Beyond the Boundaries of Sense (Indulgence No. 2)

indulgence no 2 redIn July 1994, an odd promise was fulfilled as The Divine Comedy released Indulgence No. 2, the sequel – at least in a certain sense – to 1993’s Indulgence No. 1. That shared name is really the only thing connecting the two EPs, whose contents could hardly be more different: where No. 1 consisted of two oddball covers and one remixed instrumental, No. 2 is instead a live record, and consists of versions of three songs from Promenade, the studio album released in between the two Indulgence EPs. But is it any good, and what’s this “Indulgence” business really all about?

To be more specific, the three tracks here are versions of the middle, first, and last songs on Promenade’s B-side, in that order. The whole EP seems to have been recorded at the same gig, with the latter two songs even being merged into a single track, apparently a continuous performance. The credits say “Recorded over Europe, April 1994”, but whether that’s because this wording was deemed more evocative than specific detail or someone lost track of precisely where the recordings were made is difficult to say. (The audience interaction we do hear is brief and one-way, so they seem at least to understand English.) Regardless of whether the songs were taken from a single performance, they’re certainly mixed and engineered to sound that way. As you’d expect from a typical live recording, the tracks here are relatively stripped-down compared to their more familiar album iterations. Neil Hannon’s vocals are accompanied by piano, acoustic guitar, oboe, and a couple of string instruments – quite sparse, especially considering the copious use Promenade made of a full orchestra.

Indulgence No. 2 begins in medias res, with Hannon announcing, “This is entitled ‘A Drinking Song’. A one, two, three, four, five, six…” The single Promenade track not to be interested in the album’s narrative of a young couple’s antemillenarian day by the sea, “A Drinking Song” instead follows a group of drunken rich people on their voyage from a party to an off-licence. The most notable difference from the album version is that Hannon sounds distinctly more reserved. This becomes significant when the song’s characters arrive at their destination: in the Promenade version, Hannon gets properly in-character as one narrator reminisces about his life, complete with drunken slurring and wild scatterbrained exuberance. It’s a rare bit of acting for the singer, and one where he acquits himself reasonably well, achieving a comical but wistful tone that gives the character a surprising glimmer of depth. Here, however, Hannon seems to consider this approach for about one syllable (or maybe it’s just his throat catching) before deciding to recite the lines like a liturgy, using his technique of varying pitch and tone somewhat randomly between lines in order to create a sense of acuity and contemplation. One gets the sense that Hannon enjoys performing drunkenness quite a bit more in a studio setting than on-stage. The album version has Hannon explicitly playing several distinct characters, with some appearing only to cheer on each other’s drunken rambles and add their own comments – an “Indubitably” here, an “Absolutely right” there. Rather than attempt to recreate these with audio samples or backing singers, the Indulgence No. 2 version simply omits them. The result, while perhaps free from some of the original’s overreaching, is a lesser song.

The next side starts with “When the Lights Go Out All Over Europe”, the song which seemingly depicts the couple’s evening at the local arthouse cinema. In the Promenade narrative, this takes place before the events of “A Drinking Song”, but that’s fine – as we’ve seen, Compagnon de Promenade has already used the album’s cosmic conclusion to unravel causality, so it makes sense that we should find ourselves floating in a timeless netherworld of weird EPs until the next proper album comes along to settle everything down again. Or, in spatial terms: if Promenade is Mars and Casanova is Jupiter, this is the asteroid belt. Like the preceding version of “A Drinking Song”, this is largely a faithful stripped-down rendition of the track from the album. Like the multiplicity of drunken characters, the most challenging element of “When the Lights Go Out” to perform – the sample of French dialogue from the film Breathless – is omitted, effectively turning that section into an oboe solo. And just as in “A Drinking Song”, this performance eventually offers a tonal twist: the line “Jean-Pierre replies, ‘My mission / Is to become eternal and to die’” is delivered by Hannon with a surprising restraint, turning one of the album’s dramatic zeniths into something soft and different.

“I’ll only come again if you really applaud this next song, okay?” Hannon laughs. When the audience complies, he answers, “Okay, it’s a deal. One, two, three, four…” The unmistakable beats kicks in, and Indulgence No. 2 becomes the third Divine Comedy record of 1994 to begin or end with “Tonight We Fly”. Even more than the preceding tracks, this one’s a very straightforward vocal rendition – “Tonight We Fly” is such a relentless and perfectly simple three-minute thing that there isn’t much room for experimentation. Like most live performances, this one loses the duet-like quality Hannon’s backing vocals afford the album version. It’s a little strange to hear piano and strings stand in for percussion (which No. 2 lacks entirely), but the song is good enough to withstand it – really, you could get Sylvester McCoy to bang “Tonight We Fly” out on the spoons and it’d still be great. Like “A Drinking Song” and “When the Lights Go Out”, there’s a key moment of tonal divergence: Hannon delivers the crucial line “Tonight we fly / Over the chimney pots, skylights and slates / Looking into all your lives / And wondering why / Happiness is so hard to find” with a sudden lightness and vulnerability that are strikingly unlike the bombast of the album version. The song concluded, Hannon says, “Thank you. Goodnight,” and the record fades out to the sound of cheering.

Indulgence No. 2 discards the picture-disc format of No. 1 in favour of a folded white sheet. The cover art is a simple black-and-white headshot, with Hannon making eye contact in his usual mildly amused manner, but photographed at such a high level of contrast that his face blends indistinguishably into the white backdrop. The overall effect is a little creepy, like a prototype for the “Ever Dream This Man?” hoax. Outside and above the sketchy black border framing the photo is the text “THE DIVINE COMEDY”, manually stamped either in blue or red, the precise position varying from copy to copy – each one is unique. (Perhaps a little too unique: there are some misprints which combine the correct Indulgence No. 2 artwork with the Shifting EP by a completely different Setanta band called the Catchers, which must have given some fans the impression that Hannon had regressed to his Fanfare for the Comic Muse days.)

Rather than the usual A-side and B-side, the sides of Indulgence No. 2 are stamped with a “D” and a “C”, red or blue against their white centres. On one level, this is just a bit of fun with the band’s name – Hannon could easily have done the same thing with any or all Divine Comedy records. But on another level, it gives Indulgence No. 2 a cyclical aspect: counter-intuitively, it’s the A-side that’s stamped with the “D”, and the B-side with the “C”, meaning that the EP folds back on itself like a möbius strip, the ending leading to the beginning and vice-versa. (The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.) And on yet another level, the unorthodox designation serves to emphasise the function of No. 2 as a sequel to No. 1, quietly inviting us to composite the two records into a single playlist. ABCD would end with “A Drinking Song” rather than “Tonight We Fly”, and that’s just silly. ABDC, however, would run “Hate My Way”, “Untitled Melody”, “Europe by Train”, “A Drinking Song”, “When the Lights Go Out All Over Europe”, “Tonight We Fly”. We have the bones of one weird little album here.

As far as I can tell, the concept of the Indulgence records was never clearly established. Were they intended as an indefinite sequence of discarded tracks from the cutting-room floor? Was there any kind of plan at all? Was the numbering chosen randomly for aesthetic effect, like “Revolution 9” or “Mambo No. 5”? Was Hannon toying with releasing an Indulgence for each following album, only to get distracted by the possibility of more interestingly-named EPs and (later) bonus tracks? All of the above? No. 2 bucked any kind of continuity with the first, simply offering live performances of three Promenade tracks. What actually marks both of these records as “indulgences”? Perhaps the cyclical lettering of No. 2, which turns the combined two-EP listening experience into an indefinite “ABCDCDCD…”, was meant to simulate the experience of getting trapped in purgatory after not purchasing enough indulgences, in a biting satire on Catholic doctrine?

Back in the world of intentional meanings, a close inspection of the record provides some clues. It’s not visible on the online scans, but according to A Short Site, the record bears two messages on its run-out grooves: “OVER ENDULGE” on the “D”-side, and “EXCESS-ACCESS” on the “C”-side. While cryptic, these inscriptions arguably constitute the only unique creative aspect of Indulgence No. 2, and so deserve some examination. Both seem to relate in some way to the EP’s theme, and, by extension, the whole two-record Indulgence project. “OVER ENDULGE” feels like an instruction – the record presenting itself, perhaps humorously, as a luxury product, like a box of chocolates or some really nice soap. The verb “indulge” is misspelt, which – considering the message’s hidden nature – could well just be an accident that got missed, but adds a fitting element of decadent laziness either way. “EXCESS-ACCESS”, which evidently stole the other message’s hyphen, is slightly trickier to interpret: the excessive is synonymous with the indulgent, but is this an invitation to commune with it by listening to the record, or as an instruction to walk away from the record afterwards with a newly-liberated viewpoint? All of this must, of course, be densely ironic: these stripped-live live versions are, without exception, significantly less rich and textured than their album counterparts.

indulgence no 2 blue

On the whole, each of these songs is certainly a step down from its respective Promenade version. So, what exactly was the point of this EP (apart from the obvious and noble goal of flummoxing anyone who might find themselves in the position of having promised to write an essay on every Divine Comedy record)? Well, it’s not entirely clear. It seems the intention was not to create something unique or even particularly substantial, but to offer a brief, incomplete example of a perfectly ordinary performance – a glimpse into one of the countless normal Divine Comedy gigs that no one of us will ever hear. Not special or refined, but real and valid – the unspectacular truth of how most of us come into contact with our favourite artists – a night randomly chosen and preserved in vinyl amber. If all this seems a little arbitrary, then perhaps that’s part of the point. Perhaps we are not the ones being indulged.

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