In 1996, The Divine Comedy entered their imperial phase with Casanova, the album that finally broke Neil Hannon into the mainstream. Together with its immediate precursors, Liberation and Promenade, it forms the final part of a three-album plateau of artistic excellence. (Should we call it the early-to-mid-nineties trilogy? Too vague. The fancy-monepic-title trilogy?) However, when considered with the next two, A Short Album About Love and Fin de Siècle, it instead forms the beginning of a three-album streak marking the band’s greatest chart success. (This is easier to name: the Britpop trilogy.) Casanova is the undeniable triumph at the two trios’ intersection. Hannon’s later work strays into a multitude of styles and genres – from slight and silly to profound and moving, from simple and conservative to wild and experimental – and offers something for everyone, but while plenty of these are defensible as favourites, and make for interesting choices, it’s telling that, when Hannon becomes nostalgic and self-regarding, the time of Casanova is the one he attempts to channel. It is also The Sex One.
Or more precisely, that’s what the pop-memory of Casanova, shaped largely by its title, its accompanying singles, and Hannon’s own comments, would have you believe: that it’s a sordid album of ribald debauchery, the musical equivalent of a Carry On film. Sit down and listen to it, however, and you’ll find that only two of the eleven tracks actually focus on sexual subject-matter, that they’re not among the songs people remember, and that even they veil their themes in such extended and self-conscious metaphors that they can be interpreted as being about entirely different things. Casanova is about a lot of things, and while its key theme is indeed love – not unusual, as it’s the default topic of pop music – the ideas and energy which animate the album are considerably more complicated. In contrast with the very pure romance at the heart of Promenade, Casanova is an earthier exploration of fun, physicality, and ambiguous toxicity.
In one interview, Hannon says, “Casanova is the part of me that just wants to shag everything in sight,” and in another, “Casanova was confessional, in a ‘I’m a sick bastard’ sort of way. At the risk of sounding a bit crap, the actual meaning of the title of the band is what I’m consistently trying to do on record, which is the sort of sacred and profane battle within all of us. We all yearn to be monks, but we all, er, want to get down and dirty, you know?” The tone of Promenade, despite some playful or sensuous interludes, is ultimately very spiritual, dealing at times with feelings of lapsed Christianity, the fear and wonder of the natural world, and a kind of millenarian apocalypticism. The album has a strong romantic throughline, but in retrospect, it is conspicuously sexless. Promenade and Casanova, then, form a sort of yin-yang: the former had plenty that was sacred, but only a little that was profane, so it’s the latter’s job to balance it out.
The album cover is a photo of Hannon on a boat in Venice, with sunglasses and cigarette, looking detachedly off into the distance, with the title “Casanova” superimposed in florid, stately cursive. This discontinues the eye contact on the two preceding album covers, but makes a trend of the latter’s exotic European locale, trading Paris for Venice. (One rumour suggests that the album was originally called Don Juan, with photos to be taken in Seville, and that plans were changed following an inconvenient strike at the airport; as tempting as it is to believe this, I suspect it’s a case of a joke lost in translation.) The other photos in the liner are mostly variations on the same theme, with Hannon gazing about, cool and indifferent. It’s odd that they tend towards chill-blue, the colour of Promenade, as this album sounds quite full and summery overall – not unlike Liberation. The singles use black-and-white photos of Hannon – sometimes with a Frog Princess, sometimes sideways. The associated graphic design fixates on roses and domino masks.
One of the more interesting qualities of Britpop is that, rather than evolving organically the way we like to think authentic genres do, it was largely an invention of the print media. The term itself was obvious enough to have been coined numerous times in different contexts – it was there, waiting, only needing something viable to parasitise. The British music press, conscious of a modest trend towards national identity in the country’s music, collapsed the waveform by branding it “Britpop”, reifying the spirit of the time into something they could sell as a dramatic narrative. The competing main characters were Oasis and Blur, designated rivals by the press, an arrangement their record labels were perfectly happy to encourage by scheduling singles in opposition. There wasn’t a great deal linking that selection of rock bands together in any semiotic or musical sense, beyond being generally male and white and liking guitars – even the centrality of self-conscious Britishness may have been partly down to nominative determinism – but no-one ever said this was a precise science.
This fundamental haziness of definition meant that, when the somewhat Blur-influenced, sort-of British Hannon released a somewhat laddish pop album in 1996, it was naturally drawn into the gravity of the Britpop concept in the collective consciousness. There’s a certain logic to this: as Tom Ewing observes, the rivalry between the working-class Oasis and middle-class Blur naturally leaves a space for the upper. Rather than join the fray proper, though, Hannon is left floating above in a cloud of solipsistic Edwardian foppery, just a bit too different in goals and aesthetics for anyone to contest his territory. His being Northern Irish also placed him at something of a remove from the rest of the Britpop scene, culturally as well as geographically. Hannon is in the slightly curious position that the height of his commercial success, between 1996 and 1998, coincided closely with his notional Britpop phase, which means that non-fans will generally have a rather incomplete idea of what The Divine Comedy is actually like.
In an anecdote that’s brilliantly suggestive of a stranger, more literate Britpop running parallel and subterranean to the mainstream one, Hannon recalls seeing the famous Select cover with Suede’s Brett Anderson draped in the Union Jack, but being more intrigued by the small-text mention of Pulp, and proceeding to buy a copy of their album His ‘n’ Hers based on the photo of frontman Jarvis Cocker sitting in a deckchair. While recording Casanova, Hannon heard “Common People” on the radio and was stunned by how good it was – its arc, its trajectory, its energy, the skill with which it wove coherent and complete narrative into song – and even a little alarmed that someone else was already successfully making the kind of music he’d always wanted to. The quality Hannon singles out in Cocker is the confidence of his expression: “What I like about him is that he doesn’t filter himself as much as I or other people would, he lets the stark stuff out, and he’s not afraid of it, which I would be, being repressed!”
Hannon treats Pulp as more of an inspiration than an influence, and indeed, Different Class came along slightly too late to have much impact on Casanova in the direct sense. That said, the two albums do share significant thematic overlap, most clearly in their explorations of class relations and sexual dynamics. More specifically, the Pulp album is fixated on the concept of sex as a form of class warfare – something whose primary purpose, in songs like “Pencil Skirt” and “I Spy”, is to debase and defile upper-class women and humiliate their husbands, a desire inextricable from the (more reasonable) possessive hunger with which Cocker seems to regard the rich. Different Class is quite possibly a better album than Casanova, but credit where it’s due: Hannon found a way to celebrate that aspect of the human experience without getting quite so mired in cynicism and misogyny, and generally maintains a much more lucid distinction between his own authorial voice and the words of his flawed protagonists than Cocker does.
But the only reason all this prevaricating and delineating is worthwhile is that these albums are good enough to deserve a proper understanding of their problems. Britpop might be too singular and localised an event ever to undergo significant revival or reappraisal, but I daresay a world where the memetic question is not “Oasis or Blur?” but “Divine Comedy or Pulp?” would be one I’d quite prefer. Forget the Battle of the Bands – bring on the Battle of That One Time Neil Interviewed Jarvis for Les Inrockuptibles and Jarvis Showed Up in His Usual Finery But Neil Was Wearing a Crappy Barbour Jacket for Some Reason so They Had to Come Back and Do the Photoshoot Another Day.
Since Casanova is the third album Hannon released after (and including) the breakthrough of Liberation, it’s also the one most heavily impacted by the evolutionary dialectic that shapes the work of all serial artists – the album tasked with digesting and synthesising the dual successes of Liberation and Promenade. Musically, the pendulum swings more towards Liberation: the Michael Nyman pastiche of Promenade, while a great success, was too specific to be an avenue for further development. In addition to the now-standard strings and reeds, Casanova features a prominent brass section – trumpets and trombones, with a horn, flugelhorn, bassoon, tuba, and bass trombone – which, considering the absence of any brass instruments in Hannon’s previous work, broadens the album’s palette considerably, imbuing it with an apposite sense of swagger and roguish confidence.
Nowhere is this new orchestral fullness of Casanova demonstrated so forcefully or successfully as in the album’s opening track, “Something for the Weekend”, a roller-coaster of a song that can solidly be argued as Hannon’s best ever. The track begins not with music, but with the sound of laughter – specifically the giggling of two young women. “Hello,” interrupts Hannon in his most mannered tone. They laugh harder as the music kicks in and he continues, “Oh… I say… How about a little kiss? … Oh, don’t be unkind.” It’s coded as flirting, but doesn’t much resemble any kind of human interaction: it’s a bizarre little bit of radio theatre, and perhaps it’s slightly unfortunate that the first thing a listener hears is so tonally odd. (In the following years, Hannon would grow quite tired of performing this introduction, and gloss over it with a quick, “Oh, don’t be unkind. Or something like that,” or simply “Ah fuck. Can’t be arsed saying all this, you know, Casanova shit. But I’ll sing the song anyway!”)
The song is driven by the same galloping triple beat that Hannon pilfered from a Serge Gainsbourg Eurovision entry to power “Tonight We Fly”, the final track on Promenade – if you listen to the albums back-to-back, it’s striking just how well the end of Promenade flows into the beginning of Casanova. However, this shared engine also serves to highlight the differences: “Something for the Weekend” has a richer, more varied sound and a greater sense of scale, from the twee intimacy of its old Liberation Hammond organ to its dizzying new heights of brass.
“Something for the Weekend” itself is structured as a simple drama: in the verses, Hannon narrates the exchanges between two characters, a man and a woman, while in the chorus he shifts to an omniscient description of the fellow’s thoughts – all quite similar to the narratorial role Hannon played in Promenade. The song begins with what seems initially like a nervous plea: “She said / There’s something in the woodshed / And I can hear it breathing / It’s such an eerie feeling / Darling”. The retort has a repetitive, escalating quality reminiscent of pantomime or farce, a clash of irresistible force and immovable object that seems almost to invite audience participation: “He said / There’s nothing in the woodshed / It’s your imagination / End of the conversation / Darling”. Next, the song soars into its introspective chorus, letting us know what’s going on inside the man’s head: “Something in his heart / Told him to come clean / He was not who he claimed to be / Something in his genes / Told him to pretend / ‘Twas something for the weekend”. The eponymous phrase is a euphemism from 1970s Britain, where it was used by barbers and chemists to discreetly ask customers if they’d like to buy condoms. (Incidentally, there’s a moment in the video for “Disco 2000” where a barber asks the main character exactly this, which is about as thorough a demonstration of the differences between Neil Hannon and Jarvis Cocker as you could ever want.)
At this point, the giggling from the song’s intro returns, and Hannon intones, “Oh, come on. You know you want to.” While many listeners will likely assume that the woman expressing concerns about the woodshed is the one giggling, a close listen reveals the distinct voices of two women – something confirmed by the liner notes, which actually credit Alice Reynolds and Maia Lloyd as instrumentalists for “Giggling” – which, along with the abrupt and otherwise inexplicable shifts between dialogue and third-person past-tense narration, seems to rule out the possibility that they represent the girl referred to in the lyrics. Rather, it seems that the bulk of “Something in the Woodshed” is a story Hannon’s narrator is telling these two ladies to amuse them and put them at ease – perhaps an anecdote, a funny incident that befell a friend of a friend, or even just something he’s making up. (Possibly inspired by a Kate Beckinsale film he’s seen – we’ll get to that.)
Her concerns brushed off, the woman becomes more urgent: “But she said / There is something in the woodshed / I know because I saw it / I can’t simply ignore it / Darling”. At this point the song, despite its cheerful melody, begins functioning as a horror story. “So he said / Now baby don’t be stupid / Get this into your sweet head / There ain’t nothing in the woodshed / Except maybe some wood”. This last line gets great comic effect from its perfect and unexpected positioning, while also quietly establishing the character’s patronising nature – a flaw preceding a fall. We get another great joke, and a much subtler one, in the next instance of the chorus: the man’s inner conflict is reiterated, but this time it’s “Something in his jeans”, rather than in his genes, that “Told him to pretend / ‘Twas something for the weekend”. The homonym is undetectable in Hannon’s performance, and could even be taken for a lucky accident, but the lyrics sheet spells it out: Hannon is constructing a dichotomy, morality versus desire, with the latter as a compulsive atavistic force – dumb arousal with the force of billions of years of genetic evolution. It’s hardly the most original social commentary, but seldom is the paradox at the centre of this very human conflict articulated quite so skilfully.
Hannon soars in the bridge: “I’ll go all the way with you / If you’ll only do the same for me / Go and see / If it’s nothing, like you say / Then you can have your wicked way / With me”. What I love about these lines is that they initially seem like generic love-song lyrics, romantic and emotional and non-specific: it takes a moment to reveal that, no, they actually tie in directly into the weird, arbitrary story about a shed. This is the only pop song in which a female character promises sex in exchange for a shed-inspection.
The song crescendos with Hannon’s “Something for the weekend / Something for the weekend”, overlapping itself again and again, leading us at last to the delirious staccato climax: “He went down to the woodshed / They came down hard on his head / Gagged and bound and left for dead / When he woke, she was gone, with his car and all of his money”. This is probably the funniest line Hannon would ever write, the conversational, matter-of-fact punchline. The song functions as a legitimate short mystery story, with its intriguing question making us listen more attentively than we might have. The twist – that the woodshed is a trap – closes the story in comedy rather than horror, with an admittedly slightly confused moral that somehow manages to discourage both lying and unthinking lust.
While the man’s been struggling with his secret, the woman’s been concealing a plot of her own: the entire tryst is a con, orchestrated so that she and an unseen partner in crime can knock him out and rob him. As a result, we never actually get to find out what the man was concealing about himself. It could be something mundane, like feigning affection to get sex, or something weirder – him being a cannibalistic serial killer, for example, would fit the clues just as well. In the context of the album, however, the strongest possibility is that he’s falsifying a romantic and confident persona – pretending that he literally is who he wants himself to be – and is experiencing some discomfort at the fit of his new Casanova suit. Ultimately, we don’t have to make a decision, as the character’s secret works as a stand-in for everything we hide in relationships – flaws, insecurities, and dubious intentions. If the song has a moral, it’s a fairly simple one: be yourself. By the end, we haven’t heard from the narrator or his girlfriends in two and a half minutes, so presumably he got whatever he was angling for with his little story.
“Something for the Weekend” holds the honour of being the first Divine Comedy single to chart. It is also, alas, the point where the story of The Divine Comedy becomes inextricably linked with Chris Evans – no, the other one. Evans heard the song by chance at a party and immediately took a liking to it, and it was airtime on his radio show that launched Hannon into the UK charts. In another first, “Something for the Weekend” was also accompanied by the earliest Divine Comedy music video. By itself, the song gives the impression that the action is happening in a mundane domestic space, probably in Britain or Ireland. While this would have made for a perfectly good visual, the video takes the rather drastic step of transplanting the song’s plot to Venice, complete with full location shoot: we get Hannon careening down the canals in a speedboat and lounging around sun-drenched café fronts, accompanied by a shawled femme fatale. It makes perfect sense, of course: this is the home territory of the actual Giacomo Casanova, in the country that catalysed Lucy Honeychurch’s awakening – where else could it have been filmed? It’s not an easy fit – with Hannon performing the entire song to camera, the video doesn’t really get a chance to depict the two characters’ exchanges – but the basic story is still conveyed: at the beginning, the woman surreptitiously uses a mirror to signal to a muscular henchman, and the last shot does indeed have Hannon entering a shed, presumably to get clobbered off-screen. While the giggles are still present, the video abandons the (perhaps slightly too complicated) structure of Hannon’s narrator telling the story of the couple while flirting with two girls, instead having him tell his story to us, intercut with it happening to him.
Where most music videos attempt to create the illusion that the artists are actually performing, Hannon is very clearly lip-synching in the Casanova videos. It’s as if he’s a little too self-conscious to sing on-set without the band, so instead is just quietly mouthing along to the lyrics, augmenting the words with mild gesticulations. I suspect that Hannon was attempting to channel the presence and body language of Jarvis Cocker, as seen in the previous year’s videos for the Different Class singles, but has overlooked the fact that Cocker’s breathy, talkative vocal style works a lot better with this approach than Hannon’s own full voice.
When asked if the song was inspired by the film Cold Culture Farm, Hannon replied, “Inspired by Kate Beckinsale’s lovely face, and the idea that if anybody quite that beautiful ever took the slightest bit of interest in me, I’d be forever wondering whether they were simply humouring me, or had some more devious intentions hidden up their delicate sleeves. The idea, as the album opener, is that while love is a dangerous game, and usually ends in heartbreak, it’s usually much more fun to dive in head-first!”
A perfect example of the romantic social-mobility epic that seems to be Hannon’s favourite fiction genre, the film stars Beckinsale as Flora Poste, a precocious young lady who is invited to stay with her cousins, the Starkadders, on their farm after losing her parents. (It’s set in roughly the 1930s, unfortunately excising the near-future sci-fi elements of Stella Gibbons’s original novel.) Flora arrives to find the family a relic of a bygone age, inbred and uneducated, living in a dilapidated gothic farmhouse and speaking in grandiose archaisms. The head of the Starkadders is the senile, bedridden great-aunt Ada Doom, a woman haunted by a horrifying childhood experience where she “saw something nasty in the woodshed”. This has nothing to do with the main story – rather, the thing in the woodshed comes to symbolise an entire malignant, traditionalist, oppressive order. Flora makes it her mission to drag the superstitious farmers into the twentieth century however she can – helping a girl escape an arranged marriage, introducing a cousin obsessed with “the talkies” to a Hollywood producer, and teaching a farmhand who’s just had her fourth child about prophylactics. This last example, I suspect, may have been the spark that inspired the entire song: one can easily imagine Hannon noticing that the phrases “something for the weekend” and “something in the woodshed” are just about similar enough to build a song around the parallel.
As the film goes on, and Flora generally dismantles the Starkadders’ decayed social order, the hostile family each come to appreciate her assistance. We’re told early on that a Starkadder once did Flora’s father a great wrong, and that Flora has “rights”, but we never find out what happened – surprisingly, Flora manages to give even Ada a new lease on life, with the film’s ending making a point of the irrelevance of inherited burdens and old secrets. Similarly, the portent of the woodshed fades in significance, and we never learn what lurked inside it – whether it was mundane or supernatural, an authentic memory or a false one. The mystery is left open, and despite its comedic conclusion, the song maintains a light folk-horror dimension inherited from the film. Hannon’s musings about the idea of being with a Beckinsale-type seem influenced by the somewhat unconvincing final scene, where Flora declares her love for a rather dull man who’s been courting her throughout the story. Since the possibility that she’s actually “humouring” him as part of some mad scheme is a significant improvement, I hereby nominate the core story of “Something for the Weekend” as the canonical sequel to Cold Comfort Farm. The narrator in the song’s framing device is seducing women with some really top-drawer fanfic of his favourite 1995 television film.
As we move on, it’s worth keeping in mind just how well the song works metatextually. There’s a unique spark between “Tonight We Fly” and “Something for the Weekend” when they’re juxtaposed, and that’s not just because they’re two of the best and most iconic Divine Comedy songs. In addition to sharing the “Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son” beat, they mirror each other thematically, with “Tonight We Fly” following a romantic couple’s joyous transcendence and “Something for the Weekend” charting a couple’s descent from thrilling limerence to mundane comedy violence. The continuity is smoothed further if we consider the idea of sex as the bathetic truth of the mystical union described in “Tonight We Fly”. I don’t think that Casanova holds together as a literal single narrative in the way that Promenade does, but that said, I am hard-wired to treat absolutely everything containing more than one song as a concept album, so that’s what we’re doing here.
The second track on Casanova is “Becoming More Like Alfie”, another successful single. Compared to the rather fanciful narrated hook-up and robbery of the preceding song, this one is a straightforward realist tale, perhaps even verging on autobiography. Hannon admits that his initial motivations for pursuing music were less than pure: “At school, I wanted to be bigger than my social standing, which was virtually non-existent. Music became the only thing that I was in any way, er, you know, brought to people’s attention by… Girls, basically, you know. I don’t think I would ever have had a girlfriend if it weren’t for music. That’s the basic, fundamental reason why anyone gets into a band, but it’s the fundamental reason why anyone does anything,” says Hannon, revealing a fundamental value system shared with Steven Moffat. “To be honest, everything always comes back down to, you know, ‘Will it get me laid?’ I always thought, if I could be a pop-star, anybody could do anything… I’m such a bad person for the job. I mean, look at me! Hardly boy-band material!”
“Becoming More Like Alfie” is a song about a man in the throes of a metamorphosis – specifically a metamorphosis into Alfie Elkins, the fourth-wall-breaking misogynist portrayed by Michael Caine in the 1966 kitchen-sink comedy-drama film Alfie. The film ends with Cher’s performance of Burt Bacharach’s song “Alfie”, which is perhaps what gave Hannon the initial idea to build his own song around the character, but he includes no actual specific discussion of the film or character, simply assuming that the audience will understand. “Becoming More Like Alfie” begins with a sample of dialogue taken from the opening scene, with Caine’s distinctive cockney voice asking “Well, you all settled then? Right, we can begin. My name is—”, at which point a girl interrupts, “Alfie!” Hannon’s albums are littered with film and television samples, but they’re generally from period romcoms – this one’s so immediate and working-class that the effect is downright Mozzerian.
At its core, it’s a simple acoustic-guitar song, but with harpsichord and strings for periodic emphasis, and a persistent trumpet refrain that seemingly results from Hannon combining his Nyman-inspired counter-melody technique with his newly-expanded palette of instruments. The opening lyrics establish the song’s autobiographical dimension: “Once / There was a time / When my mind lay on higher things / And once / There was a time / I could find pretty works to sing”. We get the impression that this is a man who’s always had difficulty with women, but who’s lately had some success, which of course has gone directly to his head. Hannon’s previous records are indeed relatively chaste, with stronger focus on religious themes, literary references, and a rather abstract idea of romance – higher things. He’s drawing a line between the previous albums and Casanova, and it’s becoming increasingly clear what “Tonight We Fly” was a lofty metaphor for finally getting.
“But now / Now I find / It saves time to say what you mean” seems like a repudiation of some of the more nebulous lyrics in earlier releases, albeit a cautious one: “I know it seems / So unrefined / But it’s time to let off some steam”. The metamorphosis reaches its conclusion with Hannon launches into the beguiling chorus: “Oh, come on / Everybody knows that no means yes / Just like glasses come free on the NHS / But the more I look through them, the more I see / I’m becoming more like Alfie”. These lines refer to an odd cultural phenomenon that occurred in the United Kingdom starting in 1948, when the newly-formed National Health Service offered free (later merely subsidised) prescription glasses to all citizens. There were a range of frames, but the most iconic were thick plastic, dark and rectangular. The NHS glasses were both immensely popular (because they were available for free, or cheaply) and universally reviled (because they were inextricably associated with lower social status), a peculiar combination that would make them something of a proletarian icon, with Morrissey wearing an old pair throughout the Smiths’ heyday in the 1980s. The reference also suggests that “Becoming More Like Alfie” is really more about a folk-memory of the film than the film itself. “Marvellous what you can get on the National Health, innit?” he asks the audience as he gets off with a nurse, but while the NHS glasses were an iconic part of Michael Caine’s look in the Harry Palmer spy films – the last of which was released while Hannon was working on Casanova– he didn’t wear any in Alfie. (While Hannon himself would only make spectacles part of his own image years later, and even then only occasionally, it’s interesting that sunglasses were such a key aspect of his image in the early days of The Divine Comedy, featuring on numerous album covers.)
Next verse, we get more psychological detail on the narrator’s shifting lifestyle: “Once / There was a time / When a kind word could be enough / And once / There was a time / I could blindfold myself with love”. He’s a desperate romantic, one who’s used to sating his unrequited affections with occasional compliments from woman because that’s the closest he can come to intimacy. “But not now / Now I’m resigned / To the kind of life I’d reserved / For other guys / Less smart than I / You know, the kind who will always end up with the girls”. Hannon (or at least the version of him portrayed in the song) has had to weave justifications for his own romantic failure, building his sense of identity around the intelligence he possessed rather than the social success he didn’t, only to have his jocks-vs-nerds outlook shattered when girls actually started to like him. The song doesn’t outright condemn these varied flavours of toxic masculinity, but it is cuttingly self-aware.
Interestingly, the use of the word “resigned” suggests that this new experience is in some sense disappointing – a suspicion that it was better beforehand; a worry, perhaps, that he’d peaked with Liberation and Promenade. Cursory thought also shows the implications of the “no means yes” ideology to be deeply unpleasant. Indeed, while the main selling-point is the womanising and carousing and sex comedy, Alfie is actually quite a bleak and ambivalent film, particularly towards the end. To become more like Alfie is not a healthy aspiration, and the song seems aware of this, treating the Casanova experience as a periodic extreme rather than an end: another dialectic step to be synthesised. When asked to explain the song, Hannon said, “Oh come on! It’s all right to be a laddish, misogynistic wanker, isn’t it? And besides, I can express it in a darling retro cockney pastiche just like everybody else. Or can I?” A legitimately good question.
The video for “Becoming More Like Alfie” lacks the visual hook of the Venice shoot, but it’s built around a much stronger concept: Hannon living out scenes from the film. It seems to have been filmed in London, using locations similar to the original’s. We begin with a remake of the opening sequence, in which Alfie emerges from a nighttime tryst in a parked car with a married woman, only this time it’s Hannon, wearing a fairly accurate facsimile of Caine’s suit. The film was surprisingly metafictional, inheriting Bill Naughton’s theatrical technique of having Alfie address the audience directly, and now feels oddly ahead of its time. Of course, when Hannon addresses us the same way in the video, it doesn’t feel remotely unusual, which gives us an interesting demonstration of just how closely the film prefigured music-video semiotics in the first place.
The rest of the video consists of a montage of Hannon engaging in Alfie-type shenanigans. Some are based on specific moments from the film – Alfie with the woman in the car; Alfie securing a wealthy lady’s attention by offering to photograph her by London Bridge; Alfie tossing his unwanted child a toy before ditching the mother. Mixed in with these are shots that seek only to recapture the film’s general atmosphere: a young woman running through council estates; Hannon lounging around dingy flats with blonde housewives and busy wallpaper. None of this will mean anything to viewers who haven’t seen the film, but for those it’s a spot-on recreation of a bygone era. The video also offers a little more political clarity than the song itself: it ends with the various mistreated women rejecting Hannon, one after another, leaving him alone.
Opening with two back-to-back singles, Casanova is obviously very front-loaded, and necessarily dials things down a notch for the third track, “Middle-Class Heroes” – a slow, faintly eerie song, with a lilting string melody that creates an atmosphere of foundering mystery. The setting is a girl visiting a fortune-teller, and the song begins with one side of a spoken dialogue, performed by Hannon: “Hello. What have we here? A young lady. To what do I owe this pleasant surprise, my pretty one? How may I be of service this dark and wintry night? Ah, I see. You wish me to look into the future – your future. After GCSEs? A-levels? University? After your first badly-paid job in advertising? Okay, my pretty. Just cross my palm with plastic, and I’ll see what I can do. Wait – the fog is lifting…”
What follows is, at its core, another of Hannon’s patented list-songs: a lengthy sequence of possessions and happenings scried by the fortune-teller in the girl’s future: “I see oriental paper globes / Hanging like decomposing cocoons / While exotic candles overload / The musty air with their stale perfumes / And I see lentils, beans, seaweed, and rice / In jars on the windowsill / And it ain’t hardly enough to feed the mice / Running behind the lines of allergy pills”. The one trait all these trappings share is their dreary bourgeois superfluity – there’s nothing here that hasn’t been the subject a thousand craven Guardian op-eds. In short, it’s a vision of middle-class life, filtered through a haze of opium fumes, looming like some terrible hallucinatory future. It goes on and on, but it never becomes clear whether the narrator has supernatural abilities or is a cynical charlatan – nor whether he’s mocking the girl or trying to guide her. Unlike “Something for the Weekend”, however, it is clear that the opening narrator and main singer are indeed the same character. Since GCSE exams are generally taken at around the age of 16, the song is best interpreted platonically; one line, “I see naked bodies twist and turn / On the futon of dreams fulfilled”, fulfils the Casanova sex-reference quota, but that’s not really what this one’s about. All these visions are enframed within a promise, recurring with the inevitability of a hymn: “All these things will come to pass / When heroes of the middle class / Face up to their responsibilities”.
At this point, it’s worth asking: how exactly does Hannon see his relationship to the middle class, and the class system in general? In one interview, he complains that reviewers are constantly playing at armchair psychoanalysis and mentioning the fact that his father was a bishop: “People keep coming up with the middle-class thing, but I’m from a clergy family, who are supposed to be classless so they can relate to everybody. Of course that is complete bollocks.” Similar offhand remarks in other interviews show that Hannon seems to take it as read that he’s middle-class, which suggests that he views the fancy costumes, songs about royalty, and general dandyism as affectations – self-parody rather than direct self-expression. On the other hand, his family tree can be found on ThePeerage.com (where it goes back centuries), and he did attend the same school as Oscar Wilde (even if the latter was a few years ahead of him). While the popular archetype has the artist rebelling against their upbringing, Hannon’s rebellion was characteristically mild (writing songs with innuendos rather than, say, hymns), and involved him doubling down on the signifiers of his own class background. But perhaps these aren’t quite as much of a comical affectation as he’d like them to be?
When “Middle-Class Heroes” finally hits the bridge, the sound of a yelling crowd swirls around Hannon’s vocals – the song is taken over by a stomping brass march, and the fortune-teller sounds possessed: “I see / Unspeakable vulgarity / Institutionalised mediocrity / Infinite tragedy / Rise up, little souls / Join the doomed army / Fight the good fight / Wage the unwinnable war / Elegance against ignorance / Difference against indifference / Wit against shit”. Is this the narrator breaking from his vision, or is it Hannon breaking from the concept of his song? While other verses waver between wry detachment and faint moral judgement, this tirade seems to contain the writer’s genuine thoughts, with the rare curse granting it an additional jolt of emphasis. As if unable to bear continuing his itemised recitation of middle-class clichés, the fortune-teller proclaims a call to action, asking for all that is deadening and dull to be swept away. The gist is clear without the message being specific, and the declaration of allegiance to “elegance”, “wit”, and so on match the arch style of the Divine Comedy project precisely. Hannon is constructing a dichotomy between the enlightened and interesting middle-class folks – namely himself and his fans – and everyone else.
Next, the lyrics take a self-reflexive turn: “My words fly up to heaven / My thoughts remain below / Words said without feeling / Never to heaven go”. Hannon is paraphrasing a scene in Hamlet where King Claudius, wracked with guilt after murdering his brother, prays for forgiveness, but despairs that his continued profiting from his crime means God will not hear his repentance. Hannon lightly rephrases Shakespeare’s pentameter to add three syllables to each line and make them fit. In the context of “Middle-Class Heroes”, the quotation implies that the narrator feels he has failed to convey his message, though it’s unclear whether that’s the fortune-teller’s attempt to nudge the girl into a different timeline, Hannon’s attempt to draft listeners into his culture war, or some combination of the two.
While the title seems to promise a parody of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” – right down to correcting its hyphenation – that really isn’t the case, as the two have the same essential message. Lennon explained his own song: “I think it’s for the people like me who are working-class – whatever, upper or lower – who are supposed to be processed into the middle classes, through the machinery, that’s all. It’s my experience, and I hope it’s just a warning to people. I’m saying it’s a revolutionary song; not the song itself but that it’s a song for the revolution.” Lennon’s politics are angrier and more sincere than Hannon’s, but they’re broadly on the same page, conjuring similar images of listless societal anhedonia.
The music of “Middle-Class Heroes” ends on an ominous note, accentuating the weirdly cryptic final lines: “All these things will come to pass / When heroes of the middle class / Face up, repent, and pay the price / For accidentally creating life / An oversight for which they must atone / And sacrifice their own”. If we take the quasi-religious wording literally, this sounds almost like a theological comment: that Creation is a mistake which God can correct only by sacrificing his son. While this is only a moderately cynical interpretation of what actually happens in the Bible, the broader implication seems to be that God himself is middle-class – which, judging by “Don’t Look Down”, is not an unsupported idea in the Divine Comedy universe – and that the dull trappings seen by the narrator are the ideal end-point of the universe. Perhaps the fortune-teller should be thought of as more of an oracle, as this would place the action in pre-Christian times – perhaps the reason we never hear the young lady is that she isn’t really there, but part of the vision herself, millennia into the future.
A slightly more mundane interpretation is that the song is about inheritance. The litany of middle-class banalities in the young lady’s future will only transpire with her wealthy parents’ support – without this, she loses her designated place in the class stratum, and will not grow into the sort of woman interested in statues of Indian fertility gods and tasteless tie-dyes tablecloths. The reference to her life as being “accidental” suggests that perhaps their “something for the weekend” didn’t work as intended, and now they must perform the “heroic” duty of giving up an indefinite chunk of their lives and resources paying for it.
Let’s return for a moment to that opening monologue. Hannon composed the theme for Father Ted in 1994, and would have seen at least the first series before recording Casanova – the fact that both Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews got special thanks in the liner indicates that it was certainly on his mind. In the first episode, Ted visits a fortune-teller who offers the gnomic instruction, “First you must cross my palm with silver,” and then, when he fails to produce any, says “Gimme a pound!” Since this instance of cross-pollination is far from isolated, it’s probably worth mentioning an overlooked trait of Casanova: that this album is the long-lost twin of the Father Ted soundtrack. More on that in a bit.
The next track, “In & Out of Paris & London”, is one of two things, depending on how closely we listen. The first is the story of an ethically dubious seduction. The second is a very good joke. Neither of the eponymous capitals are mentioned in the song, which is named after George Orwell’s memoir Down and Out in Paris and London – indeed, the song’s title is apparently a misprint, with later releases correcting it to “In & Out in Paris & London”.
This track is the closest thing to a proper rock song on Casanova, all electric guitar and strings, leavened by meandering, discordant piano. As one might guess from the title, it homes in on the album’s themes in a more immediate and physical sense than most: “It is a far, far better thing / That I do now than I have ever done / Before / It is a far, far better place / That I go to than I have ever gone / Before”. These lines paraphrase the final chapter of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, where they are spoken by the character Sydney Carton as he awaits his execution; in the new context, the most obvious interpretation is that it’s a sexual reference, though it could also be taken as a declaration about the quality of Casanova compared to the previous albums. It’s the next line that confirms this is about a tryst: “My slap and tickle made her giggle / Made her wiggle like a willow tree / So suggestively”, after which some lyrical problems begin to emerge: “So I suggested / She protested / I persisted / Till she said, ‘Well, okay’ / And I said, ‘Way-hey’ / Yeah”. The blasé attitude to consent here has… not aged well. The narrator’s jubilation on persuading the woman from reluctance up to indifference is admittedly still funny, but the song enjoys this as a self-deprecating joke and brushes past it without acknowledging its unpleasantness. At least the weird piano melody and the unearthly, hesitant backing line “Out or in?” manage to reflect this uneasiness rather than ignoring it entirely. Since we learn nothing concrete about the narrator or the woman he’s seducing, the song takes on the slightly abstract quality of a generic hook-up: it could be a less detailed retelling of an encounter from any one of several Casanova tracks.
Even when at attempting his most overtly sexual song yet, Hannon can’t help but slip back into Old Testament references: “Of one thing there can be no doubt / This is not a sin / It’s not even original / And hey, we’re all individuals / So let the games begin”. Serge Gainsbourg he’s not, but thankfully the reinterpretation of “original sin” as meaning “inventive” rather than “first” is very good. Next Hannon stumbles with some gender-essentialist musings: “I fall in love with someone new practically every day / But that’s okay, it’s just the price I pay / For being a man / If that’s really what I am”. It seems that, for this song’s narrator, love and first-glance attraction are the same thing, with commitment being something only women are interested in. It’s barely audible, and I’d never have noticed it without the lyrics sheet, but that little “if” is a key complication – the beginning of a crack that will grow to reshape the whole of what Casanova is about.
“And I refuse to take it all too seriously / It’s such a strange activity / Far too peculiar to be taken any other way / Don’t wait until tomorrow / Do it today”. While the primary meaning here is clearly to advocate a healthy disavowal of romantic convention, an awareness of the absurdity of social contrivances and animal urges, I think these lines have an essential truth that’s much broader: the disavowal of seriousness has resonances with Hannon’s entire body of work, and the “strange activity” could just as easily be the process of making songs like this one. Or writing about them. Or, for that matter, anything. Whatever you’re into: do it today.
Amidst the steady procession of “In, out, in, out”s, Hannon sings a line that’s easily missed but which actually completely inverts the song’s meaning and solves all its political problems: “Shake it all about”. These words are taken from the hokey-pokey, a 19th-century British tradition consisting of a song and folk dance. The lyrics, at least in the variation most popular in Ireland, consist of “You put your [left hand] in / You bring your [left hand] out / In, out, in, out / You shake it all about / You do the hokey-pokey / And you turn around / That’s what it’s all about”, with subsequent cycles shifting to the other limbs and finally the whole self, while the dance is essentially the sequence of moves described. We were taught it in school, it’s stupid and awkward, and nobody really knows what it’s all about.
Is the joke that sex essentially is the hokey-pokey – a ritualised, mannered, silly dance – or that the song is literally about the hokey-pokey? The lines about “original sin” how men “fall in love” might seem to contradict the hokey-pokey reading, but that can be solved simply by positing a narrator who really, really fucking likes the hokey-pokey.
When asked to provide a brief guide to the album’s tracks, Hannon summed “In & Out of Paris & London” up with “How low can I get? This low.” He then described the following song, “Charge”, with “Correction, this low. This is about as low as I’ll ever get. Savour the moment folks.” These two songs form a sort of duo. They’re the ones it’s most likely the Reverend Brian Hannon had in mind when he said, “Obviously, you have a very different way of expressing love for a fellow human being than, perhaps, I would. That is your prerogative, son.” Positioned consecutively, they’re the only two songs on Casanova which can be interpreted as being entirely about the sexual act, but both have ready-made, entirely non-sexual readings that emerge if you just take their innuendos literally. Slightly less inventive than sex as the hokey-pokey, the conceit of “Charge” is sex as war – specifically a romanticised, nostalgic kind of war. Despite the straightforward joke at its core, this is probably the densest and most complex track on the album, with a spontaneous and inventive structure that carries it off on tangents which grow increasingly strange but always revolve in some way around warfare that took place between the early 19th and mid-20th centuries.
The song begins with the gentle, creeping, mischievous acoustic guitar and sound of crickets. The opening lines, while scant on detail, seems to suggest the story of an English soldier summoned to a clandestine rendezvous before deployment: “Lady Smith wants you forthwith to come to her relief / Burn your briefs, you leave for France tonight / Carefully cut the traps of the booby-traps and set the captives free / But don’t shoot till you see her big blue eyes”. Well, that’s assuming even the first line can be taken literally, because this song is such a quicksand-pit of innuendo that it’s tricky to make much headway in parsing it. “Ladysmith”, for instance, is also a South African city which was the site of a siege in the Second Boer War. Here Hannon is drawing from a very specifically British type of comedy wherein any kind of veiled hint at sexuality is hilarious, even when the veil is about a nanometre thick – as in the Carry On films, the point of the exercise isn’t to reward audience attentiveness with complex jokes, it’s to provide stupid lurid fun for repressed polite people. The “big blue eyes” line, a little more interestingly, refers to the Boer War slogan “Don’t shoot till you see the whites of the eyes”, which seems to be a recurring fascination for Hannon, as it also made it into “A Drinking Song” on Promenade.
The next verse consists entirely of a pastiche of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade”, the poem which gives the song its name. “Then sound the charge”, Hannon roars, “Breathe your final breath / And charge / Into the valley of death / Cannon to the left / And cannon to the right / They’ll go bang, bang, bang / All night”. Explicating the various puns and double-meanings here would be tedious – suffice it to say that most lines in the song can be unfolded, and that the joke is the same one throughout: the conceptualisation of the ride as mythic and heroic action. (Or maybe it’s actually “Canon to the left / And canon to the right”, and Hannon is making some obscure comment about the state of Doctor Who fandom in the mid-1990s.) Beneath its martial triumphalism, Tennyson’s poem conceals a Sassoon-ish bitterness towards callous and ignorant commanders; but there’s no real echo of that in Hannon’s song, which is much more free and ludic.
The next verse steps things up with some genuinely great wordplay, with Hannon paraphrasing a Winston Churchill speech: “We’ll fight them on the beaches / Yes, we’ll fill ’em full of lead / Fighting naked in the open air / We’ll fight them in the kitchen, in the bathroom, in the garden shed / Fighting the good fight any-fighting-where”. This last line refers to the fact that, in practice, the English language’s most common infix – an “infix” being a meaning-altering addition, like a prefix or suffix, but inserted within a word – is “fucking”, hence such constructions as “This is unbe-fucking-lievable.” Hannon’s blindsidingly weird use of “fighting” as an infix directly demonstrates the ease with which a sexual subtext can be projected onto Churchill’s speech, mingling sex and war to the point of confusion, with an additional joke emerging from the strangeness of suggesting the use of “fuck” as a verb in a context where it’s exclusively used for contentless emphasis. It’s deceptively brilliant.
That said, it’s difficult to determine what this sex-as-war idea is actually supposed to mean. Taken straightforwardly, the song does seem built on the idea of women as something to be conquered, which might be a little more forgivable if we hadn’t just dealt with those same gender-essentialist, coercive overtones in “In & Out in Paris & London”. Thankfully, “Charge” takes a welcome turn for the weird in the next verse, as Hannon slips into a disturbingly accurate Barry White impression, emulating the slow, smooth delivery of his trademark spoken-word introductions: “Hey baby / I love it when you talk sense to me / Especially when you say live and let love / I hear what you’re saying / I have in my hand a piece of paper which says / Make love, not this phony war thang”. The Casanova approach has proven inadequate and unhealthy, and now Barry White has shown up to sort everything out, just like he did three years ago in “Whacking Day”. The lines themselves, however, paraphrase another British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain – specifically the “peace for our time” appeasement speech, during which he displayed a page supposedly signed by himself and Adolf Hitler, declaring that Germany and the United Kingdom would co-exist in harmony. (This was in 1938.) At this point, Hannon begins singing as a third character – one with an extremely high-pitched falsetto – who offers another angle on the sex-as-war concept with a terroristic come-on: “We’re going over the top / Oh… / Roaming around in no-man’s-land, getting caught in your barbed wire / Baby, baby, gonna set your village on fire”. Several online sources suggest that Hannon is emulating Prince’s singing style here, but to me it sounds much more like he’s playing a female character. The Barry White voice overlaps with the new one, even seeming to interact with it: “Oh, you’re so sexy when you’re angry, honey-child,” Hannon stretching his vocal range to its absolute limit for bizarre comic effect. In World War I parlance, to “go over the top” was a euphemism for leaving the safety of the trench to suicidally attack the enemy; it seems that the female character – perhaps we should call her Lady Smith? – is a sort of embodiment of war, seductive and enticing. However, it’s really not clear what Hannon means by equating the Nazi-appeasing Chamberlain with a pacifist Barry White, at which point the whole scene starts to sound like the musical equivalent of a Ben Garrison cartoon.
When Hannon’s normal voice reasserts itself, it’s cautious, almost whispering, the polarisation of pitch demonstrated in the duet now giving way to a polarisation of volume: “Come into my parlour, said the spider to the fly / Come inside and make yourself at home”. This is set to the creeping acoustics of the opening, now revealed as the tension of spider and insect: the sex-as-war concept is elevated to the status of natural order, predator and prey, pure animal conflict. “Bang, bang, bang, all night / All night”. The spider-goddess of war consummates her relationship with the Cronenbergian Barry White Chamberlain, the Morlocks’ siren from The Time Machine sounds, and the metaphor vibrates itself to pieces like a washing machine that’s just had a brick thrown into it. Majestic. The song ends with a sample of indistinct shouting taken from the 1970 film Waterloo – the first reference Hannon makes to Napoleon, who will become a key figure in his later work. For all that it’s singled out by Hannon as his rudest song ever, it’s really very tame stuff. I can’t imagine what he must think of the type of thing those rap fellas go on about.
The next track, and the last on the album’s A-side, is “Songs of Love”. Anyone who has dealt with writer’s block will be familiar with the temptation to write about the one subject which by definition is always at hand – writing itself, or even writer’s block specifically. As its name suggests, this track is a meta-song revolving around the actual process of writing love songs, specifically as a non-participant – spying on muses from afar, searching for lyrical metaphors, and trying to crystallise emotion in music. While it’s certainly possible to write a song dealing purely and abstractly with songwriting, that’s not what Hannon attempts – rather, he allows the song to lose itself in the emotional details and moments that form the basis of regular love songs, meaning that “Songs of Love” also gets to instantiate the thing it’s commenting on. As Hannon said in 2017, “The libido is a major motivation for creating art for anyone who’s young, but over time you strip away that veneer and what you’re left with is art – and what is any art for but telling people what it’s like to be you, or thinking about what it feels like to be someone else?”
The song is driven by acoustic guitar and harpsichord. While Hannon swaggers his way through most of Casanova, his vocal here sounds higher, younger, frailer. “Pale / Pubescent beasts / Roam through the streets / And coffee-shops / Their prey / Gather in herds / In stiff knee-length skirts / And white ankle-socks / But while / They search for a mate / My type hibernate / In bedrooms above / Composing their songs / Of love”. It’s essentially Hannon’s answer to Blur’s 1994 hit “Girls & Boys”, which also uses animalistic language to in a detached narrator’s contemplation of amorous young people. “Songs of Love” is considerably more introspective, however: an image emerges of the musician sequestered away, looking out his window at all those normal people below, as if his talent is a sort of curse – the same thing that keeps him from being one of them. “Young / Uniformed minds / In uniform lines / And uniform ties / Run round / With trousers on fire / And signs of desire / They cannot disguise / While I / Try to find words / As light as the birds / That circle above / To put in my songs / Of love”. This is the second track on the album to prominently mention schoolgirls, which… hmm. It’s also slightly unfortunate that Hannon continues to gravitate towards gender stereotypes – that teenage boys are “beasts” and girls their “prey”, absolving the former of responsibility and the latter of agency – and he might as well have tossed in “uniformly heterosexual”.
While it’s unsurprising that a song on this topic might emerge from the same sessions as the rest of Casanova, its tone is quite dissonant. In a flippant album riddled with innuendos and wry touches, “Songs of Love” is almost jarringly sincere – the narrator’s arch observations fade away without a punchline, and the song moves into a sad account of artistic process. It’s perhaps the only song on the album where Hannon is not playing Casanova, but simply being himself – it’s the end of the A-side, but in a way it’s the true end of Casanova; a moment of poignant deflation, a track which openly declares all those preceding it to be exotic fictions dreamt up by someone quieter and lonelier than those songs of love would have had us believe, but who is nonetheless committed to his craft, because that’s who he is. The entire album is animated by this tension between different models of attraction and behaviour. If “Becoming More Like Alfie” is about a young social reject who matures into a successful womaniser, “Songs of Love” is about that reject cocooning himself in music instead. Perhaps none of the Casanova tracks are truly autobiographical, but taken together, they do seem to constitute a rather comprehensive exploration of the idea of romance, in all its tangled excitement and bitterness, the sparks and regrets that fade together into fond memory.
The song’s best lyrical moment is “Fate doesn’t hang on a wrong or right choice / Fortune depends on the tone of your voice”, which gets at the essence of a theme Hannon will later revisit in more depth: the butterfly effect, and the unimaginable chaos of possibility that lurks beneath the thin membrane of normal life. (This is also, incidentally, the concept at the centre of “Something Changed”, a lesser-known and uncharacteristically sweet song on Different Class.) The people we’ll end up spending our years with really aren’t selected by us, and something as trivial as the timbre or cadence of a conversational foray really can determine whether someone sees us as we are, whether they give us a chance, whether we’ll see them again. Part of the power of the storyteller – including the songwriter, and indeed the lovesongwriter – is the ability to impose the order we like to imagine exists in reality; to craft events which really do have meaning, and characters who actually do have purposes. Hannon underscores the song’s nostalgic sense of loss and longing by adding a subtle hint of dark storms on the horizon of the future: “So sing / While you have time / Let the sun shine / Down from above / And fill you with songs / Of love”. The implication is all the more powerful for its briefness: that this, too, will end.
Saying “Take me”, Hannon launches into a 35-second harpsichord solo, ushered along by an understated but piercingly beautiful string accompaniment. At this point, without the distraction of words, anyone from Ireland will have trouble processing the song normally. This, of course, is because “Songs of Love” is also the theme music for Father Ted, the greatest sitcom ever made. They’re not exactly the same – the television version essentially consists of this instrumental bridge, only played on electric guitar and with different production – but they share the same melody and the same sad, warm, ineffable sweetness. During a 2010 performance in David’s Bookshop in Letchworth, Hannon decided that the song’s bridge was the ideal aperture in which to insert an improvised stream of consciousness: “Popular TV theme tune! … Dah-dah, dah dah-dah… Actually, I was watching one last night. It’s the one where, ah, Ted had to, ah, kind of do a really really short sermon. And the nuns were very displeased. Uhm. But I only caught the end of it. I couldn’t remember…” I find this spoken-word interlude strangely moving, and genuinely wish it was included in the album version.
Encountering “Songs of Love” as a fan of the show, or vice-versa, can be a jolt at first – one’s about a lovelorn songwriter chronicling what he cannot have, and the other’s about a priest exiled to a miserable island parish – but like the music, the textual content has parallels. One rumour, apparently persistent enough that Hannon had to shoot it down in an interview, claimed that the line was originally “My type masturbate / In bedrooms above”, and that he had to change it because of the song’s association with Father Ted – as if Ted Crilly were unfamiliar with sexual frustration! In fact, the lyric was always “hibernate”, though Hannon would occasionally switch to the ruder version during live performances just for fun. (Hannon was probably not, at the time of writing Casanova, aware that Pulp had been offered and rejected the job of composing the theme for Father Ted before him.)
To close the song, Hannon repeats his advice about fate and fortune – his delivery echoing one of his own favourite songs of love, Peter Sarstedt’s “Where Do You Go to My Lovely” – and then offers a more inclusive, communal version of his solar command: “So let’s sing / While we still can / While the sun hangs / High up above / Wonderful songs / Of love / Beautiful songs of love”. Perhaps the song is a little bit more in love with itself than with it is with love songs in the general sense, but that’s forgivable – it’s one of Hannon’s real triumphs. Though I’ll never be able to listen to it without mentally appending “Night, Dougal / Night, Ted” to the end.
When the B-side starts, Hannon gets right back into the Casanova character, like an actor who’s accidentally bowed after the first act of a two-act play. “The Frog Princess” is the album’s third and final single, and it’s definitely the weakest, both for its dodgy politics and for generally being a bit of a dirge. The song rests on a comic inversion of the fairy-tale in which a prince is transformed into a frog and can only be restored by the kiss of a princess. Hannon’s version places the story in a modern-day setting, switching both the genders and the direction of the transformation, and makes the questionable decision to reimagine the tale as being about a French girl – “frog” being a racial slur.
A slightly plodding piano ballad driven by a slowed-down, distorted drumbeat, the song begins with the narrator recounting another tale of romance gone awry. Short whistled refrains are used as punctuation, creating a whimsical and off-kilter tone. “I met a girl / She was a Frog Princess / I guess I ought to make it clear / That I saw nothing through her see-through dress / Until she whispered in my ear / You don’t really love me / And I don’t really mind / ‘Cause I don’t love anybody / That stuff is just a waste of time / Your place or mine?” This last line is yet another Different Class link: it appears in the “Disco 2000” video, as one of the subtitles used to give us its protagonists’ silent thoughts. In later verses, the narrator recounts the Frog Princess providing the additional detail, “I come and go through people’s love-lives”. What the story boils down to, then, is that he had a one-night stand with a girl who was a bit cynical and straightforward, and he deemed this song-worthy. It’s… not quite as rich with meaning as some of the other tracks. The only really interesting bit is the detail of the word “until”, which suggests a certain complicity on the narrator’s part – that he wasn’t actually attracted to the Frog Princess until he learned of her no-strings-attached policy, which means that it’s his entirely his fault for demanding anything more.
The song bears this interpretation out: “I met a girl / She was a complete mess / I should have left her well alone” – Hannon interjects an amusingly over-enunciated spoken-word aside, “But oh no, not me”, before continuing – “I had to see if underneath that dress / Her heart was really made of stone”. The soaring end of the verse, “But how was I to know that just one kiss / Could turn my frog into a cow?”, is clearly intended to work as a punchline, and while it remains the case that combining unrelated animal metaphors is always funny, it’s also a little unfortunate that Hannon chose to hinge the song around the triumphant replacement of a mild racial slur with a mild misogynistic one.
Hannon reflects, “And now I’m rid of her, I must confess / To thinking ’bout what might have been / And I can visualise my Frog Princess / Beneath a shining guillotine”, at which point we hear the sound of a blade slicing and a crowd cheering. There’s something a bit uncomfortable in using the charts to publicly fantasise about the violent death of an ex – one wishes the song had played up the “princess” aspect a little more than the “frog” so as to justify some proper revolutionary beheading. It’s all unpleasantly reminiscent of the way a certain type of man will invariably refer to his ex-girlfriends as “crazy” so as to absolve himself of responsibility for anything that went wrong during the relationship, placing all blame on the women while simultaneously discrediting their account of events (and implicitly equating mental illness with malevolence). There’s often a peculiar scarcity of details regarding the women’s supposed behaviour, and the fact that the man is the only actual common factor in these failed relationships is generally dismissed with mock woe-is-me comments about how he “always ends up with the crazy ones”, or something along those lines. You’ve met them, I expect – the story is old but it goes on. Hannon is a lot better than this, but “The Frog Princess” is not his best work – it’s stitched together from break-up clichés and “banter”, and it lacks the self-awareness that gives “Becoming More Like Alfie” its complexity; the realisation that the Frog Princess herself is the mirror image of the promiscuous narrator of the two earlier singles seemingly never occurs. One hopes this particular song is purely fictional and not actually Hannon’s attempt at humorous revenge on an actual person.
Focusing on the lyrics, it’s entirely possible to miss the song’s eponymous joke. The only direct acknowledgement of it occurs at the beginning, which quotes the opening notes of “La Marseille” – an idea Hannon lifts from the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love”. It’s not at all clear what being French has to do with the Frog Prince fairy-tale concept, and the fact that the song doesn’t actually seem to offend anyone probably owes a lot to the celebration of European and French culture elsewhere in Hannon’s work.
The music video, on the other hand, places the French joke centre-stage. Easily the cheapest-looking of the Casanova videos, it’s set in the Les Pattes de Grenouille café, which more closely resembles the stage of a primary-school play, or Supreme Leader Snoke’s throne room. Hannon lounges about on a cardboard set with an abstract red background, ignored by dining extras as he sings to the camera. Making the most of a constraint, the video leans heavily into this visual artifice, with the band performing on cardboard instruments, and Hannon playing the song’s whistled refrain on a very fake trumpet. Despite the Francophilia, the vivid primary-colour visuals are oddly close to what was generally going on elsewhere in Britpop at the same time – just look at a contemporaneous Blur or Pulp video.
By far the video’s greatest strength is that we actually get to see the Frog Princess, who’s played by the model from the single cover, with dark pixie haircut and a green dress and hat that make her look like a sort of cross between Kermit and Peter Pan. We don’t get any more details on her personality or precisely why the narrator hates her so much, but the actress is extremely charming, and is visibly delighted to be involved. The video is also very well-choreographed, making up for its minuscule budget with lots and lots of dancing by the Frog Princess and the café extras. We also get to see the cast visit other locations, albeit ones achieved through goofy cardboard cut-outs with silhouette skylines: the Frog Princess cavorting by the Eiffel Tower, Hannon sailing the SS Valérie down the Seine.
Impressively, they even brought in an actual cow for the climactic transformation sequence. When it finally arrives at the Frog Princess’s execution, the video depicts it abstractly, cutting between her horrified reactions and a chef slicing a cabbage, in what has to be one of the stranger parodies of Un Chien Andalou ever made. Seeing her pop up unharmed a moment later does a lot to mitigate the song’s bitterness – like the return of killed-off performers to bow at a curtain call, it softens the blow without affecting the diegetic story, buoying everything up and making it altogether more pleasant.
To be clear, I don’t think that Hannon is unaware of the dark and unpleasant aspects of the song’s story – he navigates similarly murky waters quite well elsewhere on the same album. I just think that this track carelessly perpetuates some unpleasant messages, and lacks the finesse and delicate touch its subject-matter requires. Without a strong emotional throughline or clear element of comeuppance to balance the narrator’s meanness, and combined with the somewhat weaker melody, I feel like “The Frog Princess” is the first Divine Comedy single that’s not actually all that great.
The album’s next song, and its third to be inspired directly by a specific film, is “A Woman of the World”. Where “Something for the Weekend” spun out a few images from Cold Comfort Farm and “Becoming More Like Alfie” dealt with the disillusionment that came with emulating a fictional ideal, this one is much more straightforward: a direct adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. A film that could have been concocted specifically to match Hannon’s tastes, this romantic comedy features Audrey Hepburn in her signature role as Holly Golightly, a beautiful young socialite living in New York City. Told from the perspective of her new neighbour Paul Varjak, the story charts how the two fall in love as he gradually learns of her origins and motivations, but it’s Holly’s film, through and through.
The film is notionally a story of class mobility, in that we learn that Holly is the adopted name of Lulamae, a poor farmer’s wife who annulled her marriage and fled an impoverished rural upbringing, but it’s structured so as to maximise time spent mucking about in the absurd and stuffy world of 1950s high society – the heroes have their fun mocking and manipulating the rich and prestigious, but the film is much more interested in the latter than it is in its lower-class characters. As Paul and Holly grow closer, the cracks begin to show in her seemingly perfect life, and it becomes apparent that there’s a deep and insatiable unhappiness at the core of the self-described “wild thing” – a constant need for mobility, to escape her current setting and identity again and again, with no real end or goal in sight or mind.
Musically, the song weaves between two tones – one a bleak, wistful melancholy on the Wurlitzer electric piano, the other a jaunty, slightly comical melody driven by saxophone and whistling (which ties it into a sort of duo with the preceding track – the whistling-wistfully-about-specific-girls duology?). “Woman of the World” also has a substantial Father Ted connection: it was offered by Hannon to Linehan and Mathews as a potential theme, and they were initially set on using it, until producer Geoffrey Perkins convinced them that its “plinky-plonky” melody seemed like it was inappropriately mocking characters whom audiences would grow to love. They asked Hannon for another theme, and got the perfect “Songs of Love”.
The first verse is Hannon’s straightforward recapitulation of Holly’s backstory: “When she was just a girl / She became a woman / Of the world / Soon there wasn’t room en— / —ough for her / In between the bosoms / Of her family / She popped the cork / Got on the Greyhound / To New York / Small-talked her way round / Just the sort / Of playboy’s playground / She’d once dreamed about”. The only oddity is the “cork” line, which refers to a moment later in the film where Paul opens a bottle of champagne. As the song goes on, it includes many more of these specific references to scenes, images, and lines from the film, not always in the order or location in which they appeared, which produces a slightly jumbled effect – it’s as if Hannon fell asleep halfway through a drunken rewatch and transcribed the resulting dream.
In many ways, the most interesting part of the song is the refrain, which Hannon delivers in his best Scott Walker voice. The first instance consists of the intriguing “Maybe I love her / But I’m jealous of her / She’s a woman of the world”. Paul is not, by any conventional reading of the film, jealous of Holly – he sees her as broken, perhaps, but desires her for who she is. Hannon is projecting onto the film a strange relationship of his own invention, and he’ll explore it in more detail shortly.
The next verse is a dialogue where Hannon’s narrator defends Holly from another character, an American man, whose lines are sung by another performer. “She’s a fake / Sure, but she’s a real fake / On the make / Making up for lost time / Just you wait / Hey, girl the girl a break / And a fifty-dollar bill, we’ll see to that / That ain’t enough to feed the cat / Serve up the rats and super-rats / Well, they’ll just get fatter / While she fades away”. This doesn’t represent a single scene or character in the film, though it begins by paraphrasing a conversation Paul has about Holly with OJ Berman, the film producer who discovered her “when she was just a kid” and smoothed out her country accent by teaching her French. Most of this exchange reflects specific lines and moments in the film: the “real fake” part reflects Berman’s judgement that Holly is “a phony, but a real phony, because she honestly believes all this phony junk that she believes”, with Hannon twisting the precise wording to fit the rhyme and meter. The “fifty-dollar bill” line refers to a running joke where Holly fleeces doting men for exorbitant amounts “for the powder-room”; the next refers to the semi-stray cat she keeps but refuses to name, and which serves as a kind of externalisation of her own self-perception; and the “rats and super-rats” are taxonomic terms in Holly’s hierarchy of the dull men whom she takes advantage of. In Breakfast at Tiffany’s, names, ownership, and authenticity are all somehow the same thing – as the heroine says in the final scene, “I’m not Holly. I’m not Lulamae, either. I don’t know who I am. I’m like Cat, here. We’re a couple of no-name slobs. We belong to nobody. And nobody belongs to us. We don’t even belong to each other.”
The next verse is absolutely fascinating. Following the dialogue, the narrator retreats into a session of solipsism which begins with a reprise of the aforementioned refrain, but then goes on and on, growing more unsettling and emotionally naked as it does so. The narrator – who, remember, seems to be a version of Paul Varjak warped and complicated for the purposes of Hannon’s revisionist adaptation – is interrogating his own feelings about Holly, and gradually mounts into a kind of murderous existentialism, cycling through a variety of speculative models in an attempt to understand their relationship. Continuing his train of thought from the refrain, he ponders, “Maybe I hate her / ‘Cos I didn’t create her / It’s human nature, girl”. Oddly, it seems he’s fantasising about being Holly’s father, or at least about being instrumental in making her the woman she is today, spiteful that she can just stroll fully-formed and perfect into his life. It’s not an entirely unrealistic emotional response – just a very complex one, of the sort that isn’t often depicted in popular media. Next, he attempts another reductive framing, the girl-as-puzzle-box: “Maybe I’ll solve her / Just to be her lover / Just to part of her world”, before alighting on the possibility that his desire might have a very different root: “Maybe I need her / Because I want to be her / Baby, can I be your girl?” Recoiling from this idea in the way one recoils from a dangerous truth, the narrator retreats into mundane, final violence: “Maybe I’ll kill her / Just trying to thrill her / If she don’t kill me first”. While the broad flavour of the film characters’ intense relationship is retained, Hannon adds unsettling specificities, most interestingly the suggestion that the male hero might want to be Holly – which is oddly progressive, and goes quite a way towards counterbalancing some of the album’s archaic ideas about gender.
After a bridge consisting of a jaunty saxophone solo not entirely unlike Sonny Rollins’s score for Alfie, Hannon gives us the denouement: “You’re making eye contact / Of those hypnotic eyes attract / Such philanthropic flies, that’s that / You cannot stop it, so why the devil do you try?” While there is no shortage of Breakfast at Tiffany’s analysis in academia, I dare say “A Woman of the World” is one of the more interesting, inventive, and idiosyncratic interpretations to date.
Like Peter Jackson’s Return of the King, Casanova seems not to want to end – or, more precisely, seems to enjoy endings quite a lot. First there’s “Songs of Love”, which ends the A-side but contains such a vast shift in perspective and scale that it could just as easily have concluded the album. Later, towards the end of the B-side, we get another song which would have served as a perfectly good ending, but then another, and then another, each of the last three tracks serving as a definitive conclusion in its own different way. The first of these is “Through a Long and Sleepless Night”. This song was assembled from fragmentary ideas and lines Hannon had jotted down in his notebook but never managed to develop into full pieces – a process which he says “makes for a rather bizarre, but strangely illuminating, six minutes of paranoia.” The song is essentially Liberation’s “Victoria Falls” with a snarl. It begins with a piano note repeating metronome-like, jangly guitar which seems to be mixed with its own reversed sound, and – buried almost imperceptibly deep in the mix – muffled, incomprehensible conversation; a combination of sounds that could well have been chosen to simulate delirium. (A much more palatable, less thorny song of the same name was written for the 1949 film Come to the Stable, and Hannon would certainly have been familiar with the cover version included on the first of Scott Walker’s four self-titled albums.)
Though fractured and ambiguous, the lengthy first verse seems to coalesce around a general feeling of depression: “Through a long and sleepless night / I thought upon the jury’s plight / If what is wrong can feel so right / Then life’s no longer black-and-white”. As in Hannon’s list-songs, the lines don’t really form a narrative – you could divide them into blocks of two or three and then rearrange those into any order without changing the overall meaning one iota. Nonetheless, some of these shattered images preserve an odd vividness that hints at their origins as potential songs in their own right: “It’s four o’clock and all’s not well / In my private circle of hell” seems like a reference to Dante, that ancestral influence Hannon inadvertently bound to his work the moment he named his band, while “I contemplate my navel hair / And slowly slide into despair” is far too good a line to be casually tossed off in a monologue. It’s a good depiction of insomnia, especially in the hallucinatory specificities of thought and memory that can flood through a miserable brain deprived too long of sleep or sensory stimulation.
The song moves feverishly from the World War I imagery of “Charge” to the bleak fortune-telling of “Middle-Class Heroes”: “This rot has fast become a trench / This smell has turned into the stench / Of rotten hopes and stale ideals / The past is snapping at my heels”. I can only imagine that “Oh Danny Boy, the pipes are blocked / With bedtime blues and future shock” is a reference to Tharg the Mighty’s tenure as editor of 2000 AD, while “I know the best is yet to come / But does it always take this long?” is a painful expression of longing, a leaf from the book of “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me”.
There’s a key-shift, and abruptly Hannon adopts a gentle, effeminate falsetto: “I can put on the perfume / Even wear the dress sometimes / But I’ll always be the bridegroom / And never the bride”. This is a play on the common phrase “always the bridesmaid, never the bride”, which can be used either (literally) to disparage a woman’s marital prospects or (metaphorically) to signify exclusion. If Hannon had simply used the real phrase, his meaning would have been clear. Instead, he switches the first gendered term but not the second, and prefaces the altered version with a line strongly emphasising the phrase’s gendered aspect. What’s this about? Perhaps it was intended as a simple joke, but could the depressive, needling discomfort at the core of the song actually be gender dysphoria?
In the next verse, the narrator turns his fury against some ambiguous “you”, though whether that’s his girlfriend, his audience, or his own self is unclear – the effect is that Hannon’s spitting each furious syllable into the void. “You deserve to be horse-whipped / But I’ve no horse, that joke’s so shit / And whips would only make it worse / Don’t tempt the lonely and perverse”. It’s as if the writer, growing frustrated at this album’s insatiable demand for Carry On one-liners, is scribbling out his own poorly-constructed innuendos, on the verge of just shouting outright whatever it is he’s been trying to communicate artistically. The narrator spews a cavalcade of images, including “The casualties of casual sex / The child of three with X-ray specs”, which refers evocatively back to the crushing mundanity of “Middle-Class Heroes” and its protagonist, the accidental infant.
“The conman low with self-esteem / The Casanova in your dreams”. Dripping with contempt and mockery, these lines seem to be a cynical commentary on the album’s own defining tension – the competing ideas of Hannon-as-seductive-womaniser and Hannon-as-bookish-fop. In this view, the Casanova persona seems not just fictional but an active lie, something dreamt up by the singer to counter his own insecurities – or perhaps we are the ones at fault, for daring to imagine the title as sincere when we picked up the album; for uncritically accepting and identifying with the flawed heroes Hannon projected on himself. The narrator continues down a path of self-destruction, slipping into pataphoric confusion: “I’ll scream and scream and scream until / I’ve made myself critically ill / In hospital, in case you’re there / In uniform, intensive care”. The next line, “I know you’ll be the death of me / But what a cool death that would be”, is such a fantastically weird threat. “I’d rather die than be deprived / Of Wonderbras and thunder-thighs”. Is the narrator referring to getting his hands on a female body and its complements, or to the possibility of actually getting one?
At last, the narrator relaxes, running out of hatred – now he just seems faintly unhinged, breathing heavily between lines, as if feeling the call of the void: “Bored of normality, why not go daft? / It’s easy to do if you try / Slide right back down that self-confident path / You’ve just so laboriously climbed”. The “you” in this song is so fluid that precise meaning is difficult to grasp, but I think these lines refer to the whole Casanova exercise: Hannon is weighing the merits of the character, and the emotional effort required to maintain this top-40 pop vibrancy, against the possibility of giving up – the temptation to let go, and slip back to introverted obscurity, back into the world of Liberation and Fanfare and October 1st and nothing. He develops the idea further, amusing himself: “Pickle your liver and addle your brain / Live the bohemian life, haha, that’s right / And die young and penniless somewhere in Spain”. After envisioning this potential future of low-effort, low-output obscurity, languishing in drunken squalor, Hannon seemingly breaks the fourth wall and delivers what may be the album’s most direct statement of his real beliefs: “Then again, you could try just to live your own life / In the way that you find most amusing”. At this point, he launches into the crescendo, practically screaming “I don’t really care / I don’t really care / No, I don’t really care”, turning the phrase over and over as if examining its every facet – exploring the liberatory experience of the abyss.
Finally, Hannon reprises the refrain in his own natural singing voice, with a newfound irrepressible certainty: “I can put on the perfume! / Even wear the dress sometimes! / But I will always be the bridegroom! / And I will never be the bride! / Never be the bride!” Since the next two tracks are, respectively, a sort of jokey credits instrumental and a “post-credits” epilogue, there is a real sense in which this line is the climax and conclusion of Casanova, so it feels justified to analyse it closely. Even ignoring that it would make structural sense for this final instance of the line to switch from figurative to literal marriage, this abandonment of performative femininity is complex enough that it can be taken a myriad ways. When the narrator declares that he will “never be the bride”, he sounds doubtless and definitive, but is the tone one of triumph or surrender?
While Hannon is clearly the sort of educated liberal who’d consider gay rights an obvious and unquestionable good, that’s not necessarily something that can be deduced from his work alone, which is generally quite heteronormative. That said, I think that his keen interest in gender roles and tendency towards playful subversion sometimes interact to produce an environment oddly hospitable to transgender themes. This album is full of examples – even the Frog Princess, a song about something quite different, rests on a gender-switched version of a male fairy-tale archetype.
Laying my cards on the table: I think it’s entirely possible to read Casanova as an album about gender dysphoria and transition. Perhaps the album’s recurring gender inversions were meant simply as jokes, but I’d never let mere authorial intent get in the way of a good subtext-hunt, and there’s a surprising amount of evidence to back this up. “In & Out of Paris & London” contains a line where the narrator refers to himself as a man, then wonders “If that’s really what I am”. The climax of “A Woman of the World” has the narrator fantasising about being the Woman of the World – a radical but oddly compelling reinterpretation of the film’s obsession with changing names and defying assigned identity. In this interpretation, the falsetto section in “Charge”, with its polarised bass counterpart, might represent the warring of female and male personas within an individual. This also helps rehabilitate the slightly uncomfortable fixation that several of the other songs have with gender roles, in the sense that people who are still questioning or insecure about their own identities often treat the source of their anxieties with cavalier glibness. Could the lust for women which drives this album actually be a buried, sublimated jealousy?
The penultimate track, “Theme from Casanova“, is paradoxical on several levels. Shaped like the name of a track from a film score, the title positions it as the essential heart of the album, but actually it’s a relaxing instrumental quite unlike any of the songs. As Hannon explains, it’s the closest he’s done to a self-titled song: “From the ridiculous to the sublime. This is probably the purest expression of Divine Comedy schizophrenia to date, and I didn’t have to say a word on it.” This would seem to contradict Hannon’s claim that The Divine Comedy is about a battle between the “sacred and profane”, as “Theme from Casanova” is sacred to the core.
Hannon likes to structure albums with an unusually soft penultimate track – Liberation has its sole instrumental in the slot (“Europe by Train”), while Promenade has its quietest and most minimalistic track (“Ten Seconds to Midnight”). “Theme from Casanova” is the most intriguing instance yet, with an inventive framing device: a spoken-word introduction performed by band member Joby Talbot, in the clipped manner of a BBC Radio continuity announcer. “The Divine Comedy’s Casanova, a collection of songs for bass-baritone and ensemble, inspired by the writings of the eighteenth-century Venetian gambler, eroticist, and spy. And performed for us there by the composer, Neil Hannon. He was accompanied in that 1995 recording by a specially-assembled group of young musicians under the baton of Dr Joby Talbot. The programme was devised by The Divine Comedy, and was produced in our London studios by Darren Allison. Now, as we’re running a little ahead of schedule, there’s just time for one extra item, so I’ll leave you with the haunting strains of ‘Theme from Casanova‘…”
Most of this monologue is perfectly true, with the charming exception of the “schedule” conceit – the idea that we’ve got lucky, and that this is a bonus we’ve been granted by chance rather than a carefully-chosen component of the tracklist. Another quibble: if Hannon couldn’t even finish Dante’s Divine Comedy, the claim that the album is inspired by Giacomo Casanova’s writings seems dubious at best – the general pop-cultural idea of the man is a much more likely source material. (On a related note, I’m 99% sure that Russell T Davies’s Casanova miniseries would’ve been sampled somewhere on this record if only it had existed at the time – David Tennant even looks weirdly like Hannon in it.)
Talbot’s monologue is spoken over a simple rhythmic loop of electric organ and acoustic guitar. The only track with a similar feel is “Songs of Love”, which makes sense – they’re the two. The brass comes in, and when Hannon’s voice eventually joins, it’s effectively just another instrument, his only line being “La la-la-la la”. That said, he gets quite a bit of mileage out of it, turning that five-syllable chain over again and again, examining its different dimensions: wistful, contented, melancholy, weary, glad. Hannon’s voice is accompanied by soaring, needling, reaching strings not entirely unlike the godly climax of “Don’t Look Down”.
The final, final track of Casanova is “The Dogs and the Horses”, a song both radically different to all before it and intrinsic enough that it feels essential – though perhaps you could say that epics about death always feel essential. We know it’s there, waiting off-stage, after the last book, the last episode, the last song – it’s just a question of whether you impose a false ending or let your story roll on till it hits the real one. Musically, it’s Hannon’s take on a classic Scott Walker ballad, sweeping and harrowingly cinematic, disregarding the brassy, lurching energy that defines the rest of the album. Lyrically, it’s Hannon, at the grand old age of 25, giving us his definitive take on the inevitability of death and how to confront one’s own mortality.
The song begins with the soft sound of piano, harp, and strings, reverberating as if in a vast dark hall. Using the four seasons as a structural framework, it seems to be narrated by an ancient, dying man who is imparting his life’s wisdom to his son. “Sing a happy song / ‘Cause spring does not last long / A flower blooms and then it’s gone”. The opening lines echoes the closing instruction of “Songs of Love” – this is the fatal, tragic eventuality that song’s narrator warned us about, dramatised, almost as if Hannon reached across time to graft his final song of final album onto the end of this one instead. At first the vocal is faintly hoarse and rigid, letting the undulating orchestra do most of the work. “Summer follows fast / Make hay while it lasts / Don’t ever dwell upon the past”. The seasonal structure suggests that we’re already halfway through the tale, adding the element of a ticking clock.
The central joke of “Theme from Casanova“, which positions itself as a hastily tacked-on bonus, helps to emphasise the even-further-disconnected nature of the actual final track. That said, there is a certain continuity: “Theme from Casanova” ends with the sound of barking and galloping – not actually heard in “The Dogs and the Horses”, but setting the scene for it with a literalisation of its metaphor. The two tracks are also connected by the heavy involvement of Joby Talbot, who co-arranged “Theme from Casanova” and arranging and orchestrated “The Dogs and the Horses”, as well as contributing vocal work to the former. We can probably thank him for the grand, sweeping, cinematic quality that the album’s orchestral section develops towards its end (we might call this the Talbot duology, if we’re still having fun breaking Casanova up into increasingly small sections).
In some ways, “The Dogs and the Horses” seems like an attempt to turn the Promenade track “Ten Seconds to Midnight” – Hannon’s brief sketch of the entirety of human life, sung softly with a lone piano accompaniment – into a complete piece with the scale and heft its subject-matter deserves. Factor in “Lucy” from Liberation, and it begins to look like he has difficulty ending an album in any way other than meditating upon death.
Hannon soars into epic proclamation: “For one day, you are here / And the next, you are gone / Every horse has its year / And every dog its day, my son”. It’s the unbeatable mixed animal metaphor, only deployed for drama rather than comedy. Next comes the refrain, tentatively upbeat, with a güiro adding a touch of levity: “So the only thing to feel sad about is / All the dogs and the horses you’ll have to outlive / They’ll be with you when you say goodbye”. The narrator’s words comfort without coddling: he invokes the deaths of pets and companions, not seeking to deny the natural order, but in an attempt to apprehend a lesser and preparatory grief, and to make his peace with the approaching ultimate (with a trace of that “My Way” triumphalism). Stepping back from this brink for a moment, the narrator resumes his instructive memoir: “Then the fall from grace / The lines upon your face / Grow deeper almost every day… / …ys and weeks go by / And winter nights draw nigh / And everything that lives must die”. The passage of time, its vertiginous slipperiness, is captured well in this rolling lyrical montage, and the mention of the final season – the “fall from grace” having stood in for autumn – signals to us that we’re now on the uttermost edge of this album.
After repeating the grandstanding “For one day, you are here” Scott Walker climax, and giving it some space, Hannon returns to the refrain, now movingly adjusted from the second-person future tense to a first-person present: “But as the curtains close, and the last prayers are said / All my dogs and my horses appear around my bed / They have come to say one last goodbye / Goodbye”. Two of Hannon’s great fascinations – the multimedia stories he cribs from incessantly (represented in an oblique stage-direction metaphor) and the towering presence of religion (the resurfacing of prayer at the end of an atheist’s life). Psychopomps, the spirits that guide us the afterlife, have been depicted as kindly animals since time immemorial: a crowd of dogs and horses manifesting in a bedroom seems a particularly well-off British variation on the theme, comical but oddly affecting nonetheless. Hannon seems to be contemplating his own eventual death here, if only because it’s difficult to write at length about a death without doing so.
The album’s final “Goodbye”, of course, mirrors the first word of the opening track, “Hello”, reminding us that these very different stories comprise a greater whole. The song has a similar feel and sound to Scott 4, Walker’s most conventionally great album – in particular its closing track, “Rhymes of Goodbye”, which also shares its final word and tone of contented accomplishment. (Walker may have influenced Casanova in other substantial ways: the album’s three song-based films relate to their source texts not unlike the way Walker’s epic ballad “The Seventh Seal” relates to its eponymous Ingmar Bergman film.) After a clarinet-and-piano denouement that’s more Promenade than Casanova, the song passes into dignified silence, the story at a close.
There are a few ways to look at the overall arc and trajectory of Casanova. Keeping in mind that endings are what shape the whole, a more accurate description than the usual “album about sex” would be “album about sex and death”, that eternal conflict of Eros and Thanatos, and which the final track’s mention of the mediator – offspring – quietly brings full-circle. Indeed, most of the album’s earlier sexual references carry within them the seeds of death – and not just in the obvious sense that life leads to death, either. Cold Comfort Farm is riddled with decay and mortality. While the first thing people think of when you mention Alfie will probably be all the riding, it’s actually quite a bleak story – the protagonist spends much it in a health scare, and the film ends with Alfie himself being cheated on due to his advancing age. “Songs of Love” refers melancholically to singing “while we still can”. “In & Out in Paris & London” begins with a Dickens quote about death, and gestures towards the similarities between the arbitrary, endless procedures by which we enter the world and leave it (in, out, in, out). Perhaps the representation of sex as war in “Charge” is just a slightly abstracted way of mediating its essential deathly nature. And what a cool death that would be.
Meanwhile, there’s a more subversive narrative running just under the surface: one in which the album begins in whitebread cisheteronormativity, then charts a gradual process of introspective questioning which culminates – depending on your interpretation of the third-last song’s final line – either in liberatory self-actualisation or in tragic repression that lasts to the grave. Female body or no body: either way, the spirit can’t keep its old home. Casa Nova: a tale of death and transness – states far too often linked – normalising gender-nonconformity by portraying it as just another of those adventures and tribulations experienced on the great journey. A reach? Perhaps. But I think this angle imbues an album that’s often seen as frothy and libidinous with a certain depth and social applicability, and is in keeping with the transformative approach Hannon takes to his own various source materials, ransacking the decaying and familiar to stoke the fires of generation. There may be something in the woodshed, but it’s not the future.