If Liberation was Neil Hannon’s artistic breakthrough, it’s 1994’s Promenade that showed he knew it – and that, having scrambled and experimented until arriving at what was basically going to be his signature sound, it was time to dig in and explore this new territory. The resulting album essentially refines Liberation, keeping its tone while amplifying its orchestral elements and bringing a tighter conceptual and thematic focus to the lyrics. If there’s one point on which music critics and the Divine Comedy faithful can generally agree, it’s that this is Hannon’s greatest work, and the benchmark against which all subsequent albums must be measured. So, what’s the consensus masterpiece really all about?
I’m a little wary of the lockstep that surrounds Promenade – any critical position that considers the most popular instalment the best is, almost by definition, the least interesting one to hold – but I find it difficult to disagree with. This album weaves intimate drama across an epic scope, from sombre and thoughtful compositions to a rousing, career-best showstopper, and most remarkably, it achieves this within a coherent self-contained narrative; a tale of love and revelry and fear with its own carefully chosen palette of themes and motifs, both aural and visual.
Now, Promenade isn’t exactly The Wall – with most of the songs satisfyingly self-contained, it’s quite possible for the linking narrative to sail over the heads (past the ears?) of listeners. Indeed, some of them fit the story a little uneasily, and require that certain elements be reshuffled mentally or smoothed into metaphor in order to fit the sequence of events. That said, a tale undeniably begins to emerge: a boy and a girl, a young couple, enjoying each other’s company (and facing their respective inner demons) over a romantic day at a seaside resort. (The title is both a noun and a verb: they’re promenading across the promenade.) According to A Short Site – an indispensable resource, though their reference for this particular fact has since vanished into the mists of time – the album follows a British couple on New Year’s Eve, 1999. An interesting touch, to say the least: Promenade is futuristic.
There are more inventive records to be found both earlier and later in the discography, but there’s a case to be made that Promenade still represents a peak: for the first time, listeners had a sound that they could confidently point to as that of The Divine Comedy, now and forever. In terms of music, the album’s most substantial development is the addition of Michael Nyman to Hannon’s pool of influences. Primarily a film composer, Nyman came to Hannon’s attention when the latter saw The Draughtsman’s Contract and was mesmerised by its score; he mentions watching Peter Greenaway films and being stunned at how “full-on and punky” Nyman could make a string quartet sound. In terms of Hannon’s later, broader career, the technique that really seems to have stuck is Nyman’s characteristic use of counter-melody. The majority of songs on Promenade have this compositional quirk – some brief, jabbing motif, operating independently of the lead vocal and instrumentation, but providing a reliable extra hook that has the effect of locking the listener’s attentions in place – but the entire album is drenched in Nyman’s sound: the dense layers of strings which seem almost independent, the dominant staccato reeds. When Hannon gave the composer a copy, jokingly asking him not to sue, Nyman replied that he didn’t really see the similarity – Hannon wasn’t sure whether he should be pleased or disappointed. (Nonetheless, Hannon did manage to establish a slightly better rapport with Nyman than with his other, equally baffled idol Scott Walker – Hannon and Nyman would even go on to collaborate, though the resulting compositions were shelved.) Still, while this is a much better record than his early U2 or REM tributes, one imagines that Hannon might have preferred all of us to fixate on an album that wasn’t quite as imitative as this one.
It’s just about possible to imagine that someone who liked Liberation might be disappointed by Promenade. While Hannon’s wryly tragicomic lyrics and layered vocal performance remain largely consistent, a surprising amount of the previous album’s aural palette is discarded. Gone is the harpsichord, as well as the organ – both church and Hammond. There are no synth interludes this time, and not a jangle in earshot, the only guitar a sparsely-deployed acoustic. Another dramatic change is the addition of several reed instruments – oboe, saxophone, and cor anglais, deployed with such deftness that they largely blend together, forming a melodic voice for the album that’s almost as important as Hannon’s own. (All three are performed by Joby Talbot, who will go on to become perhaps the most important member of The Divine Comedy, with the obvious exception of the man himself.) The lavish and varied instrumentation that made the last album feel so vibrant is deliberately stripped down, leaving the new one to rely instead on sheer polysymphonic complexity to keep our attention. On paper, Promenade represents a very recognisable evolution of the preceding album, but in practice Hannon realises it entirely with the combination of a lively piano, querulous reeds, and a dynamic string quartet. In other words, exactly the combination that Nyman used for much of The Draughtsman’s Contract. But rather than making Promenade feel smaller, this restricted range only renders it more expansive, helping it to carve out a unique sonic space within the band’s discography – a status that’s only solidified by Hannon’s subsequent work, which generally takes a more colourful, eclectic, kitchen-sink approach. Despite being somewhat in thrall of Nyman, Promenade is still the first record of Hannon’s that fundamentally and recognisably extends from the last. After this point, Nyman emulation will be demoted to its rightful place as just one tool of many in Hannon’s kit.
The front cover of Promenade couldn’t illustrate the album’s position in the band’s discography better. Where the previous records’ artwork was eclectic and varied – each release representing an experimental, perhaps unsatisfied departure from the visuals of the previous one – Promenade is a careful recreation of the Liberation photo, with Hannon in the very same black suit and tie, staring at us from behind the very same perfectly circular sunglasses. There’s one key difference, though: rather than standing in a hazy green field, he’s standing in front of the glass pyramid of the Louvre. The message is clear: that last was quite good, so here’s some more, only better. This is the point where the Divine Comedy discography transitions from dialectic zig-zagging to coherent stability, and the cover of Promenade even seems to anticipate the album’s perceived status relative to the band’s subsequent output, juxtaposing as it does the fresh-faced Hannon with a pyramid’s peak.
On closer inspection, the photo reveals other subtle evolutions. The faint smirk of Liberation is gone, though it’s possible to read Hannon blank expression a few ways: is this really going to be a more serious album than we’re used to, or does this photo capture him struggling to keep a straight face? Rather than clutching at a fence, Hannon’s arms are relaxed, while the slightly greater distance between the singer and the camera almost suggests a slow zoom outwards; a cinematic time-lapse. The fact that he’s actually gone to Europe this time rather than just singing vaguely about it conveys the impression of a larger budget, but in a way that ties endearingly into the earlier work – we can almost reimagine “Europe by Train”, Liberation’s penultimate instrumental, as a transition to this romantic new world. This sense of well-earned excess continues to the photography itself, which is clearly more sophisticated – sharp artificial lighting brings out the contours of Hannon’s face, rendering him stately and statuesque, the inky blackness of his jacket transforming him into a marble bust, gleaming in the twilight of the museum behind him. There’s a sense that time has passed, both in Hannon’s slightly longer hair and in the use of colour: the lurid yellow-green of Liberation, whose songs hovered between summery and autumnal in tone and texture, has given way to the cool blue sky of France. Promenade is an evening album; a winter album. (There’s little to be said about the rest of the photos, which show Hannon lounging about the general area of the Louvre and really don’t take advantage of their setting.)
One of Promenade’s more interesting lyrical conceits is its use of shifting perspectives, with Hannon variously performing the role of the hero (usually), the heroine (occasionally), an omniscient and objective narrator who describes their actions (often), and a group of revellers with whom the young couple spend some time (once). Subtly enhancing the sense of unbroken narrative sequence is the fact that virtually all the album’s lyrics are written in the present tense, the only exceptions being when the characters’ conversations turn briefly to the past or future. The album never specifies where its events fit into the couple’s relationship; it’s made clear that they’ve known each other since childhood, but the overall tone suggests a first date, or one occurring soon after the beginning of a romantic relationship, one not yet consummated. Both characters go unnamed, presumably because names would make the album’s (fairly thin) concept too explicit and limit each track’s ability to function independently.
The first song, “Bath”, begins in ambience, with waves crashing on a shore the only sound to be heard. Contemplative, detached, Hannon recites: “Time, like an ever-rolling stream / Bears all its sons away / They fly, forgotten, as a dream / Dies at the opening day”. It’s a stanza from Isaac Watts’s eighteenth-century hymn “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past” – itself a reworking of Psalm 90, and more importantly, for reasons that will become clear later, a part of the soundtrack to the 1963 film Tom Jones.
A single piano note intrudes, and then insists, joined after a moment by strings, then more, rolling elegantly over one another, spiky and irrepressible. The Nyman influence is already palpable before the song begins proper. And when it does begin, it’s with an orchestral surge and one of Hannon’s all-time great lyrical swerves: “Rub-a-dub-dub / It’s time for a scrub”. In just a couple of syllables, an ambiguous instrumental piece about the majesty of the ocean reveals itself as a goofy bath-time anthem – something that would fit right in on Sesame Street, and which may well have begun life as one of the composer’s hummed shower-thoughts. And yet, this moment of bathos (a word whose dictionary definition should really just be this song’s YouTube URL) is positioned to coincide with the most sudden and enthusiastic part of the track, meaning that it adds something legitimately new rather than simply puncturing what’s gone before. With the lyrics beginning more than halfway through the four-minute song, this is essentially two very different pieces in one: slightly annoying for anyone who significantly prefers one to the other, but a treat for the rest of us.
The song’s story is deceptively complex. On the most literal level, it focuses on our heroine, who is washing alone in preparation for a meeting with her partner. In this song, Hannon serves as omniscient narrator: “So through clouds of steam / To a cracked and faded cream / Bath-tub / Wanders frail / Aphrodite / So pale / Pink and white / She is naked as sin / Wearing nothing but a grin / And a pin in her hair”. Hannon has never really foregrounded a female perspective in this way before, and it’s all the more striking that this should occur in an opening track – perhaps an attempt to avoid stacking the deck, so to speak, and keep himself distinct from the album’s other, male protagonist. Hannon’s ethereal backing vocals supply the song with appropriate feminine energy, though one imagines that if he’d been recording this one a few years later, he’d just have gotten an actual female singer in the mix.
As a piece of scene-setting, it’s majestic, and the themes of Promenade are already beginning to emerge. The mundane sight of a naked girl getting in and out of the bath to scrub up before a date is described in terms that evoke Venus Anadyomene, the image of Venus rising from the sea, which has permeated popular culture via Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus – an unapologetic equation of mundanity and divinity that matches the song’s very structure.
In the next verse, Hannon shifts register: “Will she be drowned / Found with her hair tied behind / Shoulders back and head inclined / To the sound of music playing above / Bathing her in love? / But darkness and fear / Disappear / Like the soap / When she opens her eyes”. This brief fantasy of the girl’s death is thoroughly odd, as if the album is momentarily considering going down the Twin Peaks route and becoming a murder mystery. A “crack in the faded cream”, it’s a glimpse into the darker, more gothic undercurrent of Hannon’s work – one that recalls the morbid daydream in the previous album’s “I Was Born Yesterday”. The effect is quite disconcerting, especially as the music remains upbeat and uptempo, Hannon’s vocals cheerful and unwavering, decidedly not reverting to the song’s dark and ambiguous opening. Hannon’s combination of narrative detachment and dramatic vigour leaves him sounding like some sort of theatrical huckster, a kind of Northern Irish Greek chorus, standing beside a stage to narrate a melodrama, beckoning to the audience, and teasing exciting developments that might occur in the second act. Is the girl herself contemplating mortality, even suicide, or is this just a salacious notion the narrator is using the draw us in? There’s some interesting interplay between the lyrics and music here: the “sound of music playing above” is represented by a staccato melody played on what sounds like a xylophone, while the song’s bridge finds Hannon shifting into ethereal warbling that sounds like he’s singing underwater himself.
Finally, the girl emerges to greet the day: “She throws / Back the dormer windows / Morning light shows / Ophelia raised / From her watery grave / In a brave new world”. The Hamlet reference can be dismissed simply as part of Hannon’s literary aesthetic – particularly if you read that last line as some kind of random Aldous Huxley shout-out – but does it hold any real meaning? At a certain level of density and frivolity, all these references become impossible to relate to each other in any comprehensive and meaningful way, and we just have to choose the ones that suit us best. Perhaps it would be most subversive to suggest that the girl is actually just named Ophelia.
The second song, “Going Downhill Fast”, maintains the third-person perspective while introducing the album’s male hero, whom we find in the middle of a cheerful cycle. It’s a much shorter and simpler track, with a brisk, relatively stripped-down accompaniment of chirpy piano and strings, appropriate to the airy subject-matter. The song contains four verses, three of which begin with references to butterflies. In the first, we’re led to imagine the hero’s eye alighting upon an actual butterfly as he cycles past, the image sending him off on a lyrical tangent: “One butterfly / Spies / A glint in his eye / The birds sing as he cycles by / Oh, why should he feel sad? / This world ain’t so bad”. Subsequent butterflies, however, are decidedly metaphorical – the hero’s mind leaps from one poetic image to another, and we’re there in his mind, along for the ride.
The transition to the second verse attempts to capture the sensation of physical acceleration in song, achieving this not with an increase in tempo but a key shift and a louder and more enthusiastic vocal: “Two butterflies / Tie / Knots in his stomach / They love it when he goes too fast / The wind whistles past / Vast / Oceans of air / That will mess up his hair / Though he no longer cares”. (Notice that even here in its negation, the first track’s aquatic motif resurfaces through metaphor; there’ll be lots of that later.) It’s all very bright and carefree, but perhaps the most interesting conceit here is the personification of the “butterflies in his stomach”, already a rather baroque idiom, which Hannon here extends to pataphysical absurdity as the butterflies find glee in the rider’s speed. (“They love it when he goes too fast” is probably Hannon’s most stupidly adorable lyric, and one that evidently comes straight from the inner child.) The wind messes up the cyclist’s hair, but it doesn’t matter; out here, such “vacuous vice” seems small, petty, irrelevant (though it earns a fantastically over-enunciated, winkingly clarifying vocal). Now, here’s where it gets complicated: “two” initially referred only to the number of (formerly literal, now metaphorical) butterflies, but Hannon continues counting, the escalating numerals now seemingly referring to the shifting gears of the bicycle as it increases in speed: “Just once or twice / Thrice / Four times in five / We forget we’re alive / And neglect to remind / Ourselves”. When the already rather complex “literal butterfly”/”stomach butterfly”/”bicycle gear” matrix somehow culminates in this off-the-cuff, that’s-oddly-specific-but-OK commentary on the way we lose sight of what matters most in life as often as 80% of the time, it’s difficult to avoid the sense that Hannon is just showing off.
The third verse, and the only one free of butterflies, is a short interlude which seems to place the story in a mythic context: “Wait, wait for me / O great Mercury / As late as you may be / Will you wait for me?” To accompany this section, Hannon multi-tracks his own sonorous chanting to approximate a Russian choir – a trick which expertly straddles the perilous line between the ridiculous and the epic. At this point, the omniscient perspective that’s characterised the album becomes a little confused or involved – it doesn’t make much sense for the behind-schedule cyclist to call the messenger of the gods “late” while asking him for help, but that seems to be what he’s doing, so chalk it up to religious delirium. More interestingly, the Mercury reference comes at approximately the same point in this song that the mention of Aphrodite came in “Bath”; this structure, consisting of a light-hearted sketch of a character engaged in some mundane but pleasant activity followed by a late swerve into divine allusion, affords the story a grand dualistic sweep, and our two heroes a magnificent backdrop. Both tracks also give some sense of the protagonists’ personalities: she smiles at the thought of meeting him, but evinces a darker, faintly suicidal aspect, whereas he seems nervous about the date, rushing to get there on time but failing to keep his poet’s mind from wandering. It’s curious that Hannon invokes the Greek Aphrodite alongside the Roman Mercury, rather than using one of either Venus or Hermes, but one presumes he’s simply opting for the names whose sound he prefers. Semantics aside, the mythology is solid: Hermes/Mercury did indeed have relations with Aphrodite/Venus. (They even had a son: the aptly-named Hermaphroditus. Now there’s an idea for the sequel.)
Finally, the cyclist leaves behind the hill’s Olympian height, shifting back to a lower gear as the slope evens out: “Three butterflies / Realise / When it’s time to depart / They have tickled his ribs / They have fluttered his heart”. The curiously undigested insects take their leave, and with its final lines, the song pulls back to fix on some rather larger issues: “But the starting is easy / Compared to the stop / And the bottom is hard / When compared to the top”. This just about functions as an abstruse and poetic description of cycling, but the sudden switch from the ultra-specific to the ultra-general can be no accident: no, this is a summary of the human condition. Just as “Bath” elevated ablutions to the realm of legend, “Going Downhill Fast” equates a turbulent, all-too-short bike ride to the sprawling grandeur of life itself. This kind of transcendent vehicular metaphor isn’t new for Hannon, who achieved something similar on the previous album with “Your Daddy’s Car”; a subtler kind of sublimity than the aforementioned Mercurial invocation. Also like “Bath”, this song is carried to its conclusion by needling Nymanesque reeds, matched this time by Hannon’s jubilant glossolalia.
With their parallel flights of fancy, “Bath” and “Going Downhill Fast” set the scene for the drama that’s about to unfold. Together they mark out the album’s thematic territory, establishing a spirited romance in a broadly realistic setting but making it quite clear that the following tale will have a mythic, metonymic dimension – that within this young couple everything is embodied, and in this day all time may be divined. The curtain is drawn.
One of Promenade’s great curiosities is that it doesn’t actually depict the meeting of its hero and heroine. The third song, “The Booklovers”, is instead a celebration of the literature most loved by Hannon and, we assume, the protagonists of this album. Rather a change of pace, this track is the utmost pinnacle of not one, but two of Hannon’s signature techniques: list song and literary reference.
It’s also impossible to discuss “The Booklovers” without mentioning “Endless Art”, a 1992 single by Irish band A House. Less a song than a funeral procession, “Endless Art” finds frontman Dave Couse delivering a spoken-word list of names and dates – “Ernest Hemingway, 1899 to 1961 / George Orwell, Jimi Hendrix, William Butler Yeats, Jack B Yeats / Richard Redgrave, 1804 to 1888 / Henry Moore, 1896 to 1986/ Henry Miller, Sid Vicious, only 21 / Brian Jones Otis Redding, 1941 to 1967, RIP” – all against a droning electric guitar, shifting between a relentless three-note string melody and a recurring Beethoven sample. Entirely unironic and unapologetic, it’s a Gish Gallop of art and death that will leave even the most hard-hearted listener a little humbled at the all-devouring maw of entropy. (I’m particularly susceptible to later versions where Couse adds Richard Harris and Dermot Morgan to the list; part of the genius of the song is how easily it accommodates this sort of temporal and cultural adaptation.)
As Hannon showed with “The Pop Singer’s Fear of the Pollen Count”, he wasn’t above cannibalising the output of his fellow Setanta signees. This time, we can imagine him glancing sidelong at his labelmates, seeing that they’d released a stunningly good track that executed two of his own favourite themes flawlessly, and realising he needed to pick up the pace. Taking “Endless Art” as its starting point, Hannon’s song shifts focus, becoming both broader (it references living people as well as dead ones) and narrower (it limits itself to literature rather than the whole of art). Where Couse recited the names of artists along with their years of birth and death, Hannon recites the names of writers and follows each with a relevant quotation. These quotations, which range from iconic to obscure and from serious to comedic (and which are sometimes just an appropriately mannered “Hello”), are variously achieved by Hannon performing them in-character, having other band members or friends read them out, or splicing in lines from (directly or indirectly) associated films or television programmes. The overall effect is that of a roll-call, with Hannon as a kind of cosmic schoolmaster surveying a classroom of legends. It’s a bizarre collage: “Jean-Paul Sartre / Let’s go to The Dôme, Simone! / Simone de Beauvoir / C’est exact, présent… / Albert Camus / The beach, the beach… / Franz Kafka / What do you want from me?! / Thomas Mann / M’am… / Graham Greene / What are you thinking about me? / Jack Kerouac / Me car’s broken down… / William S Burruoughs / W-o-w…” I’ve speculated that the prominence of list songs in Hannon’s work might derive from the time he had to spend in church as a child, and “The Booklovers” does seem to echo that ecclesiastical power dynamic – it’s almost as easy to imagine him reciting these names from behind a pulpit as at the front of a classroom. (In a 2008 blog post, Divine Comedy acquaintance Ben Wardle revealed how the recording of the roll-call went. Apparently, Hannon simply showed his list of writers to everyone who happened to be passing through the studio, asking each person to pick a couple they liked and add an appropriate joke or quotation, which goes some way towards explaining the uneven quality of the one-liners and impersonations. Wardle himself, for example, plays both Mark Twain and JG Ballard.)
Where “Endless Art” began with a quotation, “All art is quite useless according to Oscar Wilde”, Hannon’s song begins with another: “This book deals with consciousness as an epiphenomenon which has to do with physical processes whose presence or absence… makes no difference… What ever are you doing?” Spoken by Audrey Hepburn in the 1957 film Funny Face, this sample invites us to read an epistemological dimension into the song, framing the couple’s perusal of the canon of Western literature as somehow related to the fundamental mechanisms of life itself.
Hannon’s mannered spoken-word style provides an interesting contrast to Couse’s no-nonsense delivery, and while the more layered, complex, Nymanesque strings may not be as catchy, they do achieve a similar sense of inescapable progression, albeit one that plods amiably towards death rather than hurtling into it head-first. Now, “The Booklovers” is still a very solid Divine Comedy song, with a satisfying alloy of Hannon’s sound and interests. He’s perfectly content to use his usual tools of quotation, pastiche, and parody to assemble the likenesses of his favourite writers, both living and dead, and parade them in a spirit of gentle fun. A House’s song, on the other hand, is an unquestionable career-best hit, a legitimate alt-rock classic, and its live-action stop-motion video (!) has to be seen to be believed. It’s not fair to ask anything to live up to “Endless Art”, but that’s the territory “The Booklovers” finds itself in.
Hannon does, however, avoid A House’s embarrassing oversight of not including any women, which led them to record “More Endless Art”, an apologetic version celebrating female artists. In the main roll-call, Hannon manages fifteen women to fifty-eight men. If I have a complaint to make about the selection, it’s rather that all these writers are painfully respectable; one gets a sense that Hannon, who has since admitted to never actually reading most of these, was more interested in cultivating the impression of belonging to a certain aesthetic of loftiness rather than actually expressing something meaningful. With a total of seventy-three name–response pairs, there are simply too many to analyse exhaustively, so instead I’ll discuss my favourites.
The moment that Hannon calls “Charlotte Brontë”, “Emily Brontë?”, and “Anne Brontë?”, giving the first two an identical girly “Hello?” but the third a “HALLO?” that can only be described as sounding like a fat German cartoon butcher, is definitely the best joke in the song, not only because it plays on the maligned Anne’s status as “the other Brontë sister”, but because it depends on a formal break – a rule-of-three gag scrawled slyly across a trio of calls-and-responses, something that depends on a degree of effortless lyrical rhythm that’s really quite impressive when you consider how complex the concept of the track already is. It’s also just the sort of cannily stupid non-sequitur that makes me laugh every time.
Humour aside, the song does contain moments of genuine introspection, some with direct resonance for Hannon’s other work. When the roll-call reaches F Scott Fitzgerald, the answer we hear is Hannon’s own voice, quietly singing “Ba ba-ba-ba ba”. For anyone left behind: rather than quoting a Fitzgerald text, Hannon is quoting the non-lexical vocals from “Bernice Bobs Her Hair”, a song he himself wrote based on Fitzgerald’s story of the same name. It’s a Fitzgerald reference, sure – a shout-out to an author Hannon does genuinely love – but it’s routed through a Liberation track which doesn’t even mention Fitzgerald, meaning that this isn’t just a joke for loyal listeners; it’s a joke for loyal listeners who’ve also done their homework regarding Hannon’s earlier influences. And again, it’s quite easy to miss – a stirring Liberation favourite reduced to a two-second croak, slotting neatly into a vast and humbling library, The Divine Comedy already moving on, already respectfully but firmly shelving its past. It’s lovely.
And there’s another moment in “The Booklovers” that achieves a similar effect, but in an even subtler and cleverer way. As the lengthy first verse approaches its conclusion, Hannon reads, “DH Lawrence” and receives the reply, “Never heard of it.” He continues, “EM Forster”, and the reply comes again, insistent but amused: “Never heard of it!” These two responses are sampled from the film version of A Room with a View. In a scene with dialogue lifted directly from Forster’s novel, the Reverend Arthur Beebe takes a moment to peruse George Emerson’s library, remarking that he’s never heard of A Shropshire Lad or The Way of All Flesh. Hannon edits this dialogue so that Mr Beebe instead dismisses Lawrence, then shrugs off the name of the very writer who created him. It’s a charming moment of metafiction, especially in light of the primordial role Forster and A Room with a View play in Hannon’s music; coming right as the track swells into the first instance of its sung chorus, the sound of the character smilingly proclaiming not to recognise the name of his author is oddly moving.
The chorus itself is short and direct, paraphrases a poem by Horace in slightly more vernacular language: “Happy the man and happy he alone / Who in all honesty can call today his own / He who has life and strength enough to say / Yesterday’s dead and gone, I want to live today”. As the only real lyrics in the song, it’s down to these lines to encapsulate its meaning – the same role played by A House’s refrain, “All dead / Yet still alive / In endless time / Endless art”. It’s a similar message, too, though Hannon’s seems consciously warmer and less curatorial – it’s not directly about art or writing, but that just gives it a kind of strange metaphysical transcendence, the music insisting that this passionate maxim about life and happiness emerges logically from the roll-call, even as the words themselves remain inscrutable as an outburst.
How does “The Booklovers” fit into the album’s narrative? A relatively insular and opaque song, it makes no reference to the young couple frolicking about the eponymous promenade. No reference, that is, but its title: the lyrics never hint at who these “booklovers” are, but we can guess. As the lovers meet, our omniscient narrator discreetly steps aside, and the story ascends into abstraction. While Hannon simply affects a falsetto voice for some of the female writers, others are performed by an uncredited but actual woman – not counting samples, this makes “The Booklovers” the only track on Promenade with female vocals, which certainly increases the sense that it depicts a conversation between the protagonists. It doesn’t matter if they’ve met in a library or bookshop, or if this playful back-and-forth takes place elsewhere – this is a meeting of minds, and the silly imitations and one-liners simply represent the two goofing around, joking about their shared literary interests. Fittingly, the final name, Salman Rushdie, is answered with the quotation, “Names… will live… forever”, which precisely echoes the celebratory message of “Endless Art”.
The fourth track, “A Seafood Song”, is a curious thing: a rousing musical celebration of, well, eating fish. This is the first song that explicitly depicts both of the album’s protagonists: following their literary discussion, they go for a meal. First, however, the track sets the scene with an oddly sombre prelude pastiching the English folk song “When the Boat Comes In”: “Who’ll have the fishy / On the little dishy? / Who will have the fishy / When the boat comes…”
Much like “Bath”, the song takes a sharp turn from funereal dirge to light and silly territory. Raising his glass, the hero begins, “Let’s sing for those / In peril on the sea / Who cater ceaselessly / To my every wish / With every fish / As fresh as fish can be”. He rattles off a list of sea-creatures, and then his girlfriend raises her own glass in answer, with a parallel list: “You see / I do like my lobster / My hake, skate, and rainbow trout / And if there’s a fishy smell about / I’ll be there”. Dipping back in as narrator, Hannon prefaces each character’s toast with “And then / (S)he says”, leaning into the theatrical, almost pantomime feel of the opening tracks. Eventually, he moves into an increasingly enthusiastic (one might say unhinged) monologue in which he declares his desire for “Scampi, squid, sole, shark, and scallop / Winkles, whelks, whale, and whiting / Seaweed, swordfish, sardines, and sea urchin”, and so on. During this, Hannon’s own airy backing vocals repeat lines from both characters’ verses, resisting any straightforward attribution as all expression blurs into a kind of carnivorous ecstasy.
Stranger than the song’s subject-matter is its divided focus: rather than simply celebrating the act of consuming seafood, which would have been odd enough, it also devotes a substantial amount of its energy to honouring the off-stage fishermen themselves. Seafood isn’t just treated as something to eat – it’s also treated as something that must be seized and brought under control, wrested from the ocean by humanity. This isn’t tangential, but seems to be the whole point of the affair: there’s the continued refrain, “We’ll sing / For those in peril on the sea”, where our heroes seem almost to obsess over those who risked their lives to make this meal possible. Harking back to “Bath”, and its representation of the heroine as Aphrodite emerging from the sea, this is the point where the album’s oceanic themes really become overt.
It’s a peculiar trait of love songs, or relationship songs more generally, that their focus seems to crystallise, retrospectively shifting into clarity, after the songwriter finds happiness with a long-term partner. Discussing the process of writing “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, John Lennon described being inspired by “the image of this female who would come and save me – this secret love that was going to come one day. So it turned out to be Yoko, though, and I hadn’t met Yoko then. But she was my imaginary girl that we all have.” Lennon was singing about a nebulous idea of some amazing woman he hadn’t met, and whose name he didn’t know; singing about the theoretical model in his head, the Platonic ideal to which he would compare prospective partners until he found one that was close enough. While the phrase “Yoko in the Sky with Diamonds” alone will generally be enough to send Beatles fans into apoplexy, I do think this kind of retrofitting can be genuinely interesting, whether as a critical tool to get at certain truths or just a fun thought-experiment to make an old song feel new.
When someone writes about their idea of a person who has not yet come into their life, that leaves a hollow at the core of the work – a space which asks, eventually, to be filled. Promenade is Hannon’s first attempt to write at length about a relationship. Even if the album’s hero isn’t exactly Hannon and its heroine isn’t precisely Hannon’s dream woman, we know that neither can be that far off – there’s just too much of him here in these words, these chords. He was never one for masks. So, what can his real relationships tell us about the album?
Well. Neil Hannon and Orla Little met in 1997; married a couple of years later; had a daughter; called it quits in 2007. With a low profile and little presence in his music, this relationship is largely outside our scope. Neil Hannon and Cathy Davey got together in 2009. This relationship is not. Davey, herself a very talented musician, is an increasingly important presence in Hannon’s later life and work. It’s impossible to analyse his 2010s music in any detail without discussing her at some length, as she’s frequently his muse, subject, collaborator, or all of the above. As such, it’s easy to picture the nameless women in Hannon’s earlier love songs as Davey. Granted, this might not add a huge amount to them, semiotically speaking, but it does change the way we experience these songs to fill in the blanks – to look over the grand romances written by this bookish twenty-something and know they’ll eventually come true. Unlike Lennon’s “Yoko in the Sky” revisionism, it feels right.
Except this time. The reason I’m currently delineating the mechanics of the Davey substitution, a pleasant if not particularly illuminating interpretive technique, is that it becomes much more interesting when applied to this song, in which case it fails disastrously. Cathy Davey, you see, is a staunch vegetarian and animal rights activist – one who has devoted a seriously substantial amount of time and energy that could have gone into music to caring for animals instead. Not only this, but she has cited a childhood incident where she saw other children killing a fish as a particularly traumatic moment in her early development. Seen in this light, “A Seafood Song” is pretty much the single worst thing Hannon could have written; a kind of weirdly enthusiastic riposte to “Meat Is Murder”. And Davey’s views would go on to affect Hannon’s, at least to some extent: in a 2017 interview which brought up matters of the afterlife, he said, “There is no hell this devil-bloke could devise which could match what is performed on a daily basis in the meat industry. Hell would be to be forced to watch it.” We can imagine the hero in this song is a young Hannon, but there’s no chance in hell the heroine can be seen as Davey.
So, is “A Seafood Song” doomed to be a black mark in the Divine Comedy discography, or can it be salvaged? Well, I think it can indeed be reconciled with Hannon’s later life and beliefs, though it will take some doing. Luckily, there’s a fault-line running through the song that we can exploit: it’s not actually sure of itself. As mentioned, the track begins with a sombre verse focusing on fishermen. Reprising the opening lament, the final verse repeats, then answers, the question posed in the first: “I will have the fishy / When the boat comes in”. Given that they frame the entire track, these sections can safely be treated as important to its meaning, and they’re not cheerful but resigned and mournful. This ambivalence manifests primarily in the weird tension between the song’s ecstatic main body and its opening and closing verses, but it runs more subtly through the core: our heroes eat, yes, but lines hint at reluctance in places: “Don’t be frightened, don’t be scared / Chop off their heads and little tails”. It’s weirdly coercive, simultaneously suggesting an unpleasant power dynamic and foregrounding the food’s animal nature where it would normally be downplayed. The hero’s last lines put him on thin ice with references to a couple of particularly intelligent and lovable specimens: “Pilchard, plankton, St Peter’s fish and plaice / Octopussy, jellyfishy / And dolphin’s an acquired taste”. Might as well be singing about eating dogs there Neil. And the repeated, oddly specific references to the fishermen, those “Who labour tirelessly / In their tiny boats / Off John o’ Groats / Their socks soaked for me” suggest a weird, complicated pleasure at the idea of lesser beings, whether human or animal, performing a servile, submissive role.
The eagerness to devour isn’t really undercut by the regretful, funereal moments, but somehow seems to exist alongside them, and there’s something faintly unnerving about this. Vegetarianism and meat-eating are both coherent sets of behaviour, but the switch between them is rarely instantaneous, and can involve a great deal of uncomfortable introspecting about hunger and power and cruelty and empathy. I can remember reading Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass as a small child and being quite disturbed by the story of the Walrus and the Carpenter, who befriend and lure a group of oyster children in order to eat them. It’s only afterwards that either of them feel any compassion, with the Walrus beginning to weep – but he still did it. This is quite a strange and specific emotion, rarely depicted, but I think it’s present, if not intentionally, in “A Seafood Song”. This is how I reconcile the track with Hannon’s later life: by recognising this undercurrent of dark and strange ambivalence as its true heart.
Clocking in at less than two minutes, “Geronimo” is the shortest song on Promenade, more of a transitional piece than a complete composition in its own right – almost like something that could be played while actors change costumes off-stage in preparation for the next scene. Accordingly, it sees the return of Hannon’s omniscient narrator: “While they have been eating / The rain has started falling / Gradually gathering in strength”, he begins, explicitly positioning this track immediately after the events of “A Seafood Song”. The miserable weather is represented by a low piano melody, repetitive and oppressive, with limply twanging acoustic guitar and droning, inescapable cello. There’s very little variance within the music itself, though Hannon imbues the lyrics with a kind of wistful melancholy evoking something far larger than the mild inconvenience they literally describe: huddling together in the restaurant doorway, the couple “Are now secretly wishing / They’d listened to their mothers / When being told to always be prepared”.
The track takes its name from the moment the couple decide to take their leave: “Screaming, ‘Geronimo’ / They run for it down the road / With an arm around her waist / He leads her to a place / He knows”. Arriving at the building – with cymbal-clashes subtly emphasising their passage through both doorways – the duo climb stairs to a landing, then enter a warm room where “The coal fire is throwing / Strange shapes upon the hearthrug / And crying out to be knelt down beside”. For such a slight song, there’s quite a density of vivid and inviting imagery. The heroine tosses her wet jumper into the corner, and the hero retrieves it to hang it on a chair. It’s not clear what this building is – the couple’s casual behaviour and the impression of solitude suggest it’s owned by the hero or his family, but the lit fire and description of it as a “place he knows” would fit better with a pub or other public venue. “She puts on a record / And sings into her coffee / He puts a blanket round her, sits her down and dries her beautiful hair.”
I shall not mince words here: I believe that the next track, “Don’t Look Down”, is Neil Hannon’s single greatest accomplishment. Nestled at the centre of the album that critical and fan consensus deems Hannon’s greatest, but thorny and unusual enough to escape the attentions of a surprising number of listeners, it’s probably his single most underrated song to boot.
I’ve always been partial to compositions that feel like they contain multiple songs within themselves. There aren’t many tracks in pop music that sprawl and vary enough to achieve this sense of scope, but “Don’t Look Down” is one of them, and it rivals the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” in all its rollercoaster glory. The song begins with a relatively lengthy instrumental section driven entirely by a simply five-note saxophone leitmotif, one that traces an M-shaped path through the darkness. Gradually layering in piano and strings, it’s like a grand overture, recreating the song in miniature before it even begins.
The first four verses tell a broadly realistic story: we find the couple at a fairground. Our heroine wants to ride the Ferris wheel, but the hero is having none of it, apparently being afraid of heights. When the vocals arrive, they’re accompanied by acoustic chords; the song’s Nymanesque cycling of instrumental threads only increases its sense of layering. “Birds and planes go / Through the rainbow / Every day though / You simply refuse”, she admonishes him. “Ferris wheels / Are no big deal / They’re just big wheels / With chairs / So don’t be scared / Set yourself free”. The scene changes – they’re going up, and a galloping, irresistible drumbeat kicks in, matching the wheel’s inescapable rotation – and the lyrics shift from the heroine’s spoken monologue to the hero’s internal one: “She tells me it’s alright / To open up my eyes / She holds onto my hand / And the clouds float by”. Hannon is playing a slightly more complicated game here, however: the main vocal represents the hero’s words, but the backing vocal represents the heroine’s, with Hannon adopting a falsetto voice to portray her and varying the pronouns to match what the former tells us the latter is saying (“It’s alright / To open up your eyes…”). We’re privy to an entire conversation here, though it would come across a lot more clearly if Hannon had thought to use a female backing vocalist. Overcoming his sense of vertigo, the hero begins to experience a transcendent sense of connectedness. “The couple in the car below / They wave to us and say hello / I think they understand / The way we’re feeling”. The clouds racing past, our heroes hold hands, desiring nothing but that everyone else should experience the same happiness they now feel. By this point, the relationship is clearly well underway, though there’s an implication that certain truths have not yet been spoken aloud: “The couple in the car above / Well, I suppose they think that we’re in love / I think they might be right”.
It’s at this point that the song goes off the rails in the best imaginable way, as Hannon launches into a rapid-fire, twenty-four-line, eighty-second sing-song monologue – one that will soon bring our hero into a spectacular confrontation with God himself. “And without warning when we’re almost at the top / The wheel that turns us all comes to a sudden stop / The wind that’s blown us dies a quick and painless death / The air gets clammy and we hold each other’s breath”. The drumbeat vanishes, and the remainder of the song is accompanied by that same whimsical five-note refrain, the strings seeming almost to disregard music, soaring and crystallising into increasingly sublime, otherworldly forms. “We get the feeling that we’re not alone in this / And then a God who really ought not to exist / Sticks out a great big hand and grabs me by the wrist / And asks me ‘Why?’ and I say, ‘Well God, it’s like this—”. And the hero, unfazed by the apparition of his universe’s maker, launches into a tirade in which he outlines his issues with organised religion. Now, the fundamental lameness and emptiness of militant atheism does loom over this song in a slightly unfortunate way, I would like to point out that this was 1994 – that’s more than a decade before Richard Dawkins reduced all intelligent and worthwhile atheist discourse to ashes with The God Delusion. This was a time without fedoras or katanas or Reddit; a time when unbelief still had some value in constructing identity, and was still something worth standing up for.
Without descending too far into crass psychoanalysis, it’s also worth remembering Hannon’s Anglican upbringing. Anyone raised Christian is going to have some patriarchal beliefs embedded in their psyche, but at least we Irish Catholics don’t have parish priests for literal fathers (ahem, usually). While Hannon has always made it clear that his parents accepted his lifestyle – his father even expressing some guarded approval of Neil’s racier love songs, though making it clear that he himself prefers other ways of expressing affection – it’s hard not to read the younger Hannon’s pop-music career as, to some degree, an act of irreligious teenage rebellion, and that’s never clearer than here. “It may be arrogance or just appalling taste / I’d rather use my pain than let it all go to waste / On some old god who tells me what I want to hear / As if I cannot tell obedience from fear”. The cipher that is the album’s fictional hero ceases to matter as he himself becomes a mouthpiece for Hannon’s own thoughts and feelings, and the message is clear: anarchy over authority, song over prayer. (Nonetheless, the song does have a certain degree of character consistency, with this anarchic, destabilising quality resonating with the mercurial qualities the hero was assigned in “Going Downhill Fast”. Like Hermes, Thoth, Nyarlathotep, or your mythological counterpart of choice, his fundamental role is in the delivery of information – he’s framed in terms of a vast seat of power, and has a complex relationship with it, but is decidedly not of it, serving instead as a messenger and representative of great forces.) Hannon continues, growing more articulate and confident, and his clipped vocals, like reeling clockwork, create the sense that these events are ordained and eternal: “I want to take my pleasures where and how I will / Be they disgraceful, or distasteful, or distilled / And to be frank, I find that life has more appeal / Without a driver who’s asleep behind the wheel”. This last is perhaps the single most staggering image in a Divine Comedy song. Hannon takes the classic analogy of God as a watchmaker, one who reclines into indifference after setting the infinitely complex mechanism of the universe in motion, and gives it a viciously modern update that conveys a genuine sense of existential abandonment and cosmic negligence. It takes skill to make people feel that God is cruel in a world where everyone already knows it, but the line’s cleverest and most vertiginous aspect is also its subtlest: the wheel that God’s fallen asleep behind isn’t just a car wheel, some celestial vehicle that we’re strapped into as it hurtles into the abyss; it’s also the Ferris wheel, that great unstoppable spinning cycle that simultaneously stands in for the spinning vinyl of Promenade itself and the twenty-four-hour cycle on which it’s set, that metonym for millennium gone, millennium new, the spinning planet, and the wheel of life itself.
Hannon has too much humility to go grandstanding without giving himself a good puncturing afterwards, and so this speech – as pure a distillation of liberation as anything on Liberation – is followed by a diffident shrugging-off. In this case, he has help from his divine strawman: “Then God decides that he has taken quite enough / Of all this atheistic tosh I’m spouting off / And so he calls upon his favourite angel choir / To sing of times when men were filled with Christian fire”. This appeal to a mythic golden age backfires, as fascistic knee-jerks are wont to do: “But over-zealous angels flap their wings too fast / And cause the wind to blow and turn the wheel at last / And soon my feet are safely back on solid ground / And then I hear a voice say, ‘Don’t look down!'”
The comical image of a fussy, annoyed God abruptly materialising in the sky to give the hero a bollocking seems to have been drawn from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Given that he created these characters and wrote this story, there’s also a sense in which the manifestation of God in “Don’t Look Down” can be taken as a metafictional intrusion by Hannon himself into the narrative. And this God does act basically how you’d expect Hannon to behave if he was the universe’s supreme being – not really doing anything particularly grandiose or terrible, and mostly just using his divine providence to keep an eye on cultured young Francophiles less cosmically-endowed than himself and deploying angelic hordes for menial tasks. It’s equally possible to interpret Promenade’s omniscient narrator and the God of “Don’t Look Down” as the same entity. Indeed, the song’s self-consciously intricate overlapping patterns almost seem to invite a deistic watchmaker reading, with even the M-shaped five-note sax refrain evoking a Ferris-wheel trip with an alarming, stomach-dropping moment at its peak.
It’s harder to understand why God is annoyed at all. He only speaks one word: “Why?” This, and the hero’s following atheistic rant, would make sense if the hero had just said “I don’t believe in God”, but he hadn’t: the last thing he thinks before the divine intervention is simply that he and his girlfriend are in love. Is that what God is inquiring about, alien-like? He could also be asking why the hero just thought that he “ought not to exist”, but he only thinks that because God has just materialised in front of him – was he originally planning to ask something else? Is God precognitive, or is he simply choosing a suitably “epic” moment to drop in as an almost literal deus ex machina (or deus ex… rotam)? Perhaps it’s a mistake to look for a specific interpretation, and “Why?” is instead being deployed in its capacity as a blank slate, a mirror, the ultimate question. As Doc Brown says in Back to the Future, “I didn’t invent the time machine for financial gain. The intent here is to gain a clear perception of humanity. Where we’ve been, where we’re going. The pitfalls and the possibilities. The perils and the promise. Perhaps even an answer to that universal question… Why?” Since God is right there in front of him, the hero is fully aware that he exists, so his atheism becomes not a matter not of belief but of principle. If this sort of thing is truly on the hero’s mind, and is genuinely what he cares about the most, perhaps the fact that God is both the one who asks the hero and the subject of his reply is a coincidence – a simple “Why?” from his girlfriend might well have provoked just the same outburst.
While Hannon has apparently said Promenade is about a British couple, the context has been lost, so it’s not clear that he didn’t simply mean Northern Irish. Since the narrative is one of seaside revelry, it could also take place during a holiday getaway, so we really have no way of nailing down a setting more specific than “somewhere on these islands”. The presence of a Ferris wheel is one of few clues – it’s quite possible to interpret it as the London Eye, which was operated for the first time on the 31st of December, the same day the album is set (a ceremonial rotation without passengers, mind, though we can blur such details in the name of storytelling and the vagaries of the future). But tracks like the pastoral “Going Downhill Fast” suggest a slightly more rural setting for these adventures, perhaps one a little closer to Hannon’s own home, with the Ferris wheel a magical and sequestered thing rather than some kind of tourist attraction. (If Promenade is set in Ireland, there’s a solid chance that “Don’t Look Down” takes place in the travelling fairground Funderland, but part of my brain will always insist on visualising it as the corresponding Father Ted parody, Funland, with the glorious Crane of Death in place of the Ferris wheel. Partly because Hannon was composing the score for that episode not long after Promenade was released.)
There’s something genuinely unsettling about the song’s sudden ending, and the way it leaves us in the dark. “Don’t look down!” ring the closing words. Atop the wheel, looking down can trigger vertigo, but back on the ground, what could possibly make looking down a terrible thing? Perhaps those angels weren’t over-zealous at all, but knew exactly what they were doing, and the protagonist is on the brink of realising he’s just been conveyed directly to the furnace of hell for his blasphemous insubordination. Is the voice that of his girlfriend, making a panicked attempt to stave off the truth, or is it the voice of something far worse?
Compared to the surrounding songs, the rather abrupt transition into fantasy represented by “Don’t Look Down” leaves it unclear how literally it should be taken in the context of Promenade’s overarching narrative. Most of the album’s events are plausible as adventures a young couple have in a day, and while previous songs alluded to Greco-Roman deities, this one has the Judeo-Christian fellow put in an actual appearance – not only does it come out of left field, but it also leaves the heroes remarkably unperturbed, with the subsequent songs ditching the theology for further mundane romantic adventures. Of all the songs on Promenade, “Don’t Look Down” is the only one that it could be argued suffers when read as a component of a concept album; however, its lavish nature does mean that it flows nicely from the musical minimalism of “Geronimo”, and it’s lucky enough to be positioned as the culmination of the record’s A-side, meaning that it still retains at least some of its mystique – the capstone of a self-contained story of sorts. As well as being a much more existential and whimsical tale than can easily be integrated with its surroundings, the song’s details just don’t line up organically – “Geronimo” didn’t take the couple from the restaurant to a carnival, but to a fireside, leaving them recovering from the torrential rain.
One way to reconcile this song with Promenade is simply not to take it literally at all. I’m aware of the pitfalls of declaring that a fantastical fiction was “all just a dream!”, but I do think it adds something in this case. In the closing lines of the previous song, the protagonists sat down by the fireplace, huddled together for warmth. Is it so implausible that they might next have drifted off to sleep? In “Don’t Look Down”, the hero finds himself in a colourful new location, is utterly unfazed to encounter God and a fleet of angels, and is jolted back to Earth with an abrupt word spoken in his ear. Even the paradox of an atheist arguing with God is resolved, as it’s exactly the sort of conceit one encounters in the world of dreams. This is a truly epic song, dizzying in scope and scale, and it really is diminished when considered as merely a pitstop in an ongoing story. Treating it as a dream, a little world of its own, restores it; in the context of the album, it becomes a way for the protagonist to retreat into himself at a crucial moment and awaken knowing the next step he must take to achieve happiness. This also provides a neatly recursive origin for the Ferris wheel, and perhaps even the music of “Don’t Look Down”: it’s an unconscious echo of the vinyl record the heroine put on before the couple slipped off to sleep, rotating eternally in the darkness.
While it sometimes seems like an eternal axiom that A Room with a View is Hannon’s favourite film, he doesn’t think it’s perfect. In a 2017 interview, he revealed that he doesn’t much like the ending, a rather overlong scene where Lucy Honeychurch gets frisky with George Emerson in the eponymous room’s windowsill. Instead, Hannon highlights the 1988 Italian film Cinema Paradiso as having an exemplary conclusion. Told in non-linear fashion, Cinema Paradiso is the story of fictional director Salvatore Di Vita, who spends most of the film reminiscing about the projectionist Alfredo, his recently deceased mentor. In the aforementioned final scene, Salvatore sits alone in a cinema to watch a reel Alfredo left him, which turns out to comprise every scene the local priest ever forced him to censor – in short, a montage of on-screen kisses. Unshackled from any individual film or performer, the act becomes transcendent; Salvatore breaks down.
“When the Lights Go Out All Over Europe”, the first track of Promenade’s second side, doesn’t particularly sound like the Ennio Morricone soundtrack which gives that scene much of its power, but it does evoke much of the same feeling. “Twilight turns from amethyst / To deep and deeper blue / We’ve got an hour or two / Before it’s time to go / Let’s go see a movie show”. The album’s entire B-side is characterised by this ticking-clock tension – this sense that time is limited, and that we’re counting down towards something momentous. The lyrics never specify that this is the eve of the new millennium, but a lot of things click into place once you find out, particularly on these last few tracks. While we understand that the protagonists are still together, this song is entirely from the hero’s perspective – we assume that his partner shares his interests, at least to some extent, but if not for that opening “We’ve” and “Let’s”, we might think he was sitting alone in the cinema, as absorbed in its projected images as Cinema Paradiso’s Salvatore.
In its second verse, the song references three French New Wave films: Jules and Jim, Claire’s Knee, and Breathless. They’re the sort of classy pictures that match Hannon’s usual Europhile aesthetic, but the references themselves are deployed in a fascinating way. Scenarios from each film are briefly sketched, but rather than existing discretely, as would make conventional sense, they blur at the edges: “Jeanne can’t choose between the two / ‘Cause Jules is hip and Jim is cool / And so they live together / With the trees and birds / And little girls / Who play upon poor Jean-Claude’s nerves / Till finally / He strokes Claire’s knee / And when she asks of his ambition / Jean-Pierre replies, ‘My mission / Is to become eternal and to die’ / Heaven knows the reason why”. I’ve quoted the full verse because it’s a single sentence, essentially a piece of fever-dream crossover fanfiction. Characters in one film interact with those in the next, and the resulting effect is itself cinematic, capturing the impression of a roving camera panning across a triptych of tableaux. The song specifies that the heroes only have “an hour or two” to spend at the cinema, they can’t possibly watch more than one film, so the impression is that Jules and Jim (or whichever one happened to be playing at this weird, probably fictional arthouse cinema) is enough to send them into this media reverie, a single film setting off a chain of synapses; the closing scene of Cinema Paradiso, recreated in sound alone.
It would probably be reaching to suggest that the album’s standard bifurcated structure mirrors its dual protagonists, or that it evokes the image of a seaside town with its watery inverted reflection. Nonetheless, there are numerous parallels between the two sides, often on a song-to-song level. This track, which brings the story to a halt so that the heroes can wallow in paraphrased stories and dialogue from a particular beloved medium, is quite clearly the B-side’s answer to “The Booklovers”. Hannon’s penchant for literary reference is well-known and much-discussed by fans, but tracks like “When the Lights Go Out All Over Europe” make it clear that it’s really just the most-exercised component of a much broader proclivity towards sampling, referencing, and riffing on media in general. This track could easily have been called “The Filmlovers”, but its actual title is cleverer. On the eve of the Great War, Edward Gorey said, “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime”. Hannon borrows this line for aesthetic effect, using it instead to capture the moment of hushed anticipation that occurs as the cinema lights are extinguished not to signal war but to make way for those projected continental vistas. Accordingly, it’s a new beginning in itself, the screen turning dark before the B-side of Promenade can play for us. “When the lights go out all over Europe / I forget about old Hollywood / ‘Cause Doris Day couldn’t make me cheer up / Quite the way those French girls always could”. It’s this willingness to spend time in liminal spaces, like the rainy misery and fireside exhaustion of “Geronimo”, that affords the intense and visionary parts of Promenade much of their power.
When it reaches Breathless, the third film, this aural camera pan slows to a halt, and Hannon pausing to make way for a lengthy sample of French dialogue taken from the film. In the scene in question, on-the-run murderer Michel and his journalist girlfriend Patricia have a heated argument about whether they love each other after she admits she’s called the police on him, the conversation dissolving into two fractured soliloquies that slowly re-join as she wanders the room while fate approaches. It’s terribly tense, terribly romantic, and terribly unlike anything that would ever happen in Enniskillen – not the kind of relationship we like to emulate, but the kind we like to imagine.
As an ode to French cinema, this is the track that chimes most closely with the promises of the front cover. While not a mainstream hit, Promenade did achieve a measure of success among alternative circles, doing well in the indie charts, and particularly well in France. If you’re ever listening to a Divine Comedy concert and have trouble hearing the lyrics over the sound of the female audience members, chances are that’s where it was recorded. Hannon’s success in France is one of those perennial mysteries; some have suggested that the French are somehow more comfortable with a musician who allows his upper-class background to suffuse his music, while Hannon himself has alluded to a non-specific alignment with them: “Britain has a terribly snobby attitude to continental Europe and its musical traditions, but I vastly prefer most of it… Rock’n’roll has had a good innings, but we don’t have to be tied to that template. We can move on.” In response to criticisms of “The Booklovers”, Hannon defended the song as “the absolute peak of pretentiousness, making pretension into an art-form of its own. This is not something that worries the continentals. It’s a purely British and American thing.”
Hannon’s main “French” influence is actually the French-speaking Belgian singer Jacques Brel, whom he praises for his ability “to meld a classic romantic style with kitchen-sink normality and create powerful songs… to draw you in with a good tune and then subvert you.” In particular, he seems to have been taken with the song “Amsterdam”, which he calls the “apotheosis of that mix of brutal honesty and absolute beauty: life is shit, everybody is horrible, but isn’t it wonderful!” Brel was also Hannon’s stepping-stone to the works of Serge Gainsbourg and Edith Piaf. Another, more minor influence, and one less popular in his native France, is Georges Brassens, whom Hannon compares favourably to Flanders and Swann, and calls “quite silly but quite thoughtful at the same time”. It’s interesting how any comment Hannon makes about the French seems invariably to sum up his own songwriting style in detail, and nowhere in his work is this cultural ancestry as straightforwardly owned as “When the Lights Go Out All Over Europe”.
The next track, “The Summerhouse”, is a nostalgic reminiscence, a relaxed song driven by piano and percussion. This is the only track whose events are not in the present tense, for reasons that soon become apparent. Apparently, the protagonists of Promenade have known each other for quite a while – since childhood, in fact. Not only that, but they used to go on holiday together. “Do you remember / The way it used to be? / June to September / In a cottage by the sea / Distant cousins, local kids / We climbed every tree / Together”. He goes on to describe how it “never, ever rained”, until the day they climbed aboard the train that would take them back to time and reality.
Realistically speaking, this intimate remembrance about a childhood holiday is the sort of thing you’d share with a sibling rather than a girlfriend, and the idea that these two have known each other for this long somehow strains credibility in a way that the unbridled fantasy of “Don’t Look Down” didn’t. This romance with your childhood sweetheart is a little bit too picture-postcard-perfect, Mr Promenade. Perhaps the couple holidayed together as kids because they’re cousins themselves, now doing their part to keep the blood blue. What decent person owns two houses, anyway? But I’m being glib – for all its syrupy sentiment, “The Summerhouse” is resonant and heartfelt, so I’m inclined to forgive its bourgeois-ness; I suppose there’s a time and a place for class struggle. (You wouldn’t get this on a Pulp record, though.)
“Do you remember / Sunday lunch on the lawn / Daring escapes at midnight / And costumeless bathes at dawn? / You were only nine years old / And I was barely ten / It’s kind of weird / To be back here / Again”. Now, these could be fairly mundane lyrics – did we really need a specific confirmation that this whitebread couple correspond precisely to the cultural norm of the man being slightly older than the woman? – but when Hannon delivers that final expression of mild ambivalence with the soaring passion of a melodramatic plot twist, it’s surprisingly affecting. And, of course, it is a plot twist of sorts: we’ve been led to assume that this was an unprovoked reverie, but now we learn that the couple are physically revisiting the summerhouse, or at least the same general area; that the entire album has taken place in that same seaside resort from their childhoods. This track isn’t in the past tense at all – its lyrics are just transcribing present-day dialogue about the past. At this point, Hannon’s singing gives way to a wistful reed solo, then drifts back in for a meandering, “Do you remember / The summerhouse? / Our summerhouse …”
Unlike most tracks on Promenade, this song has an obvious direct antecedent in Hannon’s earlier work: “Your Daddy’s Car”, a track on Liberation, evokes exactly the same sense of longing for silly, sunny days of youth, and similarly tries to capture that feeling by having its narrator monologue at a (presumed) girlfriend who conveniently happened to be there with him all those years ago. But whereas “Your Daddy’s Car” was brisk and airy, a song about living in the moment, “The Summerhouse” is ponderous and introspective, making the latent melancholy manifest – by shifting the drunken revelry from the carjackers to the present-day couple, it preserves its central memory as a more innocent and golden thing. The plot twist, if we can call it that, really is an effective one, and powerfully captures the specific sensory-emotional experience of revisiting a childhood haunt. The track also fulfils the metonymic quality I’ve identified as a central trait of Promenade: Hannon’s enunciation of lines like “Do you remember“, the first two syllables low and the last three frail and nakedly sensitive, seems to prefigure the structure of the song in miniature.
The following song, “Neptune’s Daughter”, finds our heroes attending a social gathering. “When the last course has been consumed / They withdraw to the drawing room / Where the Schubert she plays with style / Keeps her friends happy for a while”. We realise that we’ve actually been listening to a Schubert pastiche on piano since before the lyrics kicked in, easing us into the song with the subtlety of waves on a shore. The image of an upper-class (“drawing room” indeed) girl who can only express herself by playing the piano is almost certainly drawn from A Room with a View, as it’s the element of the story that Hannon himself said connected with him most strongly – the idea of “living life as art”. It’s odd that the friends are specifically “hers” rather than “theirs”, though – somehow it seems unlikely that this couple would have separate social circles. If they’re able to have a meal in one room and control the soundtrack in another, it’s probably her family’s home – or, considering the Millennium Eve setting, simply a posh house-party. (It’s impressive that they’ve apparently managed to squeeze in yet another multi-course meal, though – was this track once intended to follow “A Seafood Song”?) The slight ambivalence about the girl’s performative endeavours, intended as they are to satisfy someone other than the male narrator, interestingly echoes the stalker’s complaint about the ballerina in “I Was Born Yesterday”, whose “classical features and elegant waistline are going to waste while she pleases her parents”. (It also highlights just how easily that ballerina could actually be another Forsteresque pianist – every description of her movements can validly be read as metaphorical.)
Next, our heroine decides to take a walk: “But the memories are a burden / So she draws back both the curtains / Stepping out into the night”. The arrival of the nebulous, uneasy string quartet perfectly matches the moment she crosses the threshold, while the quasi-diegetic piano continues uninterrupted, establishing a dreamlike tone for the events to follow. The line about memories evidently refers to “The Summerhouse”; either the couple visited it on the way here from the cinema or, alternatively, the party is taking place in the former summerhouse itself (which might clash with that track’s intimate tone, unless they had some time to themselves before the friends started showing up). The idea that the memories are somehow burdensome is also an interesting touch, something not hinted at in the preceding song, and makes our heroine’s exit seem more logical if it is indeed the summerhouse she’s leaving – is she afflicted with a general sense of malaise at how her life has changed since then, or does this aversion hint at some secret trauma?
This is the first track since “Bath” to focus on the heroine, shifting from the hero’s first-person perspective (which has characterised the last three songs) back to Hannon’s omniscient narrator. There’s some satisfyingly vivid imagery, and the passage of time into night is subtly indicated: “As the glow from the house recedes / And their voices blend with the breeze / She is free to be who she will / Free to skip barefoot down the hill / Maybe she is Neptune’s daughter / For she’s drawn towards the water / Stepping out into the night”.
The following verse is perhaps the single most vividly surreal thing Hannon’s ever written: “The water cold against her skin / Conceals a multitude of sins / And laughing like a little girl / She enters an enchanted world / Where seaweed girls with silver tails / Play games upon the backs of whales / They want her to come home with them / They grab her legs and drag her / Down again, down again”. All this is accompanied by Hannon’s own effeminate, ethereal backing vocals, “La, la-la la-la…”, standing in for the playful beckoning of the fae ones. There’s an element of the pathetic fallacy here, the incomprehensible forces of nature extruding themselves into humanoid forms tailored to our heroine’s ambiguous turmoil, calling out to her. This is the moment predicted in “Bath”, now explained and revealed as prophesy: will she be drowned, the sound of music playing above, bathing her in love?
The wailing grows, spiralling higher, the song building towards some unimaginable apotheosis, and suddenly the hero returns: “Into the sea he strides / And takes her in his arms / And he carries her back to shore”. Hannon sings these lines like they’re part of a stately and triumphalist national anthem. For a listener inclined to lose themselves in the song’s dreamlike susurrations – much as the heroine begins to lose herself in the water – the rescue feels almost like an intrusion, an eruption of brash masculinity that brings this flight of fantasy crashing back to earth. One might expect the song to end at this point, but it continues in the absence of vocals for well over a minute, the self-absorbed strings carrying on over an endlessly falling piano melody and the eternal sound of the sea. In this sense, it’s is essentially a prototype for “Eric the Gardener”, with its slowly unfolding cosmic scale. (I don’t think the piano was meant to sound like the theme from The Exorcist, but it does, and it works.) Whether they be literal or imagined, it’s clear that the people below the water have no real need of the girl; they’re getting on just fine without her. Meanwhile, we’re left to wonder: what would the rest of the album been like if he hadn’t saved her?
To elaborate on the idea that the A-side and B-side of Promenade mirror one another, “Neptune’s Daughter” is the image of “Don’t Look Down”: both tracks examine one of the album’s protagonists by bringing him or her into contact with the numinous, though where the hero was given a detailed atheistic rant in which to explain himself, the heroine remains a silent mystery throughout her ordeal. And both of these cosmic excursions are cut short: the hero God rejects, returning him to earth, while the heroine is dragged back to reality by the hero himself, ever the rationalist, saving or dividing her from her spiritual aspect.
Water is as ubiquitous as air in Promenade, with mentions of the sea and rain applied as liberally as most songs mention love. The album is soaked-through with aqueous sounds and aqueous imagery. It’s right there in the title – latent even in the reflective blue artwork. For a moment it’s tempting to read this as some elemental counterpart to the earthiness of Fanfare for the Comic Muse, but that idea soon falls apart – that album had plenty of rain and rivers, too. And besides, it’s not like water is an unusual motif for Hannon – the October 1st artwork saw him gazing out over a river, while subsequent front covers would see him standing on a boat in Venice (Casanova), contemplating a rainy window (A Short Album About Love), and reclining in a bath of his own (Bang Goes the Knighthood). Really, water is just as significant a recurring element as Hannon’s sunglasses – it even shares much of their reflective and ambiguous symbolism. The more attentively one listens to Promenade and visualises its events, the stranger it seems that the cover isn’t a photo of Hannon and some French model reclining on a beach at twilight.
Of course, the aquatic nature of Promenade also serves to underscore the album’s narrative, tightening the songs’ focus on the fictional couple’s seaside antics. While it shows a lack of critical imagination when we immediately compare everything with dense, fractured prose and a vivid sense of place to Ulysses, there is a real parallel here – not only in James Joyce’s cameo appearance in “The Booklovers”, but in the compact one-day setting the album shares with that book, and the metonymic, life-encompassing quality both of these seaside tales achieve by compounding so many discrete fragments of the human experience. The name Promenade, while perhaps not the album’s strongest point, at least helps to support this Joycean idea: by defining itself in terms of an enclosed, monolithic geopolitical space, the album gains an alchemical, “as above, so below” weight.
While water is clearly a dense and multifarious symbol that supports innumerable interpretations, I think the key to unlocking its meaning here is the album’s heroine, and specifically her misadventure in “Neptune’s Daughter”. Now, in Greek mythology, Aphrodite (Venus) is born from the foam which results when Kronos castrates his father Ouranos and, not to put too fine a point on it, hurls his bollocks into the ocean. Since Poseidon (Neptune) is not literally the sea but merely its king, it’s not quite accurate to describe Aphrodite as his daughter – on the contrary, she’s older than he is, and can more rightly be termed the offspring of Ouronus and Oceanus. Nonetheless, in pop-mythological terms, “Neptune’s Daughter” gets the message across. This image is clearly still derived from Venus Anadyomene, which is, as far as I can tell, the origin of the Western artistic and literary motif in which female sexual beauty is linked with the sea.
Neptune is the third Greco-Roman deity that’s been name-dropped in relation to the album’s central couple, but the underlying mythology of this song isn’t Greek or Roman – it’s Irish. Water is particularly important to our mythology, given that we’re both surrounded entirely by it and buffeted by billions of little bits of it falling out of the sky onto us basically every day, and this is reflected by its ubiquity in our oldest stories. From Connla’s Well to the Salmon of Knowledge, from the soporific majesty of Tir na nÓg to the dire tribulations of the Children of Lir, a great deal of these tales have a distinctly aquatic dimension. With “Neptune’s Daughter”, though, we can be a lot more specific: it’s just the selkie and the fisherman. In this legend, a man comes across a bathing selkie – a seal-like creature that can remove its pelt to reveal a beautiful woman. Since a selkie cannot resume her amphibious seal form without her skin, the fisherman seizes it, compelling her to marry him, permanently becoming human. Years later, and perhaps after giving the fisherman a few children, the selkie finds the place where he hid her pelt, slips it on, and escapes into the ocean, never to be seen again. Again, there’s some room for interpretation regarding how literally we should take the song’s fantasy, but the core of the story is the same: a woman confined to a relationship and set of social circumstances too small to accommodate her true spiritual nature, and who finds herself drawn inexorably by the call of the sea – like a sailor tempted by a siren, but with the added complexity that she herself was somehow always one of them. It’s that ancient mingled fear and idolatrous fascination of the feminine taken to its mystical, speciated extreme. This is the point where the watery aesthetics of Promenade – and of The Divine Comedy in general – crystallise to intersect with the album’s character-centric narrative. From start to finish, the aquatic motif really comes down to this: his search for her, and her search for herself; one quest for the oceanic feeling within, and another quest for that same feeling without. There’s a sense that we’re on the brink of contact with something much larger, and then we’re snatched away, back to the real world.
Our heroine is opaque, her thoughts and motives difficult to gauge. Depending on how we take certain lyrics, this song could represent anything from a free-spirited evening stroll to a suicide attempt. Does she choose to enter the water, or is she drawn? Could the album’s heroes be actual, incarnate gods? Just what are the memories she finds so burdensome, and what really happened in the summerhouse, all those years ago? “Neptune’s Daughter” won’t necessarily leap out to seize the attention of a casual listener, but with its eerie sound, abyssal depths, and haunting strangeness, it’s one that grows more enticing with every listen; the darkly beautiful secret of Promenade.
The belch that begins “A Drinking Song” has the dubious honour of being the most dramatic example of tonal whiplash in the Hannon canon, taking us from the sublime majesties of “Neptune’s Daughter” to that great enemy, the token comedy song. Thankfully, Hannon doesn’t do novelty music, so there is something of substance here. A celebration of alcoholic revelry, this track is driven by a brisk, repetitive, Nymanesque string melody that’s just off-kilter enough to suggest entropic excess. This track is also so drenched in Noel Coward that it’s difficult even to list the similarities, but suffice it to say that if you like songs performed by camp, fast-talking, wryly discursive English gents, you won’t be disappointed.
Interestingly, it’s not sung by either the omniscient narrator or the album’s protagonists, but instead assumes the perspective of the couple’s friends, who appear only in this song (following a single mention in “Neptune’s Daughter”). The rest of Promenade is about a man and a woman communing with their gods and with one another; this track is about a bunch of toffs getting pissed, with the music unfolding over a cavalcade of whooping laughs, heaving coughs, wry “Okay”s, and miscellaneous guffaws. The lyrics of this song, on the other hand, are so elaborate and ornate, so full of archaisms and peculiar cultural references, that one imagines the primary narrator must be an aristocrat of an older generation – perhaps the father or uncle of one of our protagonists. With several distinct characters and small speaking roles (albeit all performed by Hannon), this is as close as The Divine Comedy gets to audio drama. Lyrically, it’s remarkably dense, with numerous overlapping dialogues and nary a repeated line. “Back at the house, a bottle is found / And opened in honour of those who have drowned / While we who have not, are stricken with guilt / And dutifully see that not one drop is spilt”. While the “drowned” couple presumably get changed and dry off, the drunks “wend” their way to the local “spirits store”, where they have an encounter with a rough youth: “Well, bloody my nose and blacken my eye / If it ain’t some young Turk in search of a fight / And Chanticleer’s chest is sagging with pride / For honour has yet to be satisfied”. Luckily, crisis is averted: “Well, heaven be thanked, we live in an age / When no man need bother, except on the stage / With ‘Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori’ / And definitely not tonight”. Millennium Eve is no time for grievances; no-one will be dying for their country just now. Here the singer is actually describing the resolution that’s about to be reached, but we can excuse this slight non-linearity – it captures something of the song narratorial drunkenness.
Next, a soft piano melody takes over, and Hannon shifts to the perspective of another member of the group – another friend of the couple’s who’s gone on the drinks-run. We can tell because his voice in this verse, while still upper-class and mock-drunk, is positioned differently in the mix, as if to suggest someone slightly on the periphery. Rather than singing, he recites a little monologue, seemingly in an attempt to make peace with the interloper: “I can still remember, when I was just a kid / I was free to do what I wanted to… but I never, ever did? / So now, with years of discretion reached / May we not forget / Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité / For there’s life in the Old World yet!” Hannon plays these lines as entirely self-absorbed, the character slurring as if uncertainly feeling out the shape of each word. Here the song’s alcoholic excess is linked, with a light touch, to the crippling regret of a life wasted, which our new heroes put out of their minds – of course – with more drink.
The slightly louder, primary character returns, resuming the stage to agree: “There’ll always be an England / An Ireland and a France / A Liechtenstein and Finland / And we have only one chance”. As the permanence of each country is affirmed, Hannon multi-tracks his own vocals so that we can hear the quieter fellow nodding along to his friend: “Oh yes there will! / Indisputably! / Absolutely right! Completely undeniable!” he says, Hannon quietly fitting some comedy into this search for affirmative synonyms. (It’s never quite clear who proud Chanticleer is, or whether that’s his real name or a literary nickname. Perhaps he’s a non-speaking third member of the group, and the one who got them into the fight?)
Apparently, this little speech is enough to change the mind of the young aggressor, who is won round to their cause. The quieter fellows returns, not really singing, more reciting a staccato list of events, like a slightly sceptical policeman quoting dubious testimony: “Then this young man / With an unhealthy tan / Puts a drink in my hand / And says, ‘I understand / You’re in search for a place / To continue the chase / Of the heavenly taste / I suggest in that case / You all come with me / To my place by the sea / Where the glasses shall be / Overflowing with free / Alcoholic delights / And free love if you like / For what point has this life / If you can’t realise your dreams?'” The joke that the boisterous youth is actually verbose, sophisticated, and touched by the gentleman’s odd speech doesn’t entirely work when received in the form of Hannon quoting it in a posh voice, but, well, needs must. The tension diffused by this offer of drink – not to mention the rather surprisingly liberated suggestion of sex, perhaps a glimmer of social progress as the old guard face the new century – the entire troupe head off to the young man’s house, and out of our album. “From the day I was born till the night I will die / All my lovers will be pink and elephantine”, sings the leader, and the song fades into a long, drawn-out, diseased-sounding saxophone solo not unlike the one with which Hannon would end “My Lovely Horse” two years later.
As a step aside from the album’s main narrative, “A Drinking Song” is uniquely positioned to elaborate on its meaning. It gives us a moment of distance, which means a moment of perspective, and by determining which themes endure even in this remote orbit, we might better understand what Promenade is really about. In some sense, this track is obviously the B-side’s equivalent to “A Seafood Song” – the soundtrack to another indulgent act of communal consumption, but one that focuses on alcohol rather than fish. Another link is that both tracks dedicate themselves, half-jokingly, to absent friends: “A Seafood Song” to the fishermen, and “A Drinking Song” to the couple. What leaps out to me most, though, are the track’s references to the passage of time, with the aristocratic drunkards seeming to yearn for some imperial golden age, denigrating themselves for not making the most of their youth, and finally abandoning all thought in favour of substance abuse. Again, that metonymic equation: day, night, life, death. It all makes more sense when we remember that this is set on the last night of the millennium: there’s no better time for existential ennui than when Paul McGann is saving the world from Eric Roberts. The narrator’s descriptions of the man they meet on their trip to the off-licence, the “young Turk” with an “unhealthy tan”, have an odd racial tinge; but this works thanks to how character-driven and overtly fictive the song is, adding to the impression of sad, out-of-touch men past their prime. And regardless, the fellow seems to take it in his stride. The ending for this story is happy, though clearly a brief reprise from the march of time. But that’s what most things are.
The penultimate track on Promenade is “Ten Seconds to Midnight”, a quiet, melancholy piece sung by Hannon with only a piano accompaniment, and which charts the day’s final moment. Their friends gone, the couple stand together on the balcony, and we’re treated to the heroes internal monologue, stretching those last ten seconds out into two minutes of pure reflection. “Ten / Apes turn into men / And grapes turn into wine / How we made it to nine / I’ll never know”. It’s a countdown, the numbers paired with thoughts, starting on the vast scale of evolution but telescoping rapidly down to the personal; with its overt focus on the clock’s tick, from one number to the next, it’s the B-side’s answer to the bicycle-gear frenetics of “Going Downhill Fast”. It’s probably not an accident that there are twelve tracks on the album – one for each hour of the last day of the last December. “Eight / Man looks for a mate / But fate plays cruel tricks / And seven turns to six / Still he’s alone”. Perhaps our hero spots a reveller searching for a girl to kiss as midnight strikes, or perhaps he’s speaking about man, and the loneliness and capriciousness intrinsic to the human condition.
“Along comes number five / Eureka, I’m alive / I think therefore I am / A lucky man”. I have to admit, I do find it kind of annoying that Hannon straight-up did not bother finding a way to get the number four in there. “Three / From this balcony / The two of us can see / The house where we first met / One wet / Sunday”. There’s an interesting metonymy in play here, the song musing on the passage of time on both the macro and micro level, touching upon the most general and most specific of human experiences. It’s a doomsday clock of sorts – a great and glorious circle that exists only because people are silly enough to collectively envision and believe in it – but just what is it counting down to?
During the last moments of “Ten Seconds to Midnight” – that is, the point representing the end of the day and the beginning of the new millennium – we hear the intrusion of a galloping drumbeat, quiet at first, then growing closer, louder. It’s the final song, “Tonight We Fly”, brimming over the track boundary, not content for its predecessor to languish any longer. And what a song it is: for many people, the definitive Divine Comedy track, and the one with which Hannon would conclude virtually every live performance he gave after its composition. The beat is stolen from old Eurovision favourite “Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son”, and Hannon lets it power the song through a simple, no-nonsense, no-fat ABA structure. Apparently, the label intended to release “Tonight We Fly” as a single in 1994 – an obvious choice, as it’s an immensely strong pop song in its own right – but the plan fell through due to lack of funding, leaving Promenade in the curious position of not being supported by any singles at all.
The track concludes the story of Promenade with our heroes taking flight from the balcony and soaring together into the sky, to the sound of a strident and joyful string quartet. “Tonight we fly / Over the houses, the streets, and the trees / Over the dogs down below / They’ll bark at our shadows / As we float by on the breeze / Tonight we fly / Over the chimney tops, skylights and slates / Looking into all your lives / And wondering why / Happiness is so hard to find”. The protagonists had their respective, separate supernatural experiences in “Don’t Look Down” and “Neptune’s Daughter”, but both songs ended with a return to normality. Here, at last, our heroes are synchronised – instead of being dragged back to reality, they’re released from the shackles of gravity, and worry, and the world, and everything. The narratorial voices merge, no longer “he” or “she” or “they” but “we“. We realise that their journey into the heavens in “Don’t Look Down” was more than just a dream – it was a premonition.
Next, the heroes begin to describe the people they see below them: “Over the Doctor / Over the soldier / Over the farmer / Over the poacher”. While the professions in this cavalcade may initially seem random, they do appear to resolve into dualistic oppositions: “Over the preacher / Over the gambler” seems serenely to accept the moralising upbringing exorcised in “Don’t Look Down”; “Over the dancer / Over the voyeur” describes the main characters of “I Was Born Yesterday” so accurately that it may well be them, which prompts us to imagine the entire tapestry of past and future Hannon creations spread across the landscape below; and “Over the builder / Over the destroyer” again ties that synthesis of necessary opposites to the utmost level of the cosmos, that Ferris wheel in the sky. And I can’t help but be impressed by how it’s followed immediately by “Over the hills / And far away”, a highly recognisable Teletubbies quotation that gives “Bath” a run for its bathos money.
Moving away from specific character archetypes, the song soars higher and higher, into increasingly vast spaces that seem to offer greater and greater insights: “Tonight we fly / Over the mountains / The beach and the sea / Over the friends that we’ve known / And those that we now know / And those whom we’ve yet to meet”. This song is Hannon’s attempt to capture life in its entirety, and while he’s not exactly a philosopher, there’s something genuinely lovely about these closing lines, and the way they seek to make peace with seemingly the entire structure of reality: “And when we die / Oh, will we be that disappointed or sad? / If heaven doesn’t exist / What will we have missed? / This life is the best / We’ve ever had”. These are comforting words, and I daresay they’ve helped real people.
Interestingly, all three songs on Promenade dealing with the sublime can be read either as straightforward descriptions of fantastical experiences (him confronting God, her being lured by atavistic merpeople, and the two of them finally ascending in apocalyptic rapture) or poetic descriptions of mundane ones (a fireside dream, an ill-advised swim, and consummation with a partner). Choosing between the realist interpretation and the magical-realist one seems rather to miss the point: we take transcendence where we can get it. It’s like the ending of Grease (the heroes taking unheralded yet somehow gloriously unquestionable flight) combined with the ending of Fight Club (holding hands as the structures of the old world collapse to reveal limitless possibility). The debunked atheist and the selkie: what a couple they make. Ophelia raised from her watery grave in a brave new world.
If Fanfare for the Comic Muse and Liberation were a paean to Gaia and the spirit of rebellion respectively, Promenade is something trickier to summarise: an album about snatching what moments of togetherness we can as the machineries of time and social order wheel above us and below; a story about weighing the day, itself a microcosm of life, and bravely facing down a new millennium. (The moment one millennium becomes the next has a great deal in common with the moment that occurs at the top of a Ferris wheel, actually – both represent the pinnacles of vast, endless, unstoppable cycles; both afford a sensation of perspective that’s almost entirely arbitrary; and both are followed promptly by a return to crushing normality. At least in Promenade there’s the dream of escape.)
The album’s conclusion, with the rules of reality dissolving at the stroke of millenarian midnight, recalls – or rather, anticipates – the “Y2K bug” craze; the idea that computers would malfunction as their internal calendars switched over to the year 2000, causing worldwide havoc. Hannon, naturally, executes his Y2K with a substantial dose of romance and orchestral optimism. In retrospect there’s something delightfully quaint and sweet about the idea of little old 1999 as the end-times, and I think this quality does Promenade favours.
But of course, that’s not quite the ending – Promenade has one last secret in store, and it’s essentially a “post-credits scene”, or perhaps even a hidden track, depending on how you look at it. Moments after “Tonight We Fly” fades into silence, we hear a brief snatch of film-grainy strings and harpsichord, and the authoritative voice of some classically-trained thespian enunciating a moral: “Happy the man, and happy he alone, he who can call to-day his own. He who, secure within, can say, ‘Tomorrow, do thy worst, for I have lived to-day.'” This line is sampled from the 1963 romcom Tom Jones (not to be confused with the fellow of the same name who’d record a peculiar Portishead cover with Hannon in 1999). Delivered by narrator (and fellow Anglo-Irishman) Micheál Mac Liammóir, it accompanies the film’s very last moment – the eponymous hero’s happy union with his love-interest – so this is less an homage than a direct steal, with Hannon lifting the film’s ending and plastering it onto his album in exactly the same narrative position.
Tom Jones, which can be summarised with eerie precision and comprehensiveness as Carry On Barry Lyndon, could just as well be described as a campier, more farcical version of A Room with a View – another tale of romance crossing class boundaries, privileged English ladies returning from revelatory European travels, and the inter-generational angst that eternally follows – so it’s not difficult to see why Hannon would enjoy it. And it’s clear that this was not a careless reference: as mentioned earlier, the album’s opening quotation was taken from a hymn used prominently in the film’s soundtrack. The chorus of “The Booklovers” wasn’t paraphrasing Horace after all, but rather the Horace quotation in Tom Jones, while the “Tittle-tattle, tittle-tattle” sample used in the same song to represent Henry Fielding, the author of its source material, also originates in the film. This is no hastily-added epigraph – it’s a line that’s engineered into the very structure of the album. And what a line it is: the perfect encapsulation of Promenade’s ethos, its simple moral message of seizing what fragments of happiness we can in a world that has little time for us. The universe ends and begins anew, and the omniscient narrator toasts Mercury and Aphrodite as they ascend, their challenges overcome, their demons defeated, this phase of their great adventure at its conclusion. With the arrival of the new millennium, the curtains are drawn shut; the heroes have escaped their story, and so have we. Now all that’s left is figuring out what to do with those vexing lives of our own.