously. Rather, I suspect that the chorus represents the ballerina’s response in an exchange the stalker imagines between the two – we can see that he’s a fantasist, and with no real evidence that she actually feels oppressed by her parents in any way, it’s likely that he simply projects this desire for escape onto her as part of his fantasy. The song concludes with a short sung verse, “You are a part of me / I am a part of you / Why should I let you walk / All over me?” This “part of you” and “part of me” could refer to a blood relationship: the narrator imagines the ballerina casting off the societal shackles imposed by her parents, liberating herself so that she can be with him. Maybe Hannon just has difficulty writing a song without someone expressing some form of love or communion, even if it’s in the musical equivalent of an angry dream sequence. This is the first song that seems not to refer to any other works – not every song will successfully instantiate both of the album’s central themes.
The fifth track, “Your Daddy’s Car”, is Hannon at his most blithely nostalgic: a relentlessly chirpy yet wistful song about an afternoon spent with a teenage girlfriend long ago. The frantic harpsichord is back in the driver’s seat, taking us through the young couple’s day-trip: “We took your daddy’s car / And drove it to the sea / We fooled around for hours / And then when we got tired and it got dark / We found a place to park / And we watched the sun set fire to the sea”. That evening, the duo head into town, where they buy champagne and continue their increasingly ill-advised joyride: “And driving through the rain / We sang / God bless this car, and all who sail in her”, a reference to ceremonial British ship-launching. Eventually, it becomes apparent that the two are full-on lunatics: “We took your daddy’s car / And wrapped it round a tree / We didn’t know what for / We didn’t feel like driving any more / It was so good we got bored / And we are driving from the day we are born”. It’s not even a drunken accident – they’re just juvenile delinquents. At no point do the verses display anything resembling remorse or rational thought; however, the chorus does have the sense to balance the story out with a little pathos: “Can you feel the sadness in our love? / It’s the only kind we’re worthy of / Can you feel the madness in our hearts / As the key turns and the engine starts?”
This song makes interesting use of tenses. The verses are set in the past tense, giving them the quality of a fond memory; an idiotic act committed so long ago that it can now be recalled with a painless smile. The chorus, however, is set entirely in the present tense, evoking the immediacy of powerful memory and granting the song overall a strangely timeless feel. The last verse blurs the two, “It was so good we got bored / And we are driving from the day we are born”, which hints that the act of driving can be read as a metaphor for something larger – perhaps life itself. It’s not a unique idea in pop music – one of the official videos for Moby’s “Porcelain” is based on this exact notion, and Chrysta Bell and David Lynch’s “This Train” hinges on a similar vehicular animism. If we take the metaphor seriously, this consciously twee song assumes a sublime edge: if a journey in this car represents a life lived, then the eponymous patriarch who owns it can only be God himself. (Incidentally, the demo version of “Your Daddy’s Car” has the kids deliberately crash the car to kill themselves: “We didn’t fell like living anymore / Life was so good we got bored / We are dying from the day we are born”. This helps to explain the song’s ethereal timelessness – it’s an American Beauty job, narrated by the dead – but an explicit act of suicide is less haunting that the weird ambiguity in the final version.) All of this also underscores the degree to which Liberation is a collection of discrete stories, really only linked by thematics and the Mr Benn framing device – each of these stories should be treated as a separate and complete tale, even if Hannon (or the listener, depending on how you want to map Mr Benn and Shopkeeper to artist and audience) is entering and experiencing each story in turn. Be it suicide or dumbly crashing your dad’s car, mortal coil or ignition coil, this one definitely ticks the “liberation” box. It’s also, interestingly, the second song in a row to deal with a car-crash.
Next we have “Europop”, a re-recorded and heavily rearranged version of the Europop EP’s eponymous track, and the difference is staggering – you’d barely recognise the thing. Gone are the rough vocals of John Allen, in their place an unassailably smooth and swaggering performance by Hannon. If anything, he’s a little too confident here, in a way that sometimes makes his own lyrics feel oddly irrelevant – with a drum machine and copious synths replacing the guitar and percussion, the song sounds much closer to actual Europop music, and it all fits together so neatly that it loses some of the weird, thrown-together energy of the original. This is the better version, make no mistake, but it doesn’t conjure the same desperate nightclub atmosphere, the same misguided search for purpose. Detached from their original context, lines like “Hello / What would you like to know? / What would you like to hear? / What if I just disappear inside myself?” unspool flat and steady – it’s strange to think that Hannon entertained quitting only a year or so earlier. His calm, effortless delivery, together with an irresistible drumbeat ripped straight from New Order’s “Blue Monday”, lifts the entire song into the realm of the abstract. The line “Financial gain / Is a very pleasant thing / The transitory pleasure that it brings / Counts for nothing”, which always seemed somehow important, is now gilded by the staccato harpsichord that’s already become a Liberation trademark, which only makes it more inscrutable. Hannon follows his flat, emotionless “So / What is there left to know? / What is there left to say?” with a tensely-anticipated “…Nothing” in place of Allen’s pronounced sigh. The electric organ bridge is replaced with one that sounds like it’s played on a real church organ, underlining and casually subsuming Hannon’s carefully enunciated, reflective “Frere Jacques”. It’s slick, it’s spectacular, and it’s got far less sense of a story unfolding, either on a literal or a metatextual level, its virile synths standing out like a strange intrusion of modernity in an otherwise aggressively classical and romantic album.
Additionally, this version has both reworked beginning and reworked ending. It starts with a sizeable, quiet preamble that sounds like it’s being played on a toy music box, which only adds to the bravado and confidence of the re-recording. Finally, Hannon concludes the song with an entirely new verse. Specifically, it’s a pastiche of The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” – appropriate enough for “Europop”, which already contained a brief drug reference in its original iteration. Perhaps Hannon sensed that “Europop” needed some kind of substantial textual allusion if it would going to uphold the new album’s artistic focus. Lou Reed’s lyrics described a trip, avoiding either straightforward condemnation or celebration of drug use: “Ah, when that heroin is in my blood / And that blood is in my head / Then thank God that I’m as good as dead / And thank your God that I’m not aware”. In his pastiche, Hannon inverts those lines: “Why, thank God that you’re aware / Oh, thank God that you’re aware / Of the Earth and of the air / And of the girls making like they don’t care”. The song’s nightclub setting and girl-chasing desperation, so central to the original Europop version, suddenly become relevant again.
With the church organ building towards some shrill climax, this declarative monologue takes on an almost religious quality – particularly with the mentions of God, it’s as if Hannon is stepping into a divine or cosmic role to comment and arbitrate on the song’s narrator objectively. We can even interpret this rewrite as a present-day 1993 Hannon using this as an opportunity to pass judgement on the slightly younger self who wrote the original song. Alternatively, it could represent a bolt of clarity experienced by the narrator in the moment, perhaps while dancing to the Europop music in between drunken rejections – an idea that’s more in keeping with Hannon’s generally subjective songwriting style. Next, the song describes the nature of the protagonist’s relationship with the girls he’s been trying to pick up: “But they are blessed and you are cursed / With the conscience of the universe / Of the mind and of the soul / And reduction science digging itself a hole / And I thank God that you’re aware / And thank your God that we’re all aware / It’s taken time but I think you’ll find / That everything is all right”. This is fairly dense stuff, but the overall impression seems to be that the current speaker is telling the song’s previous narrator that he’s too intelligent or artistic or soulful to have any luck tonight, but that things will work out in the end (regardless of whether this message is from God or his own future self, which work equally well). There’s a clear element of arrogance here, but there’s also something very frail and very human about this – an insecure intellectual, one who likely sees himself as a tortured artist, grasping for the bigger picture in some low, lonely moment when nobody seems to want him. (Hannon might have confused “conscience” with “consciousness” here, but it’s not a fatal mistake. The point is that the character is attuned to the universe in some profound way – in other words, he’s a singer who thinks he’s a bit clever.)
Though it’s easy to overlook, buried in the middle of that speech, the line “And reduction science digging itself a hole” is an arcanely clever pun that deserves closer examination. Referring to the dichotomy between reductionism (essentially the idea that things should be examined on a micro level, one component at a time) and holism (the idea that things should instead be considered as wholes), it’s a philosophical reference too vast to explore in any detail. The pun, of course, is on “digging itself a whole”; while it might be a mistake to draw any serious conclusions on Hannon’s epistemological beliefs from this joke, it does seem to position holistic science as an inevitable consequence of reductive techniques. As well as speaking to the modular, episodic nature of the album’s Mr Benn format, this suggests that holism is the evolutionary end-point of reductionism – that attempting to gain intimate knowledge and understanding of the individual components of a large work will inherently lead to revelatory new understanding on the scale of the complete system. (Let’s hope so, or we’ll have wasted quite a bit of time.)
For some reason, Hannon felt the need to re-record not one, but two of his own earlier EPs’ title songs for inclusion on Liberation. After the update of 1992’s “Europop”, we’re presented with a fresh take on 1991’s “Timewatch”, now renamed “Timewatching” to avoid confusion with the BBC series of the same name. This time, the change is even more radical, to the point of making the song genuinely unrecognisable: what was once tinny, pacy indie pop has been transmuted into a mournful, funereal dirge with Hannon’s fuller, deeper vocals accompanied by a solitary cello. It’s slowed down drastically, and at times spends a moment or two in actual full-on silence – something that would have been unimaginable on one of the earlier, resolutely busy records.
The song’s essential story remains the same Nat King Cole pastiche: “When I fall asleep / It could be forever / So I’ll never fall asleep again”. The reference feels more appropriate here than it did on that EP, as it’s now nestled among a variety of tracks that quote and paraphrase films, television, literature, and even other artists’ songs. Since “Timewatching” is much slower than the original version, however, Hannon trims the lyrics substantially to keep it from dragging. This mostly amounts to few minor differences that require close attention to even notice – a line skipped here, a phrase reworded there. Lyrics are shuffled about like cards in an untidy deck, settling into neater arrangements – it’s a draft being rewritten before our ears. Four verses linked by three choruses become three linked by two. In this streamlined context, each surviving line feels slightly weightier – in particular, “We shall not be chained / We shall not be tethered / And we’ll never be unkind” now seems positioned as the song’s raison d’être, its sole link to the nominal theme of liberation. This is a dark, nebulous song, particularly given that it ditches the original’s visionary closing lines about solar inspiration in favour of some uncertain relationship drama: “If I fall in love / It could be forever / So I’ll never fall in love / But the moment I can feel that you feel that way too / Is when I might fall in love with you”. It’s a love song, but a dark and uncertain one whose narrator longs, quite specifically, for a woman who shares his unique ambivalence; someone with his paradoxical, fearful, reticent desire for undying intimacy.
Kicking off the album’s second side is “The Pop Singer’s Fear of the Pollen Count”, a song which combines the album’s most infectious music with its slightest lyrics. From the countdown – “Are you ready? Okay… let’s do it! One, two, three, four!” – we know we’re in for Hannon at his most flamboyant, and perhaps his most drunk. On the most superficial level, this song is the story of a young couple suffering from hay fever, with the narrator cheerfully telling his girlfriend to stop complaining and enjoy the sunshine. “I fall for this season every time / When it’s hot and everybody smiles / I can’t help myself, I’m in love with the summertime / Even when I get hay fever, I find / I may sneeze but I don’t really mind / As long as I’m in love with the summertime”. On a deeper, subtler, more intellectual level… that’s also what the song is about. There is not a lot here.
Halfway through, Hannon tells his companion to cheer up “‘Cause your daddy’s car is waiting / To take us to the sea / She feels like celebrating life / And so should we”. None of the songs on Liberation have had any overt connection up to this point, sharing only thematic links, and this one casually reveals that it’s a prequel to “Your Daddy’s Car” – specifically one set earlier in the same day, judging by the reference to the beach trip, meaning that this song was also about a doomed, suicidal young couple until the other one’s lyrics were tweaked after the demo recording. (The consistent female gendering of the car across both songs also makes its ultimate destruction feel slightly more murderous.) If we imagine a more conventional order, with the song in which the car is said to be waiting placed before the one where it’s destroyed, we can almost see the bones of an idea for a concept album about a couple’s day-trip – which, of course, is exactly Hannon would release the following year.
Unlike hay fever, “The Pop Singer’s Fear of the Pollen Count” itself is quite catchy, with a clap-driven beat and an ever-present Hammond organ darting jubilantly between its electric and acoustic guitar rhythms. The song was influenced by Hannon’s other Setanta labelmates, The Frank and Walters, and shares a great deal of its cheery alt-rock energy with “After All”, their single of the previous year. It’s also the first appearance of the Hammond on a Divine Comedy song, and the instrument’s playful, faintly ecclesiastical tones will come to characterise much of Hannon’s early work, but particularly the second half of Liberation. Unfortunately, the track would only achieve great recognition in 1999, when it was re-recorded, to its detriment, for release as a single.
The song keeps up the album’s intertextual motif, but only just: its name is a reference to the 1972 film The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty (itself an adaptation of Peter Handke’s 1970 play The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick – rough translation). It’s a detective story, so evidently Hannon isn’t trying very hard to engage with the source material beyond a nominal level this time. Come to think of it, the title actually makes no sense at all, since the singer is the one who’s happy to have hay fever – his girlfriend is the only one who might be considered “afraid of the pollen count”. The use of the words “pop singer” is an interestingly meta choice, though, and at least the name is genuinely unique (albeit in a very “Flan in the High Castle” sort of way). There’s a faint hint of darkness in some of the narrator’s coercive language, which could have been interesting, but Hannon doesn’t develop the idea – we never get the girl’s perspective. A more overt conflict between the couple might have resonated interestingly with the album’s liberatory concerns, but ultimately the only real connection to the eponymous theme here is the singer’s aspirational freedom from worry. In that respect, it may be the purest entry here.
Things take a sharp turn with “Queen of the South” – a song about regret for words that should not have been spoken, it’s basically Hannon’s answer to the Smiths’ “Bigmouth Strikes Again”, but driven driven by a Hammond organ melody, low and conspiratorial, evoking images of deceit and espionage. “Please don’t look at me that way / You’ll only make me want to say / Something I will regret / You are April, you are May / What a stupid thing to say / Forgive me and forget / That I ever opened my mouth / And let it all come out / Let it all flood out”. It seems that the misstep the narrator is agonising over is that he referred to a young couple with a small age gap as April and May, a play on “May–December romance”. Not exactly the conversational crime of the century, but this sort of thing depends a great deal on context, and since we never get another perspective, it could all be in the narrator’s head – in any case, it’s impressive that Hannon is able to evoke a social situation with this balance of specificity and ambiguity in the space of twelve words. It may be instructive to read these lyrics in light of Forster, whose characters frequently find themselves navigating almost fractally intricate labyrinths of social niceties.
One drawback is that the song’s structure makes it slightly difficult to parse exactly which lines represent embarrassing memories and which correspond to the narrator’s current feelings. Hannon continues, “I am worried for your health / Put something warm around yourself / Don’t let your feet get wet”. Are these blathering improvisations meant to distract from a single failed joke, or are they additional mistakes that he also regrets – clichés and empty platitudes? At the halfway point, the song seems to finds its focus: “I’m in love and I’m in pain / If I say something stupid again / Oh, just forgive me and forget / That I ever opened my mouth / Let it all come out / Let it all flood out / Queen of the South / She has opened my mouth / And let it all come out / Let it all flood out”. The regrettable remark is attributed to the narrator’s being in love – presumably with the young woman who’s now in a relationship. Perhaps the third wheel is also significantly older than the couple, a skeevy letch like the voyeuristic narrator of “I Was Born Yesterday”, which would explain why his reference to their “April-May romance” might prove regrettable – in playing on “May–December romance”, he’s invoked the idea of one, made it the elephant in the room. The title is a biblical reference, another name for the Queen of Sheba, who visited King Solomon and (according to some accounts) bore his child. Hannon’s narrator blames the Queen of the South for his verbal slip-up, but it’s ambiguous whether he’s using this name to refer to the woman he’s speaking to or personify some hated aspect of his own mind. Is this track a tense reunion between Sheba and Solomon, or an awkward moment in contemporary suburbia? Eventually, Hannon seems to lean into the song’s ambiguity: “Something’s getting in the way / What it is I cannot say / I wish we had never met”. This one’s a puzzler – something we’ll have to get accustomed to if we’re to navigate this album’s increasingly nebulous second half, which probably isn’t quite as strong as the first, if we’re being honest.
The next track, “Victoria Falls”, is Liberation at its most fevered and cryptic. Before the lyrics begin, we hear Hannon say “I don’t know where I am” – perhaps a planned component of the track, perhaps an off-the-cuff remark made during the session which he decided to leave in the final mix for a lark. As it is, stated matter-of-factly over darkly pulsing acoustic guitar, it’s oddly haunting. And oddly apt, as the song is the type you can get lost in. The music largely consists of the same couple of guitar chords played over and over – reverberating, endless, vortical. This sets the tone, but it’s the vocals that make this one really interesting. Hannon essentially provides two lead performances – one deep, the other slightly higher and more ethereal – and uses them to contradict and subvert each other continuously.
“Who’s that boy you’re leaning on? / Victoria ceases to care / You’re not the only one / Virginia creeps through her hair / Summer evening, summer sun / Virago will publish her diaries when she’s dead / To the world”. The voluptuous volume of v-words here seems like a future echo of that show-off speech the Wachowskis put in V for Vendetta, but let’s take them one at a time: Victoria is the name of a girl at school who went with lots of boys, but never Neil; Virginia creepers are a type of plant; and Virago Press is a publisher that prints respectable literature by women. This is, as Paddy McAloon might say, a dark train of thought with too many carriages. It’s a fever dream; a portrait of mental illness. Obviously, the name also refers to the waterfall in Africa, but only in the sense that David Bowie’s school-shooting anthem “Valentine’s Day” refers to the corporate holiday – not at all, in other words, beside a pun to get a character’s name into a memorable title.
It seems that “The Pop Singer’s Fear of the Pollen Count” somehow broke the seal on intra-album references, because “Victoria Falls” gives us a whole tide of them. As the song devolves into schizophrenia, its two voices warring, they blurt out seeming non-sequiturs. Lines like “Lovers go and lovers come / And some stay for longer, but never long enough / His shadow lingers on” are paranoid, dark and ambiguous, but “His shadow fades like a pop song” seems like it might be a reference to the earlier song, particularly when it’s followed by Hannon’s stern declarations “Death to the supernatural one!” and, rather more blatantly, “Queen of the South!” The album seems to be going quite mad, turning in on itself, snatching at stray lyrical fragments in a doomed attempt to hold together any semblance of meaning. For a moment, it’s almost as if we’re glimpsing some larger meta-narrative that we weren’t aware of, a diegetic connection between the songs that threatens to cohere into some hidden truth, but before we can assemble the pieces it’s incinerated in gibbering visionary madness: “I don’t defend you / I don’t recommend you / I don’t recommend / I won’t let Victoria fall / Victoria / Away / Victoria”. And so the song is lost.
“Three Sisters” – the third song in a row with an overtly female title, interestingly enough – is another vague track, with lyrics that are noncommittal and challenging to decipher. “This autumn breeze / Shall strip the trees / And freeze me to the bone / Why must these / Three sisters tease / Their lonely brother so?” Between the sober Hammond organ tones and the reverb on Hannon’s soft, confessional words, this one sounds like it’s being performed in an deserted church – that is, until a synthesised loop ushers in the rest of the band, maintaining a hint of of Kraftwerk roboticism which carries us to the end. The song takes its name, but not a lot else, from a 1901 play by Anton Chekhov – another example of Hannon’s long-time interest in being seen to quote the classics; in using them as an aesthetic talisman, skipping the dry work of engaging meaningfully with century-old literary texts his audience probably hasn’t read any more than he has. A domestic drama set in 19th-century Russia, Three Sisters does focus on a man’s relationship with his three sisters, and while they have their disagreements over the course of the story – an inter-class romance causes a familial dispute, Room with a View-style – they can’t really be said to tease or bully him as the song’s opening lines suggest. Instead, Hannon skips the story entirely, opting for lyrics that are almost entirely abstract.
The bulk of the song consists of musings that are clever but vague, like freshly-coined clichés: “Knowledge is a curse / But ignorance is worse / I fear / Would you agree my dear?” Some lines are stranger – “I have watched you grow / From the same seed as my own shall grow / And they will never know / How this autumn breeze / Can strip the trees / And freeze me to the bone”. There’s a declaration of kinship here, but we know neither the narrator nor his target – just that the former seems to envision the next generation inhabiting a world that’s somehow warmer, whatever that might represent. Later, these musings take on a decidedly religious bent: “Pleasure is a sin / And abstinence shall win / This day / And that’s the way it’s gonna stay / Black Parisian lace / Your salvation, my disgrace / My God! Where did you go wrong?” With Checkhov remaining silent on the subject of racy underwear, we have no guide to help us figure out this tangle of fetishism and repression, but that’s definitely what this song seems to be about: “I don’t know if I can / Stop my eyes from / Drifting slowly / Over holy / Temples of the / Soul / No self- / Control”. Whatever the specifics, the narrator is haunted by some past romantic trauma.
At this point, the song lurches into strange instrumental section where Hannon performs, in non-lexical “la la la”s, what sounds like a pastiche of traditional Russian folk music. Finally fading to quiet, “Three Sisters” returns to the meditative quality of its opening, the narrator having completed a story of long ago: “That autumn chill is with me still.”
The penultimate track, “Europe by Train”, is the first instrumental composition Hannon would release. With no lyrics, the song’s meaning must be derived largely from its three-word title, which compensates by being one of the most straightforwardly evocative of the lot, revealing the music as the soundtrack to a romantic journey through the European countryside. There’s a clear resonance with the continental overtones of “Europop”, but neither track makes any real effort to explore European culture – for now, Hannon is content to bask in escapist imagery and half-formed dreams.
The song begins with a single cymbal clash, which is then looped, faster and faster, until it’s joined simultaneously by percussion, synthesisers, and a wall of guitar feedback – a clear metaphor for a train pulling out of a station and speeding away. Evidently Hannon couldn’t quite resist singing, but he limits himself to a repeating “la la-la-la la”, placing us in the headspace of the song’s travelling protagonist but never collapsing its sublimity with simple lyrics. This isn’t a style of music that will feature heavily on future albums, but when your greatest strength is as a lyricist, that’s a reasonable choice. The rumbling guitar feedback, a persistent pool of sound, is something of a throwback to the noisier, busier days of Timewatch. The same technique was used in the demo versions of several Liberation tracks, but was wisely phased out as Hannon shifted creative gears, meaning that “Europe by Train” now feels as a welcome change of pace between inventive new songs. At the journey progresses, a soaring mandolin tremolo joins the song, suggesting a passage through Italy; majestic countryside viewed from a hurtling engine of man-made metal. Eventually, the music fades, leaving only the original cymbal loop, slowing, then stopping, the journey come to an end.
Liberation concludes with “Lucy”, its best track, and the only Divine Comedy song whose lyrics Hannon did not write. Rather, it’s a sequence of poems by William Wordsworth set to music. Hannon originally used the poems as temporary lyrics, weaving music around them with the idea of writing his own lyrics later, but decided to keep them when he realised he wouldn’t be able to come up with anything better. The song received a well-deserved single release the same year as the album, with “The Pop Singer’s Fear of the Pollen Count” and “I Was Born Yesterday” rounding out its B-side.
Five of Wordsworth’s compositions have come to be regarded as the canonical “Lucy poems”, a grouping devised by later critics rather than Wordsworth himself. Written and published between 1798 and 1801, all of them revolve around Lucy, a beautiful dead girl the narrator is mourning. The inspiration behind Lucy is a matter of debate among academics, with Wordsworth remaining quiet about the poems until his death. One fanciful theory postulates that the poems are Wordsworth’s attempt to articulate some guilty fantasy about the death of his inconvenient sister Dorothy, but a more plausible idea is that they described his romantic feelings for the very much alive Mary Hutchinson – perhaps mixed with elements of her sister Margaret, who had died by the time they were composed. Another popular reading suggests that Lucy is simply the poet’s muse, with her death a (somewhat self-defeatingly vivid) metaphor for writer’s block. Additionally, Wordsworth’s poems suggest a deep connection between Lucy and England, his florid descriptions drifting from countryside to girl as if the fusion is perfectly natural.
Hannon’s song consists of the third, second, and fifth Lucy poems, in that order, performed in their entirety. Wordsworth didn’t write the poems in the canonical order, or consistently group them in publications, so Hannon’s selection shouldn’t be taken as a substantial revision. He begins, “I travell’d among unknown men, / In lands beyond the sea; / Nor, England! did I know till then / What love I bore to thee.” It’s a little strange to hear Hannon singing joyfully about England as if it were his mother country, but it fits with the primarily English source material for the album – like Mr Benn getting a little too into character on one of his adventures. After establishing the majesty of Albion sufficiently, Wordsworth-Hannon does his best to erase all boundaries separating the nation from the girl: “Thy mornings show’d, thy nights conceal’d, / The bowers where Lucy play’d; / And thine too is the last green field / That Lucy’s eyes survey’d.” In life and death, she’s one with the country. This is largely what facilitates the song’s ecstatic tone: Lucy is dead, but England remains, the land from which she came and to which she has returned. In selecting these particular poems, Hannon also gives us a glimpse at one reason this particular piece might have attracted him: “A violet by a mossy stone / Half hidden from the eye! / Fair as a star, when only one / Is shining in the sky.” Again, we have the starry, astral imagery that Forster identified as so important in Dante’s Divine Comedy, with an emphasis on the value of experiences unique to the eye of the beholder; the higher vision of the supernaturalist. Remember, the song “Lucy” is still part of an album composed of adaptations – the fact that it shares the other songs’ drive not just to capture the musician’s response, but the musician’s response to the way another artist channels their own inspirations, is key to fitting this song in with the thematic concerns of Liberation.
When Hannon set “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” to music, he kept the detached third-person perspective of Fitzgerald’s omniscient narrator, but largely told the story in his own words. With “Lucy”, Hannon takes on a more modest role, essentially seeking to channel Wordsworth. In an exceedingly rare act, he’s directly appropriating the writing of one of his inspirations, and he treats it with absolute respect: this rendering of Wordsworth is viciously, uncompromisingly unironic. He means every word, and the song is far stronger for it. A more obvious musical rendering of the poems might have been closer to the mournful tone of “Timewatching”, but instead, Hannon composes an uptempo track driven by electric guitar, with the same energetic, indefatigable harpsichord melody that’s run beneath several of the album’s tracks, and the hymnal backing vocals and flanged guitar effects he honed on Europop to give it an edge of airy modernity.
Wordsworth and Hannon conclude their tellings of the story with the same words: “No motion has she now, no force; / She neither hears nor sees; / Roll’d round in earth’s diurnal course, / With rocks, and stones, and trees.” The horns that join in are as triumphant as they are mournful. There is no fantasy resurrection for Lucy, whom we will never know; we have only the narrator’s memories of beauty lost, his unyielding peace in the face of devastation. Lucy is in the earth, free from mortal suffering, and her love is free from the fear that life could become worse. The nature connection is clearly important to Hannon – his previous album was a deeply environmentalist work, but here in the story of Lucy its concerns are reiterated more subtly and movingly than anywhere in Fanfare, right down to the running stream and silly goat sounds that fade in during the song’s quiet middle section. Wordsworth doesn’t write about oil spills or fossil fuels, but he does write with a genuine love for the natural world, and a skill for capturing it in verse which Hannon can’t often match. It’s just art, but sometimes an image or a turn of phrase, in the right place and the right time, can make all the difference. This is the basis of magic.
The idea that Lucy is a muse obviously has powerful associations for The Divine Comedy, though Hannon, a rakish Scott Walker butterfly newly emerged from a shoegaze chrysalis – all fanfare and victory – clearly has no reason to mourn his. Not unless we interpret Liberation as a microcosm of his career, ending with some projected death of creativity, or perhaps see Lucy as the struggle for inspiration on a day-to-day level rather than a life-or-death one… both of which are reasonable takes. If I were feeling ambitious, I might suggest Requiem for the Comic Muse as an alternative album title.
But there is another, much more idiosyncratic possibility regarding Lucy’s identity – one suggested by the song’s context in this particular album. Casting our minds for a moment back to the characters in A Room with a View: could the Lucy in this song be Lucy Honeychurch? I don’t wish to speculate on Wordsworth’s time-travelling abilities, but it’s entirely possible that Hannon thought of these poems because they shared their name with Forster’s heroine. At the end of the novel, Lucy breaks off her engagement with Cecil. He’s treated her as just another trinket to be possessed, a fancy to which his good breeding entitles him – it’s only in their final conversation, with Lucy defiant and uninhibited, that he begins to appreciate the value of what he has just allowed to slip through his fingers.
The romantic leads of A Room with a View are glamorous, aspirational figures in their own ways. It’s Cecil who makes smug references to Dante’s Divine Comedy; Cecil who proudly declares that he has “won a great victory for the Comic Muse” when telling Lucy that he has secured the Emersons lodgings in a nearby villa, not knowing that he has brought the man who will steal his fiancée to his own door. An obstructive plot device who first appears halfway through the story, he was doomed from the moment he was introduced, the logic of conventional narrative offering him no protection, guaranteeing no happy ending. Perhaps Hannon’s “Lucy”, with all its fanciful Romantic flourishes, is a song from the perspective of Cecil Vyse – a chance for a pathetic, forgotten villain, the sort of character who is always broken by the machinations of conventional fiction, to be liberated through art; to say his piece. Lucy is gone, claimed by death or better suitors – fates his solipsism renders indistinguishable – and now he must bandage his unrequited love with the nacre of poetry. Hannon might identify with the book’s heroes, or say that he does, but I suspect that deep down, he knows there’s a character in that book he’s a lot closer to. Cecil, the repressed aesthete. Cecil, who understands beautiful things, but doesn’t know how to use them. Cecil, who wraps himself up in art and books and music, and just wants to find someone who’s the same. Perhaps, in the end, we all are Cecil.
At this point, Mr Benn probably takes off his Daniel Day-Lewis costume and returns to number five-two, having had a very intense afternoon.