A Strange God in My Head (Indulgence No. 1)

indulgence a-sideHere’s an odd one. In October 1993, two months after the release of the Liberation album, Setanta quietly put out another Divine Comedy record. Intriguingly titled Indulgence No. 1, it has three tracks, no front cover, and no lyrics written by Neil Hannon. What even is this thing?

OK, let’s rewind. It seems that Indulgence No. 1 was, rather endearingly, promoted entirely by postcard. This card describes it, rather optimistically, as a “new single”, a “strictly limited edition” three-track record. As A Short Site points out, however, it can’t really be considered a single at all, as it lacks the most crucial element of one: a lead track. It could more accurately be classified as an EP, though that doesn’t feel entirely right either. The songs themselves have no clear hierarchy, but are equal oddities: the first two are covers, both of obscure songs by indie post-punk bands, while the third is an alternative mix of an instrumental track featured on Hannon’s previous album.

The conceptual peculiarity of this release is reflected in its physical format, as Indulgence No. 1, or so the postcard tells us, is a “picture disc”. Where normal records are blank vinyl in an aesthetically pleasing cardboard sleeve, this one has the artwork printed on the vinyl itself, which is distributed in a transparent plastic packet, like some cheap CD-ROM that you’d find in a box of 1990s cereal. The A-side is a leftover Liberation photo of Hannon swinging off a fence, transformed by the printing process to a HAL-9000’s-eye view, while the B-side is a floral art-nouveau pattern – just like the ones that adorn several editions of Liberation. Hannon’s previous EPs, though perhaps not his most commercially viable work, at least had distinctive titles, cover artwork, and, you know, actual songs written by Hannon. Indulgence No. 1 seems designed to be ephemeral. The postcard dedicates almost as much space telling us that The Divine Comedy will be supporting Blur for the London date of their current tour, only adding to the sense of transience. (The Forum, Kentish Town on October 7th – on-stage at 7:45, folks, don’t miss it!)

The first track on Indulgence No. 1, “Hate My Way”, is a cover of a 1986 song by the American band Throwing Muses. The original version, written and sung by band member Kristin Hersh, is an experimental, unfocused song that lurches between primal screams and wretchedly sensitive introspection without much sense of direction or structure. The opening lyrics, which Hersh paraphrased from an unhinged Providence street preacher she heard advocating the killing of God, seem to suggest a punkish sense of scrappy, genericised rebellion: “I could be a smack freak / And hate society / I could hate God / And blame Dad / I might be in a holocaust / Hate Hitler / Might not have a child / And hate school”. After listing a few more things that she could hate and be, she concludes, “No / I hate my way”. The rest of the track, written later by Hersh as she slid into a serious mental breakdown, hints at subtler and more personal tensions, though it never becomes fully lucid: “I make you into a song / I can’t rise above the church / I’m caught in a jungle / Vines tangle my hands / I’m always so hot / And it’s hot in here”. It continues in their vein for some time, and Hersh’s stream of consciousness eventually triangulates a sense of abject suicidal powerlessness that I think is the core of the song: “So I sat up late in the morning / And asked myself again / How do they kill children? / And why do I wanna die? / They can no longer rule / I can no longer be still / I hate my way”.

While no-one would ever have mistaken this for a Neil Hannon song, it’s not too difficult to see why he thought it was worth covering: its flirtation with the list-song format and ambivalent religious themes are recurring elements in his work, and while its failure to really commit to anything lyrically is a far cry from the ornately crafted songs with which he would make his name, there is a certain similarity between “Hate My Way” and the vague indie-rock bluster of tracks such as “The Rise and Fall” on Fanfare for the Comic Muse and “Jerusalem” on Timewatch.

In adapting “Hate My Way” to his own style, Hannon collapses its tonal meandering into a neat bifurcated structure. For the first minute, which can be a bit difficult to listen to, it sounds like he’s shouting his lines into a microphone that really can’t handle it while simultaneously drowning the resulting noise in a fuzzy sludge of tuneless electric guitar. There’s a church organ in there somewhere, which might have been a really interesting direction to take this one, but the mix is so bad we have to strain to hear it – not to mention the lyrics. As soon as Hannon reaches the title-drop, however, he switches to a low croon, the music changes to a piano and strings, and suddenly we’re listening to a Divine Comedy song… albeit one that sounds like a bootleg recording of itself. Hannon’s delivery feels more thought-through and intelligent than Hersh’s depressive keening, if not quite as sincere – there’s a limit to how much substance you can wring from lines like “I’m invisible / I’m TV”. What? But I have to admit, I do quite like “A boy was tangled in his bike forever” – it might not be an intentional Third Policeman reference, but not many Third Policeman references are.

Another interesting aspect of the cover is how wrong Hannon gets the words. Now, I think that rewriting lyrics is a perfectly healthy way to liven up a song cover – consider David Bowie’s excellent 2003 version of “Pablo Picasso”, which complements the old Modern Lovers song’s conceit of the cubist picking up girls in his El Dorado with a laudably inexplicable new chorus that finds him parkouring in the woods. Or Morrissey’s 2013 version of “Satellite of Love”, which, despite the knee-jerk anger of tedious fans, couldn’t have illustrated the differences between the singer and Lou Reed more elegantly than in its replacement of “I love to watch things on TV” with “I cannot stand the TV”. All well and good.

But that’s not what Hannon is doing with “Hate My Way”. The changes he makes to the Throwing Muses song don’t seem deliberate, or directed, or even intentional – rather, it appears that he’s misremembering the lyrics, or perhaps even misheard some of them in the first place. While he starts and ends the song right, whole lines are forgotten around the middle, but the song was already so incoherent that this hardly matters. The thought which leads to the narrator’s final breakdown, “Gerry-Anne was confused / Mister Hubert, he / Had a gun in his head”, instead becomes “Martin Hughes / Was confused / Michael Rod / Had a god / In his head” – it’s quite ludicrous to think that these misremembered ramblings are the only words on this record that actually originated in Hannon’s brain. After the lyrics run out, he just starts singing along with the string trio. This is certainly a chaotic cover, but somehow I think the original’s fractious semiotic essence is preserved: it’s a song about surveying the awful realities of the world and finding in them a way to rebel, a hatred unique to oneself; hatred as identity. Or who knows, maybe she just disliked the song “My Way” for its irritating triumphalism. Frank Sinatra couldn’t stand it either.

The second track, “Untitled Melody”, is a cover of a 1982 song by Scottish musician Edwyn Collins, originally recorded by Collins’s band Orange Juice. The original recording is a pleasant but unassuming acoustic indie song that captures a moment in a relationship. In the first verse, the narrator takes it upon himself to purchase his partner a pair of sunglasses, admonishing her for requiring his services: “You’re so transparent, I can guess without question / You need something or other to cover your expression / I bought you some sunspecs / From the local hipsters’ store / I need you, more or less / You need me more and more”. The second verse, which is also the last, has the two characters reconciling, and consists largely of the same lyrics with the pronouns swapped: “I’m so transparent, you can guess without question / I need something or other to cover my expression / Buy me some sunspecs / Like the ones you wore / From the local hipsters’ store / You need me, more or less / I need you more and more.” The narrator has forgotten his own needs in a bout of micro-managing, and now that the couple have given each other sunglasses – now that they can see each other clearly – the relationship is restored to equal footing.

Where “Hate My Way” was an odd choice to cover, its themes and textures relating only obliquely to Hannon’s own work, “Untitled Melody” is more straightforwardly his kind of thing: a brisk, sweet, upbeat love song. Hannon does away with the original’s acoustic guitar and percussion, replacing them with lavish strings and a lively piano melody that extrapolates fancifully on Collins’s arrangement. While Hannon kept at least some of dark, raw essence of “Hate My May”, he doesn’t really try to capture anything that’s unique about “Untitled Melody”, instead polishing it until it begins to reflect his own songwriting style.

The lyrical changes Hannon makes here are mostly superficial, the kind a singer makes without thinking – an extra “So” here, a couples of “Oh”s there. He also seems to deliver the original “hipsters’ store” as “hipster store”, which is an improvement regardless of whether it’s intentional. Most importantly, I think, Hannon eliminates the brief pause before each instance of “more or less”. In the original song, this seems to signify a sneering tone – “I need you, more or less” means “I need you, pretty much“. It’s dismissive; indifferent. In Hannon’s version, this elision turns the relevant lines into “I need you more or less” and “You need me more or less” – the lyrics are tweaked away from the conventional English idiom into something a little stranger, something that doesn’t have an immediately clear meaning, and that gives this very slight song a welcome touch of ambiguity. While it’s a question of taste, I also think Hannon’s smoother, more expressive voice is a considerable improvement on Collins’s husky, languorous vocals – especially when he reaches the key-shifted second verse, which really benefits from the sense of marvelling, rapturous realisation Hannon imbues. Although the cover is the same length as the original – two minutes and change, making it one of the shortest Divine Comedy track ever – Hannon burns cheerfully through the lyrics in no time at all, supplementing them with a longer and more elaborate instrumental intro, bridge, and outro.

Perhaps the most memorable thing about this song is the simple question Hannon inherits from Collins: why doesn’t it have a proper name? The label “Untitled Melody” suggests a brief snatch of music, perhaps the sort scribbled on a napkin, and while that may well have been how this one started out, what we have here is a complete song with a self-contained (if brief) story arc. “Sunspecs” or “More or Less” would have been fine conventional names, but as it stands, the absence confers a kind of non-specific profundity – if an otherwise-ordinary song is somehow unnameable, surely it has some secret? As it stands, the name only serves to accentuate the self-effacement of this weird, invisible record.

The final track of Indulgence No. 1, and the only one actually written by Hannon, is a version of “Europe by Train”, the penultimate track of Liberation. On that album, it was a grand, rich, sweeping instrumental evoking a romantic train-ride and bridging the gap between “Three Sisters” and “Lucy”. The version here, clarified by later releases as the “Traveller’s Companion Mix”, is very different – a much shorter, sharper piece, with the stripped-down sound of a home demo, though we can only guess at the circumstances of its production. The looped, chugging cymbals, Hannon’s airy, wordless vocals, and the soaring mandolin are all removed. Instead, the dreamy melody is delivered by piercing, alien synths, which preside over a contest between a wall of rumbling electric-guitar feedback in the left audio channel and a pool of shimmering electric-organ tones in the right. The flow of the track is similar, but its overall feel is now science-fictional – a big shift for a song with ambitions of travelogy.

There are a few ways to look at the name of Indulgence No. 1. On the most obvious level, packaging together three strange, not-particularly-great tracks – two covers and an instrumental remix – and releasing them as a limited-edition addendum to a new album could certainly be seen as indulgent (excessive, extravagant), either on the part of Hannon or the label. There’s also a knowingly hubristic quality to the record’s enumeration. Impressively, Indulgence No. 1 predates Bowie’s 1. Outside by two years – indeed, by that point, Hannon had already made good on the smugly unspoken promise of a follow-up record, which Bowie never did. The other major definition of “indulgence”, of course, is the religious one – in Catholic doctrine, indulgences were exonerations from purgatory, and could be purchased from the Church by those monied enough for salvation. Given that this practice was a central point in Martin Luther’s ninety-five theses, is it possible that Hannon, being culturally Protestant, is making a joke at the expense of the concept – right down to his title’s tacky consumerism? Buy Indulgence No. 1, go straight to Divine Comedy heaven?

indulgence b-side

If so, it’s a very optimistic joke, as this is hardly his finest work. Again, the fundamental question has to be asked: what possessed one of the best lyricists of his generation to release a record containing none of his own lyrics? But perhaps that’s the point. Stygian punk angst, breezy romance, continental replicant holidays: what it lacks in thematic focus, it makes up in indulgent lunatic abandon. You’re No. 1 for someone, Indulgence.

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