Fire to the Sea (A Promenade Companion / Compagnon de Promenade)

compagnon de promenadeThe album Promenade stands alone, a complete and self-contained work. That said, also it has a couple of satellites in its orbit: two EPs whose names mark them as supplemental, a pair of records slaved to the album and implicitly elaborating on its meaning. One of these is called A Promenade Companion. The other is called Compagnon de Promenade. This will get complicated.

Despite their shared name, Companion and Compagnon are not localised versions of the same record. Rather, they’re two different EPs that were included with early releases of Promenade – one released in the United Kingdom, the other in France, with both companion discs receiving some limited distribution afterwards. Hannon had already released Indulgence No. 1, a short record whose shared artwork and overlapping music seemed to position it as an accompaniment to the recent Liberation album, but here the relationship of EP to LP is made much simpler and more explicit. Hannon would go on to use this model for several of his later releases, a sort of release valve allowing albums to spill a little beyond their most reasonable tracklists. It’s an endearingly quaint name, almost bordering on the wryly euphemistic: companion.

The two EPs were released at around the same time, March 1994. A Promenade Companion has a much clearer identity as a body of music, so we’ll discuss that one first. Released with Promenade in the UK, Companion has no proper cover; however, it was subsequently distributed in an envelope along with a card showing a portrait version of the same nighttime Louvre that was headshot cropped for use on the front cover of Promenade. The presentation of the photograph might, if read literally, suggest Promenade Uncut. Listening to the EP, though, it’s much more like Promenade After Dark.

Companion consists of four tracks, all live performances recorded at Elephant Studios in 1993. Hannon sings and plays acoustic guitar, accompanied only by a violinist and a cellist. As a result, the EP has a very consistent sound and feeling – one that might seem quite stripped-down and bare for listeners familiar with the significantly more complex and orchestral album versions. With no production, editing, or effects, it’s an intimate and modest recording, with just enough instruments to keep itself interesting to listen to (though one imagines that a longer album with such a restricted aural palette would rather wear out its welcome).

The first song on Companion is a version of “Don’t Look Down”, the epic, blasphemous first-act climax of Promenade. Of all four tracks, this one bears the deepest differences from its polished studio counterpart. In an odd little moment, Hannon begins the EP by stating the title, “Don’t Look… Down”, as if taking a breath, half-humorously steeling himself. The lyrics are the same as in the canonical version, but without the concept album’s narrative context, the tale of the atheist who ascends a Ferris wheel with his girlfriend only to be sealioned by God is a little stranger, a little more ambiguous. The EP’s stripped-down nature becomes particularly apparent when the song reaches its gear-shift three-quarters in: without an orchestra present to convey the dizzying majesty of God’s apparition, a similar but subtler chill is achieved with only a single piercing violin. Since this reduction in scale leaves no room for Hannon to shout without overpowering the song, he takes a different approach, lowering his voice to a hush at the moment of the vision and raising it only to moderate loudness by the conclusion. This take on “Don’t Look Down” feels a little more cowed – a little more, dare I say it, religious.

The next three tracks on Companion are versions of songs from Hannon’s previous album, Liberation, interestingly presented in an order that reverses their positions relative to the original LP. Though its release was contemporaneous with that of Promenade, Companion is really more of a prelude – with one new track and three older ones, it’s something of a breather, a brief glimpse into the music and style that Hannon was playing and developing between the first two straightforwardly good Divine Comedy albums.

Like “Don’t Look Down”, the second song begins with a brief introductory comment. “This is called ‘Queen of the South’,” says an English voice. “Innit?” adds another, seemingly in faux mockery of his accent. “Ye,” confirms Hannon, audibly smiling. Where Hannon seemed to rein in his voice for the Companion version of “Don’t Look Down”, here he seems to vacillate, sometimes raising the volume and intensity of his vocals as if to compensate for the absence of the keyboard tones in that even-handed Liberation version, but dropping at other times to a hush, with the last verse barely above a whisper. This is a song that was already a bit strange in its original context, apparently about an awkward verbal slip-up by someone involved in a love triangle, but here Hannon’s vocal leaps sell its tense, tip-toeing atmosphere better.

The third song, drunk-joyriding anthem “Your Daddy’s Car”, undergoes a similar transformation, trading its frantic harpsichord for plucked violin strings and a new kind of introspective stillness. The EP concludes with a version of the stalkery “I Was Born Yesterday” in which Hannon has evidently had one drink too many before recording. “That’s a little song I wrote ages ago,” he begins. “It’s called ‘I Was Born Yesterday’. The point is I hope you’ll like that kind. One, two… one, two, three, four.” He ends the performance – and the EP – with a belch, as if to provide “A Drinking Song” with some kind of odd echo or counterweight. Which makes a sort of sense: it’s the loneliest song on Promenade, the only one not to follow or contribute to the album’s central story of the young couple spending the day at the seaside together. The revellers of “A Drinking Song” might be left behind, but they are not forgotten.

If there’s one common feeling that ties all of Companion together, it’s a repeated collapse to the soft and intimate – something befitting of such an interstitial work. It sounds, for want of a better word, woody. The brief spoken-word interludes that begin and end most of the tracks, despite having been recorded in the absence of any audience, imbue the entire EP with a music-hall tonality that’s already suggestive of the banter-filled one-man tours and gigs that Hannon, sitting alone on-stage with an acoustic guitar or at a piano, would come to enjoy performing in later years. It would be a reach to suggest that Companion was the seed of anything significant, but perhaps seeds are a matter of perspective.

While Companion was a bundle of live recordings all taken from the same sessions – a relatively neat and coherent concept – Compagnon de Promenade is much more of a stitched-together Frankenstein’s monster. A five-track EP, Compagnon was being bundled with early copies of Promenade over in France while Companion was getting the same treatment back in the UK. Its front cover is a warm red-gold photo of Hannon sitting on stone steps before an ornate wooden door, forehead rested on a closed fist, smiling reluctantly, as if half-apologising for being on such a foolish record.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the EP’s tracklist is that, despite being both longer and more diverse in origin than Companion, it’s still perfectly chronologically reversed: the first song is taken directly from the brand-new Promenade, the next two are live versions of Liberation songs recorded the preceding year (and also included on Companion), the next after those is a previously-released remix of another Liberation track, and the last is a song lifted straight from dusty old Fanfare for the Comic Muse. In fact, all three Divine Comedy LPs released up to this point are represented here – sharing only one track with its namesake album, Compagnon de Promenade is more like a sampler of Hannon’s entire discography to date.

Intriguingly, the first track is “Tonight We Fly”, a song which serves as the last track on Promenade and would quickly become Hannon’s go-to rousing conclusion for subsequent gigs. It’s a song about transcendence, charting the experiences of the album’s central lovers while they take flight (either literally or metaphorically) as the second millennium AD draws to a close. Seeing Hannon use this song as an introduction is deeply strange, and while it isn’t exactly a problem, it does leave the EP rather top-heavy, immediately blowing its best song – both its most effectively poppish and its most poignant – and leaving nothing substantial for the following tracks to build towards. Like Companion, Compagnon opens with a spectacular song from Promenade – indeed, Companion and Compagnon open with the final tracks of the album’s A-side and B-side respectively – before moving on to songs from Liberation.

There might be an obscure logic to the progression of Compagnon, however: it’s secretly a direct sequel. Generally speaking, if a work of fiction opens with a recapitulation of a previous work’s ending, that indicates a certain ambition to elaborate on those events, right? This is perhaps more obvious in more overtly narrative forms (for example, the Evil Dead sequels, or the cliffhanger reprisals in a Doctor Who serial), but I think that applying the same lens to music opens some very interesting doors. In this case, it’s possible to read Compagnon de Promenade as a continuation of Promenade – a sort of epilogue. With the album’s last track and the EP’s first being identical (apart from the latter omitting the “Happy the man…” aside sampled from the film Tom Jones, which Hannon presumably decided only worked at the very end of a record), the two could quite easily be merged into a seamless sixteen-track listening experience. Perhaps it’s something along these lines that we should imagine transpiring unseen each night Hannon steps off-stage after concluding a performance with “Tonight We Fly”.

So… what happens to the lovers after Promenade? Any sequel tacked onto a transcendent and perfectly self-contained love story will almost necessarily be disappointing, or at least disheartening – consider A-Ha’s “The Sun Always Shines on TV”, the video for which opens with the sketchy boyfriend from “Take On Me” fleeing from the heroine as he begins to disintegrate. Not to mention Grease 2, a film which does not fulfil the promises of that flying-car ending. Compagnon is more satisfying than these because it doesn’t derail or subvert the Promenade story – instead, it steers it in a strange new direction. The album ends on a wild, fantastical note, the heroes flying across the sky as the laws of reality melt around them in the flames of a gloriously-extrapolated Y2K. Rather than elaborating on this fantasy scenario directly, the EP charts an esoteric descent into fractured time and memory. Why are the tracks in reverse-chronological order? Because that’s what happens next: after piercing the millenarian veil, the lovers find themselves hurtling into the past and beyond, a kaleidoscopic voyage akin to Dave Bowman’s psychedelic journey in 2001: A Space Odyssey, coming unstuck in time.

The next two songs on Compagnon are a pair of live recordings from the Elephant Studios sessions, specifically the same versions of “Queen of the South” and “Your Daddy’s Car” included in Companion and discussed above. Considering the idea of Compagnon as an epilogue to the album, the possibility suggests itself that Liberation, at least for the duration of some of its tracks, might chart the earlier days of Promenade’s nameless heroes – certainly “Your Daddy’s Car”, with its young couple fooling around by the seaside and getting drunk, serves as an interesting future echo of the whole album. But no, a direct narrative link between the fractured, diffuse Liberation and the focused 24-hour story of Promenade does both albums a disservice: instead, these songs from Liberation are part of the couple’s transcendent final experience – a disorienting, mind-rending encounter with earlier creations of their creator. This is an album whose halfway point has its characters encounter their God, whose speaks in the voice of the man who dreamt up the world they live in and wrote the thoughts in their heads. We know that the God of Promenade wrought other worlds, so what better way for the protagonists of Promenade to experience transcendence than to find that out for themselves?

(Interestingly, both companion EPs have these exact recordings as their second and third tracks respectively – one’s almost tempted to fuse the two EPs by slotting Companion‘s versions of “Don’t Look Down” and “I Was Born Yesterday” into Compagnon on either side of the shared two-song block, which would result in a seven-track companion album – or, combined with the method discussed earlier, an eighteen-track mega-Promenade. And why not? Let’s Voltron them all together, the more the merrier.)

The fourth track on Compagnon is the romantic instrumental travelogue “Europe by Train” – not the version included on Liberation, but the “Traveller’s Companion” mix included in Indulgence No. 1. This is a track with an impressive eschatological CV, now having served as the conclusion of one Divine Comedy record and the penultimate track of two. On Compagnon, its rumbling electric-guitar feedback and rudimentary, demo-like synths speak of a certain atavistic regression. The young couple from Promenade continue their journey to the beginning of all things, but they have fallen silent; after the dim flicker of half-forgotten jealous tribulations in “Queen of the South” and the broken teenage nostalgia of “Your Daddy’s Car”, there is nothing left to say.

At long last, we alight upon the final track of Compagnon: “Logic vs Emotion”. Neither a remix nor a re-recording, this is the original environmentalist anthem from the much-maligned Fanfare for the Comic Muse. While an odd choice, especially considering how Hannon generally repressed that album’s contents, this fits neatly with my interpretation of the companion EPs as psychedelic voyage back to Genesis. Fanfare works quite well as a mythic trove of Gaian prayers stuffed away at the back of Hannon’s discography – perhaps a little amateurish or embarrassing, but also tapping into an adolescent fire and sincerity that it might well be better if more of us retained beyond youth. This advocacy for the preservation of nature is something that will resurface a few times throughout Hannon’s career, generally in subtler and more self-conscious forms, but perhaps that’s the best place for Fanfare: hidden away, but quietly flourishing. Biding its time. A secret garden.

promenade 6

“Logic vs Emotion” is a song from the perspective of a polluted river, who tells humankind that she was here long before us and will be here long after we’ve gone. After the transcendence of “Tonight We Fly”, a passage through dissociated songs of love and unease, and then the ego death of “Europe by Train”, Compagnon finally reaches its apotheosis. It’s all too much: the river, the valley, the old woman, the bridge; all stand-ins for supernal concepts, tides of history, and vast, irreversible decisions. The personal and the interpersonal are completely dissolved, the young couple finally ascending to forms we can no longer follow or understand. Perhaps they begin anew, following solve with coagula. Perhaps they wake up. In any case, this seems to be the ending of Promenade – and quite an ending it is.

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