To an attentive Divine Comedy fan in the mid-1990s, it would appear that Neil Hannon was releasing EPs under two banners: the Companion and the Indulgence. A record is a Companion when it’s associated with a particular album, and an Indulgence when it’s not. A Promenade Companion is clearly a satellite in the orbit of the album Promenade; meanwhile, Indulgence No. 1 is slightly more mysterious, and seems to exist for its own purposes. All very good. In 1996, however, this nascent classification system experienced some turbulence when someone decided that the three singles from the album Casanova would each be subtitled “A Casanova Companion”, followed by a number. As such, the number of Divine Comedy records with the words “Casanova Companion” in the title is… six.
I know. Bear with me.
The “Something for the Weekend” single has “A Casanova Companion No. 1” printed on the side, and “Becoming More Like Alfie” is “A Casanova Companion No. 2”. For some reason, “The Frog Princess” gets two single releases – a green one labelled “A Casanova Companion No. 3”, and a red one labelled “A Casanova Companion No. 4”. Confusing things further, some of these got cassette-tape and/or vinyl editions containing different, truncated versions of the CD tracklists, so it’s difficult to treat these single-centric “companions” as having any fixed identities that it would make sense to scrutinise. That said, these records (or so I’ll refer to them – a far more pleasing name than “CDs”) do contain some very interesting new tracks, and it’s worth examining these both to see what light they cast on Casanova itself and to explore the sort of music Hannon, in this era, deemed worthy of release but somehow unsuitable for album inclusion. (Several of these songs later became bonus tracks on a Japanese release of Casanova and a Canadian edition of A Short Album About Love, but it’s as “Casanova Companions” that they first appeared, so that’s how I’ll be examining them.)
There are no more Indulgences after No. 2, though Companions become a staple of the Divine Comedy discography – several more albums get them. However, the “Companion” subtitling isn’t repeated for the band’s later singles, so there’s a sense that these records – their arrangement, their B-sides – are particularly important to Casanova somehow. And to be fair, it is something of a special occasion: these are, after all, the first Divine Comedy singles. But we’ve only counted four – what were the other two records with “Casanova Companion” in the title, I hear you ask? Do not panic, reader: all shall be revealed in time.
“A Casanova Companion No. 1”, naturally, opens with the eponymous “Something for the Weekend”. Its second track, however, is a new one: “Birds of Paradise Farm”, a fanciful song of escape and escapism. This song has a rather unique musical sound, with a playful but relentlessly repetitious jangle-guitar riff played over an unusually piercing, amelodic string backing, but what’s really striking is the way Hannon couches it in a very uncharacteristic level of autobiographical detail. The lines are very short, giving the song a conversational feel. “My parents knew / These people who / For all their faults / Were very nice / They owned a farm / Whose old-world charm / Earned it the name / Of Paradise”. Here we have our first hint of the song’s personal nature: Hannon often alludes to fathers and patriarchal deities, but he rarely specifies his own actual parents. The song is already rooted in the strangely subjective, and the hosts’ unspecified “faults” give us our first hint of the unusual conflict to come. Next, Hannon emphasises the autobiographical dimension by tossing in a quick upper-middle-class signifier: “We came to stay / One holiday / We played croquet / And burned our arms”. Finally, the song reaches its object: “But I was charmed / And lost for words / When first I heard / The birds of Paradise Farm”.
The shift to the chorus coincides with the narrator’s discovery: “Singing gay songs / All the day long / Making love to the dinner gong / Wondering when / Their human friends / Would come to feed them”. Delighted by the birds’ song, he rushes off to find them, which brings us to the song’s devastating shock twist: “I looked in the trees / And in the air / I searched the eaves / Of disused barns / Till finally / To my despair / I found / The caged birds / In Paradise Farm”. Well, not that shocking: the song never specifies what sort of birds they are, but the title obviously suggests birds-of-paradise (Paradisaeidae), which you’d hardly expect to find larking about outdoors in a Divine Comedy song. (The parallel-universe Earth in which all Divine Comedy songs take place has only two populated countries: Anglo-Ireland and France.)
In the chorus’s second iteration, the birds are still singing happily, but now they’re “Wondering why / Their tiny lives / Should be spent behind iron bars”. There’s something quite effective about this: Hannon doesn’t allow the narrator to project his own distress onto the caged creatures, but he does allow him to project curiosity – an idle wondering at their predicament. He attributes to them the sadness of accepting unfortunate circumstances, which is a subtle and relatable thing, and rather more touching than grand woe-is-me tragedy. Reflecting this same commitment to sad acceptance, the narrator has the beginnings of an idea, but he instantly puts it out of his mind, even as the passion rises in his voice: “Now, Leonardo da Vinci / Saint Francis of Assisi / But Neil Hannon of the See House, Fivemiletown / Well, it doesn’t quite sound right, somehow”. (We then get a lovely Hammond-organ solo that sounds like it was originally composed to accompany Father Ted Crilly running frantically down a road – which, considering that the song was released around the time of the second series, it very possibly was.)
Pop music is a form predicated on audience identification. The narrator of a pop song is supposed to be a blank slate. Generally, they’re meant to say things like “I love you” and “I miss you”, not “I knew him, Horatio – a fellow of infinite jest” or “Gregor Samsa woke to find himself transformed into a monstrous vermin”. Audiences can, of course, appreciate and connect to stories dealing with very specific or complex characters, but such stories generally work better in literary, dramatic, or televisual forms. A pop song is a visceral thing: it’s intended to function regardless of how much attention the listener is paying to it, and it’s written with the knowledge that most people who enjoy it will never remember anything but the hook or (at best) the chorus. A pop song wants you to sing along to it; to dance; to forget yourself. One way this is facilitated is through the use of simple, direct, emphatic, uncomplicated emotion for the listener to channel. Pop songs are cartoons – very short ones, at that, almost by definition. Complicated protagonists and engaging dramatic situations clash with the structure. You can’t do Proust in a four-panel Peanuts strip.
The Divine Comedy are, for all their oddness, still a pop group. Names are an uneasy fit for this idiom, and when they do appear, they’re usually just signifiers for an object of desire – something on which the listener can project their own feelings. As such, it’s a bit shocking when Hannon mentions his own name in the lyrics – something he’s literally never done before. In an instant, the pop blankness is compromised. Biographical details poison pop songs, turning them into something else. We can imagine that we’re the one who’s becoming more like Alfie; the Frog Princess is everyone’s ex, the story ours to step into and inhabit. “Birds of Paradise Farm” lacks this one-size-fits-all quality. Romantic love is the basic currency of pop music, but the songs exclusive to the “Casanova Companion” records are about considerably stranger things. Perhaps that’s why they’re not on Casanova. However, “Birds of Paradise Farm”, with its animal-freeing hippie fervour, actually does have an antecedent in the Divine Comedy discography – indeed, it’s the first record released under the Divine Comedy name: Fanfare for the Comic Muse. By pop-music standards, this little album is decidedly abstract: there’s precious little romance, with all seven songs articulating the young Hannon’s environmentalist messages via an indie-jangle-pop REM pastiche. “Birds of Paradise Farm” doesn’t sound much like Fanfare – it’s more confident, more refined, and less ambitious – but there’s a distinct thematic lineage here, and it offers an intriguing glimpse into the sort of music Hannon might have produced if he’d applied his mature grasp of the craft to the themes that mattered to him as an adolescent.
The narrator wants to free the birds, to befriend them like some legendary hero from long ago, but he’s stifled by propriety – by the basic mundane reality of who he is. The third time the chorus comes round, the birds are “Wondering when / Their human friend / Would come to free them”: now the narrator is projecting complicity onto the birds, seeing himself as a conspirator, supplanting the birds’ owners as the centre of their world. That the song is specifically set in a farmhouse is apt: the birds aren’t caged inside a normal house, but inside a place that was already designed to imprison animals, already the site of civilisation’s intersection with nature.
The song closes on an ambiguous note: “When the last day came / I took my time / They called my name / And revved the car / When nature calls / You must reply / They laughed, waving goodbye / To Paradise Farm”. We know that Neil is tarrying. The question is: is he staying behind to covertly release the birds from Paradise Farm, or is he just taking one last look at them – bidding his caged friends a repressed, impotent farewell? Is it Neil’s parents who, thinking he’s using the bathroom, laugh that “nature calls” – a rather elegant songwriting joke paralleling his desire to free the birds with an actual biological compulsion – or is it the birds themselves who laugh as they answer the non-euphemistic call of nature and fly out the window?
This ambiguity, and the possibility that it cloaks a disappointingly realistic answer, raises another question: is “Birds of Paradise Farm” a true story? Hannon’s mentions of his own name, address, and family do suggest so, and while the happy bird-freeing ending we anticipate would have placed the song firmly in fantasy territory, the ambivalent conclusion we actually get is decidedly more like one of the strange, unsatisfying, firmly non-narrative moments that constitute our actual lives. In Hannon’s ur-text, A Room with a View, Lucy Honeychurch’s only emotional outlet is the piano; he found the film revelatory “because it was all about living life as art, rather than just living life to get through another day.” Perhaps the narrator of “Birds of Paradise Farm” freed those birds the only way he knew how, the only way he could manage: by writing them into a song.
The third track on “A Casanova Companion No. 1” is another new recording: a cover of the 1995 song “Love Is Lighter Than Air” by the Magnetic Fields. Hannon would go on to cover several more of this band’s tracks over the years, and it’s not difficult to see why: lyrically and tonally, they’re a very close cousin of The Divine Comedy. Given that both bands were with Setanta Records at the time, a certain amount of cross-pollination makes sense, but this connection feels genuine rather than forced. Perhaps frontman Stephin Merrit’s bass-baritone is slightly deeper and less refined, but he sounds almost exactly like an American Neil Hannon. (He also looks as if Hannon and Thomas Walsh got fused in some kind of Duckworth-Lewis teleporter malfunction, but that’s less instructive.) The similarities don’t stop with their voices, as a quick glance at any interview with Merrit reveals a sardonic manner and dry, detached sense of humour that any Divine Comedy fan will find familiar; and since this introspective playfulness also filters into Merrit’s lyrics, it’s easy to see why Hannon would be drawn to them.
The song – in both its Magnetic Fields and Divine Comedy incarnations – derives most of its effect from the tension between its cheerful melody and the surrealist melancholy of its lyrics. The narrator tells a story of regret: “Summer, summer, summer / Slowly turned into fall / Me and my baby doll / Never went to the beach / Somewhere, somewhere, somewhere / Was a place we could run / On the sand with the sun / Always just out of reach”. If “baby doll” is a term of endearment, this is a romantic getaway that never happened; if the doll is literal, it’s a childhood holiday never taken. However we interpret it, the overall effect – one of loss and wistful longing – is largely unchanged.
Next the narrator shifts his attention to someone he is warning not to repeat his mistake, perhaps ourselves: “Somewhere sunny summer’s / Marching to a different drummer, singing / Summer, summer, summer’s / Gonna turn into fall / You and your baby doll / Better go to the beach”. The chorus, which is the happiest-sounding part of the song, also reveals the sad secret hidden in its buoyant title: “…’cause / Love is lighter than air / It floats away if you let go / Love is lighter than air / It rises through the falling snow”. The song’s name mirrors its tonal disjunction: to say that something is “lighter than air” sounds positive, but of course it really means that it’s fleeting and ephemeral; that it can be lost forever in a moment.
The music trundles happily along, but the lyrics take a turn for the abstract: “A crime, crime, crime / Sin and illness is time / Neither reason nor rhyme / Can obstruct his bad dance / The nasty little swine / Slipped us mickeys in wine / Wove his hair into twine / And then tied our hands”. It seems the reason the narrator and his baby doll didn’t make it to the beach is that they were drugged and kidnapped by a rather disturbed individual: “We’re forced to watch him wriggle / And endure his fulsome giggle / And his mime, mime, mime / Unforgivable mime”. While quite a few of these lyrics admittedly seem chosen for rhyme rather than semiotics – the song has a certain stream-of-consciousness quality – it seems that there are two broad ways to interpret this turn. We can take the kidnapper as a literal character, in which case we’re left with an odd and improbable little crime drama. Or, more interestingly, we can take him as a metaphor: “Sin and illness is time” initially sounds like a dashed-off non-sequitur, but if we hear it as “Sin and illness is Time“, it serves to unlock the entire song: this cavorting, incubus-like figure is the personification of Time itself. Given the song’s references to the passing seasons, it seems likely that this was Merrit’s intended meaning: a portrait of Chronos as a laughing grotesque who slips something into our drink and carries us away.
In the song’s closing lines, the narrator attempts to turn love’s eponymous lightness to his advantage, and use it as a means of escape: “Our one chance is to climb / Into blimps of romance, ’cause / Love is lighter than air / It floats away if you let go / Love is lighter than air / It rises through the falling snow”. There’s something quite affecting about this juxtaposition: the idea that the ephemerality of love can somehow be weaponised, used as a tool to overcome the debilitating effects that the passage of time has on our lives. The song becomes, in other words, a tribute to the power of fantasy.
It’s also striking that, like the previous track, “Love Is Lighter Than Air” is a song about imprisonment; it could almost be a retelling of “Birds of Paradise Farm” from the perspective of the birds themselves. The similarity continues right up to the songs’ ambiguous conclusions, which offer us the possibility of escape (via flight, in both cases) but never tell us what happens next.
There are several Divine Comedy songs where Hannon selects a timekeeping system and uses it as a skeleton on which to hang the lyrics. Perhaps this is related to his proclivity for the list-song, in that both are clearly helpful ways to get a song going, but the effect is rather more specific: as well as giving a song a clear structure, it necessarily imbues it with a teleological feeling of inevitability, often accompanied by an edge of melancholy, a longing for a lost, golden past. The first song of this type is “Ten Seconds to Midnight”, which consists of a simple ten-second countdown, interpolated into a contemplative two-minute song; the second is “The Dogs and the Horses”, whose verses are demarcated by the names of the four seasons. As such, it’s not difficult to see why Hannon wanted to cover “Love Is Lighter Than Air”, with its summer-fall-winter trajectory. Additionally, the closing image of love as something that can be used, Zeppelin-like, for an airborne escape, is also very much Hannon’s sort of thing – quite similar, in fact, to the events of “Tonight We Fly”. (Perhaps the continued weather fascination has something to do with Electric Light Orchestra.) Hannon’s most interesting covers are of songs that differ from his usual style, but “Love Is Lighter Than Air” could practically have been written by Hannon himself – the only thing that really stands out is the rather gothic, almost Goya- or Fuseli-like image of the temporal incubus, which doesn’t seem like something that would have come from Hannon’s mind.
As for the music, the Magnetic Fields version features some pretty excellent production: the synthesised bassline is mixed with Johnny Marr-esque jangly guitar, strange percussion that could be either metallic scraping or electronically filtered handclaps, and ungodly amounts of reverb. It sounds like they’re playing in a labyrinthine corridor inside a Kafka story. But since the music is the one area where The Magnetic Fields and The Divine Comedy actually differ, Merrit’s stark indie-pop approach is largely discarded by the cover. Hannon gives the song the full-orchestral treatment, with an electric organ replacing the guitar as the main melody line. I’m not sure what was up with the acoustics, but Hannon sounds like he’s singing through an intercom, which is a nicely estranging touch. The lyrics are kept line-for-line, but Hannon relaxes the tempo and extends the instrumental sections, adding a full minute to a track that wasn’t even three minutes long.
This is one of those occasions where the cover by The Divine Comedy doesn’t quite live up to the original. Part of this can be attributed to the sheer similarity of the two singers – despite possessing a considerably wider vocal range than Merrit, Hannon chooses to deliver this song in his default bass-baritone, and the performance simply isn’t much different. Nor is Hannon’s musical reinterpretation particularly satisfying: rather than revealing new dimensions, the addition of a full orchestra serves only to smooth out the original’s rough weirdness. Then again, it’s only a live recording – perhaps Hannon would have been able to develop a more interesting reinterpretation in the studio. But as it is, “Love Is Lighter Than Air” is much like Hannon’s Scott Walker covers: decent but conservative, more valuable for what it points the listener towards than for what it is in itself.
The final track on “Casanova Companion No. 1” is “Songs of Love”, with a helpful “(Theme from ‘Father Ted’)” appended to it on the tracklist. It’s still the plain album version rather than the actual Father Ted theme, mind, but it’s a rather sweet reminder of the show’s popularity, at the time still a new and strange thing.
The single released in the UK and Ireland as “A Casanova Companion No. 2” is “Becoming More Like Alfie”. It begins, naturally enough, with the title track, followed by Hannon’s cover of Edwyn Collins’s “Untitled Melody” (from Indulgence No. 2) – all well and good, but we’ve heard it already. The third track is new: a nice full-band rendition of “Your Daddy’s Car”, with Hannon trading the harpsichord for an electric organ and delivering a much grander vocal performance. The final track is another new live recording: a solo-piano version of “The Dogs and the Horses”. Hannon’s performance here is faithful to the original, but it turns out that stripping away the song’s cinematic orchestral escalation rather diminishes its impact. Similarly, Hannon accidentally switches the narrator’s prophecy about outliving one’s dogs and horses from the second to the first person, which undercuts the poignant reversal in the final line. It’s all rather claustrophobic.
Over in France, however, a rather different “Casanova Companion No. 2” was released: “Comme Beaucoup De Messieurs”. This is still a version of “Becoming More Like Alfie”, but it differs from the original in two drastic ways: as the new title suggests, it’s been translated into French, but more interestingly, it’s also been rewritten as a duet. (Hannon leaves the song’s instrumentation largely unchanged, but does take the opportunity to lay down some extra backing vocals. These accompany the original track’s string section, which is quietened in the mix to accommodate.)
The French “adaptation” is credited to the musician Bertrand Burgalat, but it’s not at all a direct or literal translation, so it’s unclear whether Hannon rewrote the song as a duet prior to translation or Burgalat handled that too. In any case, the core story – the ambivalent evolution from the bibliophilic introvert of Liberation and Promenade to the womanising narrator of Casanova – is preserved. But where “Becoming More Like Alfie” is an introspective song, with a narrator who describes his recent change of personality to no-one in particular, “Comme Beaucoup De Messieurs” takes this story and restructures it into a dialogue: Hannon’s character is undergoing the same experience, but this time the observations are external, coming from an inquisitive female character – seemingly an ex or an old friend – who comments on his behaviour.
The female part is performed by French actress Valerie Lemercier, who’d recently decided to have a go at singing. This cross-promotional collaboration was suggested by the label – Hannon had never heard of her, and the duet didn’t make it onto either Casanova or Valérie Lemercier Chante (her debut album, released the same year). This manufactured quality, while not a problem for the song itself, does make it feel rather inorganic once you’ve heard Hannon’s more genuine and personal collaborations with Cathy Davey, which would begin a decade later. Hannon-Lemercier is a far more artificial construction – combined with the song’s heavy use of dialogue, the result isn’t musical so much as actorial.
Lemercier does have a nice (if not quite professional) voice, but she’s an odd match physically as well as performatively, being six years Hannon’s senior and a great deal taller than him. As Hannon later said, “The one I did with Valerie Lemercier didn’t really come off the way it was meant to. I thought ‘I’ll be the next Gainsbourg’ but I just looked ridiculous alongside this six-foot-something actress who in real life would be going out with someone like Antonio Banderas… We had a pretty big elitist following in France, which disappeared as soon as the Brits started liking us too.” Presumably “Comme Beaucoup De Messieurs” was intended to recreate the sultry-languid feel of a Serge Gainsbourg / Brigitte Bardot duet, but if so, it doesn’t quite work – their voices go together well enough, but their personalities don’t spark in the same way. They just about get away with the height differential while seated, as they are in the video, but when they performed the duet live on Nulle Part Ailleurs, they just looked ludicrous – but Hannon’s attempt to rest his head on Lemercier’s shoulder at the end not only strains dignity, it defies topology. Combined with the indoor sunglasses, he looks like some sort of extraterrestrial.
It seems likely that the idea of a conversational duet between Hannon and a woman was inspired by “Something for the Weekend” and its flirtatious back-and-forth: “Comme Beaucoup De Messieurs” essentially takes that opening joke and expands it to accommodate the story of “Becoming More Like Alfie” instead. The original song begins with a sample of dialogue from Alfie, but the translation streamlines this into the conversation. Lemercier asks Hannon “Tu veux chanter?” (“Do you want to sing?”), but he seems surprised to find her addressing him: “Oui, on peut commencer. Mon Dieu, tu es…” (“Yes, we can start. My God, you are…”). “Une fille!” (“A girl!”) she interrupts. I don’t know anyone who talks like this, but there you go.
Cultural references are rewritten to be more comprehensible to the French: where the original song assumed that “becoming more like Alfie” was an immediately understandable description of the narrator’s state of mind, the new title means “Like Many Gentlemen”. Similarly, rather than talking about Hannon’s actual history with writers like William Wordsworth or EM Forster, and contrasting those to the Casanova persona, Lemercier instead reminds him of more continental figures he was supposedly obsessed with – Boris Vian, Camus, Zouc. She says “Tu t’es durci” (“You have hardened yourself”), and Hannon outright states “J’ai vu Alfie / Je sais c’est quelque peu brutal / Mais… la nature est animale” (“I saw Alfie / I know it’s a bit brutal / But… nature is animal”). The original British pop-culture reference is dispensed with in that single line, sanded down into a more intuitive idea of “becoming like many gentlemen”. The chorus line about how “glasses come free on the NHS” is replaced with a reference to Shell Oil stations, though I’m not sure that one’s any less obscure.
Hannon and Lemercier sing the chorus together, but the rest of the song is a free-flowing dialogue, the two interrupting and responding to each other with the ebb of conversation. In other words, it really is a not-quite-as-good carbon-copy of Gainsbourg and Bardot’s “Bonnie and Clyde”. At one strange moment, Lemercier casually addresses Hannon as Neil, but this feels less like the thrilling metafictional estrangement of “Birds of Paradise Farm” and more like the result of Burgalat not realising it’d be a bit weird.
Luckily for us obscuritan Divine Comedy masochists, “Comme Beaucoup De Messieurs” got its very own music video. Evidently filmed very cheaply indeed, it’s the most literal realisation of the song imaginable: we see Hannon and Lemercier sitting together at a riverside table, seemingly across from a café, performing the song and its accompanying dialogue. They’re both wearing sunglasses, and both sipping what looks like wine. Hannon’s character seems uninterested in this arrangement, and repeatedly examines his fork, while Lemercier seems to enjoy playing the shrew. The video consists almost entirely of long-takes from a locked-off perspective, so the effect is strangely theatrical. When they reach the song’s bridge, they revel in the cheapness with a thirty-second air-guitar battle, the best part of which is the bit where Hannon accidentally knees the table and Lemercier hurriedly steadies his drink.
However, the video intersperses this unique material with footage from the (considerably more impressive) original video, with Hannon cavorting through his recreations of Alfie Elkins’s cinematic council-estate trysts, the French audio synched vaguely to the original footage – indeed, close inspection seems to show some unique takes filmed just for the French version. For a notional French viewer who hasn’t seen the proper video, it would certainly imbue this one with a peculiarly polarised sense of production values. This intercutting adds some layers of possible meaning: perhaps those Alfie recreations, and the entire “Becoming More Like Alfie” video, are simply self-indulgent fantasies flitting through the narrator’s mind as his ex complains about how he’s changed. Alternatively, the cut-aways could be flashbacks: “Comme Beaucoup De Messieurs” might be a sequel to “Becoming More Like Alfie”. Which is a little counter-intuitive, as the second track on “Casanova Companion No. 2” is “Becoming More Like Alfie”, followed by “Untitled Melody” and that nice live recording of “Your Daddy’s Car”. Sorry, French people in the 1990s: you shall never get to enjoy the somewhat less-good version of “The Dogs and Horses”.
“A Casanova Companion No. 3” opens with “The Frog Princess”, but its second track is a new one: “Motorway to Damascus”. Several of Hannon’s songs are religious in nature, reflecting his Anglican upbringing, but “Motorway to Damascus” is Hannon at his most overtly biblical. As its name suggests, the song is sort of retelling of the conversion of Paul the Apostle. As recounted in the Book of Acts, Paul (neé Saul) was a zealous Pharisee who persecuted early Christians, but changed his mind about a few things after experiencing a divine vision on the Road to Damascus. In Hannon’s version, a modern-day motorist narrator is visited by an angel, who shows him an apocalyptic vision of a possible future. Remarkably, this is played completely straight.
What first strikes us about the song its very strange music. Rather than the usual orchestral rock, this track’s music consists largely of synthesised drones and electronic hisses, looping and overlapping as the song layers in its gleaming synthesised melodies. The closest comparison in Hannon’s own work is “Europe by Train” from Liberation. There’s also a certain similarity with the more electronic flavour of Hannon’s demos, but I don’t think “Motorway to Damascus” is one of those – it feels too complete. Moreover, the song seems to be Hannon pastiching Kraftwerk – something that would totally evaporate if recorded in the usual Divine Comedy style.
In some ways, it’s strange that Neil Hannon should consider Kraftwerk one of his favourite bands. The Divine Comedy, for all their baroque orchestral sound and densely ironic lyrics, still look and function roughly like a normal pop group – the kind that perform hooky love songs with emotions and guitars and what-have-you. Not so Kraftwerk, whose otherworldly, personality-free electronica about roads, robots, and radiation make it seem like your radio’s tuned into a parallel universe. Hannon loves Kraftwerk, but generally doesn’t aim to sound like them. This is a shame, because when he does, the result is absolutely electric.
While Hannon is perhaps too much of a romantic to sustain any direct emulation of their slick, ambient roboticism, “Motorway to Damascus” bears striking similarities to Kraftwerk’s 1974 album Autobahn. They’re both, not to belabour the obvious, about motorways: using electronic music, they attempt to evoke and simulate the experience of driving – specifically the hypnotic state that can be attained by driving on a long, wide, monotonous motorway, and the peculiar “shower thoughts” that creep into our minds once we’ve zoned out. The parallel is particularly clear in the album’s opening track, “Autobahn” – by far the most conventionally song-like of the five, even if it is 23 minutes long. Hannon retains Kraftwerk’s use of the motorway as an opportunity to contemplate the future as such, but his lyrics are much more pointed and complex: his motorist narrator is visited by an angel, and witnesses the horror and beauty of the oncoming apocalypse.
Hannon performs much of the song in his regular baritone; however, lines associated with the angel are double-tracked, with the right channel favouring Hannon’s ordinary voice and the left channel emphasising his most delicate falsetto. This alone would have been weird and estranging enough, but Hannon also chooses to deliver the angelic lyrics in a Dalek-like staccato, adding to their alien, almost robotic quality. However, the song isn’t a simple dialogue between the characters – the narrator is addressing us after his supernatural experience, paraphrasing the angel’s words rather than relaying them to us verbatim, and never actually seems to have responded to the angel himself – but the disjunction between the song’s casual and angelic lines is so dramatic that we’ll need to italicise the latter in order to capture the song’s feeling: “Daybreak on the motorway to Damascus / A heavenly angel flagged me down / And asked for a ride into town / For God’s sake, on the motorway to Damascus / This heavenly angel, wise and pure / Proceeded with a guided tour“.
For the angel’s tour, Hannon drops the bicameral falsetto and escalates into classic Scott Walker grandeur: “Behold a shining city of silver, grey, and white / Of solar-panelled rooftops glinting in the light / And wind-power generators turning soundlessly through the night”. It’s unclear, I think, whether the angel is literally taking the narrator around modern-day 1997 Damascus or already literally showing him a vision of the future; the green technology described here was certainly contemporary for the song’s composition, but it was still emblematic of the future. In any case, one presumes this city is meant to be a desirable prospect; it seems to represent a symbiotic relationship between humanity and nature.
A few hours have passed by the next verse, where the vision becomes explicitly futuristic: “Midday on the motorway to Damascus / The heavenly angel flapped its wings and told me more exciting things / Like how one day this motorway to Damascus, yeah / Would disappear without trace, the unsustainable replaced“. This is the only point where Hannon refers to the angel with a pronoun – evidently he wants to keep its gender ambiguous, which nicely accentuates those unearthly androgyny of the double-tracked vocals in which he’s showing off his full range. To describe this glorious future, Hannon resumes his full-on Walker sweep: “Behold the new, new forest / In four hundred shades of green / Stretching out before us / Where it always should have been / A botanical thesaurus / For as far as the eye can see”. It’s fitting that Hannon should name this apparition the New Forest – twenty years later, Cathy Davey would use the same name for her masterpiece, an album which shares the topic of “Motorway to Damascus”. But is the angel’s new forest an alternative to the shining city, or its inexorable fate? But of course, this vision of the future is also a vision of the past. In songs like “Your Daddy’s Car”, or “The Summerhouse”, or “My Imaginary Friend”, Hannon meditates on childhood with a yearning sense of nostalgia, a fondness tinged with melancholy. “Motorway to Damascus” takes this approach and elevates it from the individual to the collective – even to the cosmic. This song isn’t nostalgic for a lost childhood, it’s nostalgic for a lost ecology; a lost epoch.
The use of the word “thesaurus” here is particularly strange. If Hannon wants to signify a vast profusion of flora, as suggested by his somewhat programmatic “four hundred shades” (bit like Wordsworth’s comically specific “ten thousand” daffodils, that), then surely “encyclopedia” is nearer the mark – or even “dictionary”, which conveys more clearly the idea of a compendium of many specimens. A thesaurus isn’t an ark; rather than informative, discrete, self-contained entries, it offers only a recursive map of connections and redirects. But why insist on a linguistic or bibliographic metaphor at all? Perhaps the purpose is to underline the poetic irony of this green apocalypse: thesauruses are, after all, made of trees. Ashes to ashes, pulp to pulp. And in their name, there’s also an echo of our relationship to the distant past: the fuel we’re burning to immanentise the anthropocene extinction is composed of a kind of saurus, too (symbolically if not literally).
Hannon’s voice fades away, and we’re surrounded by sounds of nature: crickets chirp, dogs bark, and the music morphs into stranger sounds – eerie radiophonic drones and glimmers, sketching an eerie, unsettling vision of civilisation’s trappings reclaimed by Earth. He’s used this technique before – at the midway point of “Lucy”, he renders one of Wordsworth’s perambulatory spots-of-time with the trickling of a stream and the baa-ing of sheep – but in “Motorway to Damascus”, the effect is unsettling rather than sweet, and considerably more interesting for it.
The decision to insert an environmentalist message into a Kraftwerk pastiche wasn’t unprecedented – in 1991, the band reworked their own song “Radioactivity”, replacing the original version’s open-ended, ambiguous meditation with direct references to Chernobyl and a call to eliminate nuclear power. More to the point, environmentalism isn’t a new topic for Hannon: if there’s a general trend emerging among the “Casanova Companion” B-sides – see also the animal-rights activism in “Birds of Paradise Farm” – it’s the re-evaluation of Fanfare for the Comic Muse, and the application of improved songwriting technique to its themes. (“Motorway to Damascus” also reflects “Love Is Lighter Than Air”, in that it’s another of those songs Hannon constructs around a technique of timekeeping – in this case, the passage of a single day, from dawn to dusk. The contemplation of time, of course, is one particularly tangible way we apprehend the natural world, in all its cyclical glory.)
Fanfare is largely a work of secular environmentalism: Mother Earth is a presence, but there’s no sense that she’s a real power, and it’s not until the final track, “Secret Garden”, that we get a glimmer of Christianity. The overt mysticism of “Motorway to Damascus” is a big improvement: where Fanfare felt preachy, with the adolescent Hannon warning us about the dangers of pollution and so on, this one positions the narrator himself as merely another recipient of the message, just like us. Bolstering one’s views by attributing them to a divine revelation is still a dubious tactic (sorry, Joseph Smith), but in this fictional musical context, it works quite well. It’s as if Hannon, frustrated with the evangelical right-wing denial of climate-change, has attempted to contrive a scenario that could actually persuade those people: a warning not from science but from God. Fanfare was not a successful album, either commercially or artistically, but it was emphatically strange, and thoroughly orthogonal to conventional pop subject-matter. “Motorway to Damascus” gives us a glimpse at what might have happened if Hannon had persevered in that direction – if he’d retained his initial focus on that theme while he honed his musical and lyrical skills. Perhaps the mysterious angel on the Fanfare album artwork is the one who visits the motorist on his way to Damascus.
The song does draw some real power from the story of Paul’s conversion: framing the alteration in human behaviour needed to avert catastrophic climate-change as a heathen’s religious conversion is quite a striking call to action. Still, it differs in some pretty deep ways: Paul’s vision was of the resurrected Christ, for one thing; and it didn’t include any sights or information about the future. It seems Hannon is evoking the Road to Damascus mainly for its iconic value rather than its content; the song’s simple three-word title conjures a vivid portrait of a biblical, mythological world that has been crushed and overwritten by modernity. Perhaps the shining city hints at the New Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation. But more than any Bible story, the events in “Motorway to Damascus” resemble another, later Christian text: Paradise Lost. The pop-cultural idea of Milton’s poem is that it’s the story of Satan’s rebellion, which is true enough, but not what what’s relevant here. Satan is largely taken out of the picture in the poem’s tenth book, where he and his demons and reduced to serpents as punishment following the original sin; books eleven and twelve, however, form a lengthy epilogue where the Archangel Michael appears to Adam with a series of prophetic visions and accounts of future events. He shows him Cain’s murder of Abel, and Noah’s survival of the Flood; tells him of Abraham, Israel, the coming of Christ, the crucifixion; and finally reveals the Second Coming, the destruction of Satan, and the creation of an eternal paradise. Adam essentially learns the entire course of human destiny, before it has even begun. Paradise Lost, in other words, is fundamentally fanfiction: it scratches the same basic itch that leads, for example, to people crowbarring a century of JoJos into an alternative-universe slice-of-life high-school drama. There’s a distinct sci-fi (or proto-sci-fi) edge to the poem, and that’s something it shares with “Motorway to Damascus”: not the feeling of myth, but the feeling of reconsidering myth.
“Nightfall on the motorway to Damascus / My heavenly angel looked at me / And said, well, what’s it gonna be? / The long haul or the shorter way to Damascus?” Dusk signals that the song is coming to a close, and Hannon’s choice of words, “My heavenly angel”, suggests an intriguing sense of ownership over the divine being – almost as if it’s a guardian angel, assigned to an individual human. Which, in a sense, it is: after all, this angel was created specifically by the real Hannon to act as his mouthpiece in this parable.
In the closing verse, the distinction between the angel and the narrator completely disintegrates, as if the latter has been possessed entirely by his revelation (or, perhaps more accurately, as if the story for which these two characters were created has come to its end, and they’ve found themselves blurring together as they’re absorbed back into their creator’s mind). “Choose with care and you will find / That one day there will come a time / When the silhouetted ruins of the crumbling cooling-towers / Are but ivy-clad reminders of a long-forgotten power / Must the monkeys leave Gibraltar’s rock, and ravens flee the tower / Before we look and see ourselves for what we really are?” The instruction is ambiguous, to say the least: if it’s choosing with care that ensures the power behind the cooling-towers will be forgotten, we’re presumably meant to think that’s a good thing, but is that “power” nuclear fission or human civilisation? We’re never actually told. Fission is one of the cleanest energy sources in existence – which seems relevant, considering the earlier mention of solar panels and wind turbines – so is the angel warning of a nuclear catastrophe rather than a climate-change one? Is the cooling-tower crumbling because the people of the future have found safer energy sources, because they’ve been killed by a radiation leak, or because they’ve been wiped out by climate-change that more nuclear power could have avoided? Hannon never defines what “Damascus” actually signifies for the purposes of the song, so it’s unclear which of “the long haul or the shorter way” we should want to take – or whether there’s even a substantial difference, given that they apparently end in the same place. This song is caught in a strange paradox: all the themes and symbolism it’s playing with are crystal-clear, but they’re all effectively antonymous – the lyrics allow multiple, completely contradictory interpretations of each and every one. The overall “save the Earth” message is undeniable, but all of its constituent parts are up for grabs.
The song’s modular ambiguity reaches an apotheosis in the closing lines, where Hannon refers to two old superstitions. It’s said that the British Empire will crumble when the last of the ravens leave the Tower of London; alternatively, it’s also said that the aforementioned crumbling will occur when the last of the Barbary macaques depart the British territory of Gibraltar. The two sayings are often mentioned together, and it seems likely that one was adapted from the other; or perhaps both riff on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 1136 History of the Kings of England, which suggests that London will fall if the Brutus Stone is lost. What’s interesting here is that Hannon, a man in the liminally British condition of being Northern Irish, should invoke two specifically British-imperialist prophecies at the conclusion for a Christian-environmentalist song. Since both sayings involve the disappearance of animals, a listener without the relevant cultural context might interpret them as a lament for extinct species, and a warning for humanity to change their environmentally destructive ways while they still can. In this straightforward reading, “what we really are” in that dark future is a cancerous race, a bringer of consumption and death. This works.
But the song’s weird ambiguity strikes again. This time, it’s Hannon’s choice of cultural touchstones complicating things, since we know that the destruction of the British Empire is a perfectly noble goal. The United Kingdom is responsible for more horror, murder, and suffering than any other political entity in recorded history. Is there any nation with less of a right to indulge in nationalism? Their past is an encyclopedia of genocide and slavery, of orchestrated famines and moral abominations; compared to the size of the island, the sheer proportion of landmass-to-horror is dizzying, almost unbelievable. The song explicitly warns humanity to return the territories it has stolen from the other flora and fauna of the Earth, but there’s another implication it leaves unspoken: that the British Empire is to humanity what humanity is to nature. This, I think, offers another way to look at “Motorway to Damascus”. If the monkeys leave Gibraltar’s rock, and ravens flee the Tower, then at least we get our six counties back.
That it’s even feasible for us to pursue such surreal tangents demonstrates that the fractal ambiguities in these lyrics are not a problem: if anything, they help complicate a message that might have been didactic and preachy into something considerably more thought-provoking. A haunting, dreamlike song that vividly merges several of Hannon’s disparate themes with a unique and unearthly composition, “Motorway to Damascus” is a minor masterpiece – perhaps the very best non-album Divine Comedy track.
The third track on “A Casanova Companion No. 3” is a recording of “A Woman of the World” tagged as the “Band Version”. It’s a very lively rendition, trading the lead saxophone for an electric guitar, but nothing remarkable. Finally, the record concludes with a home demo of “Lucy”, which means this is a good time to pause and discuss Hannon’s demos in general. Hannon figures out new songs and half-baked musical ideas by recording demos – that’s perfectly normal. Since the band has only one songwriter, Divine Comedy demos generally feature Hannon solo, and are sometimes recorded at home without professional equipment – slightly more unusual. In some cases, particularly in the earlier stages of Hannon’s career, these demos consist largely of simple keyboard loops. Other demos incorporate synthesised approximations of the full band, or the lavish orchestral accompaniments that characterise The Divine Comedy, which will replace them for the final studio recording. Many lack vocals, and sound more like videogame music than songs; others feature placeholder vocals, less assured, more exploratory than performative. My point is that these demos aren’t just disposable sketches produced on the way to teleological completion – they’re legitimate alternatives, complete in their own way, and some can credibly be defended as superior to their finished counterparts. Many of Hannon’s demos function as genuine electronic music – a genre he’s very good at, and which lurks somewhere in his creative process, but which is too orthogonal to his interests ever to gain a foothold and unseat orchestral pop on his albums. As such, it’s no wonder that they’re a staple of Hannon’s B-sides: demos are his Kraftwerk release-valve. He reworks his Divine Comedy songs – rewrites them, re-records them, adds his strings and horns and harpsichord and whatever else takes his fancy – but like worlds accreted round dense spinning iron, they’re electronic at the core.
The “Lucy” demo is probably the least complex work Hannon ever released: the music consists entirely of a pre-programmed eight-second keyboard loop played about thirty times, with a pre-programmed drumbeat joining in for the last quarter or so. Hannon sings very quietly, almost as if he’s trying not to disturb other people in the house. Despite – or perhaps because of – this, there’s a weird beauty to it: while demos often feature unfinished or half-baked lyrics, this one is literally written by William Wordsworth, whose verse shines through the dingy-bedroom acoustics like Moses’s whiskers through grey clouds.
“A Casanova Companion No. 4” is, confusingly, also a release of “The Frog Princess”. However, it features a different selection of B-sides: its second track is a demo version of “Something for the Weekend” called “Something Before the Weekend”. And it’s actually quite startlingly good: a lovely little two-minute electronic instrumental that hurtles along with an energy that’s uniquely its own. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s better than the finished song, but I wouldn’t entirely disagree with someone who thought it was, either. While the rhythm is similar, the demo’s main melody doesn’t sound much like the song’s vocal line, but it doesn’t matter: it’s as if Hannon is layering in as many electronic keyboard loops and tunes as possible, sifting for synthesised gold he can spin into a song. It’s almost like background music for a SNES game. Super Divine Comedy, World 1-1.
While the name is clearly just a joke Hannon added after he dug out the old recording – this isn’t a prologue or prequel to “Something for the Weekend” in any meaningful sense – one still wishes he’d given this level of thought to the presentation of some of his other demos and alternative edits. Aside from making “Something Before the Weekend” more convenient to talk about, the unique title helps solidify the sense that the demo is indeed a valid creation that can coexist with and complement a final release. Which, I think, it quite a healthy way of looking at the process.
The third track of “A Casanova Companion No. 4” is a stripped-down version of “Neptune’s Daughter”, played on piano and acoustic guitar. It’s a decent rendition, but this very ethereal song doesn’t benefit from having its production boiled away. The bridge and conclusion, where Hannon replaces the strings with a wordless falsetto wail, don’t quite work, slipping across the narrow border twixt sublime and absurd. Finally, the record concludes with a new live recording of “Tonight We Fly”. The tempo is sped up compared to the album version, which certainly makes it a bit more exhilarating; but the song was quite fast in the first place, so this extra-breathless rendition leaves the listener a little exhausted. The church organ seems like an intriguing replacement for the strings, but it’s hard to judge, given that it’s drowned out by a wall of thrashing guitar and percussion.
For the last word on Casanova, we’ll have to jump ahead a year. In 1997, Hannon released a record actually titled Casanova Companion – a six-track CD included with certain copies of Casanova sold in the United States. (Perhaps it should be called “A Casanova Companion No. 5”? Or should that be “A Casanova Companion No. 6”, because it’s weird to count “The Frog Princess” twice and not count “Comme Beaucoup De Messieurs”? Maybe we should compromise: “A Casanova Companion No. 0”.) Weirdly, this was the better part of a year after the release of A Short Album About Love, so Casanova really was in the rear-view mirror at this point. Some of Hannon’s Companion EPs seem geared towards simply advertising their LP namesakes, containing a few choice tracks from the album, but Casanova Companion is a bit different: it really does seem intended to complement Casanova, as it duplicates almost none of its content. It consists of two songs lifted from Promenade (“Tonight We Fly” and “When the Lights Go Out All Over Europe”), two taken from Liberation (“Lucy” and “Your Daddy’s Car”), and two live recordings – one a cover of “Johnny Mathis’s Feet” by American Music Club, the other a Casanova track, “Something for the Weekend”. These were both recorded during the same gig at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in 1996, the same night as A Short Album About Love. Owing to the vagaries of scheduling, both live tracks were first released as B-sides on Short Album singles, but it feels more appropriate to cover them here – placing them on Casanova Companion was a strange choice, made for a reason. “Something for the Weekend” doesn’t diverge interestingly from the studio version, meaning that the only real curiosity on this record is “Johnny Mathis’s Feet”.
On a pragmatic level, Casanova Companion is simply a few good Divine Comedy songs compiled for American listeners who might not yet have been able to get their hands on them. On a more esoteric level, however, the continuous presence of “Tonight We Fly” on Divine Comedy records – a common B-side for a single or EP, sometimes in a version recorded at one of its countless show-concluding live performances – is a testament to the transcendent quality of those final minutes of Promenade. Hannon’s discography can be divided into two epochs: everything before “Tonight We Fly” and everything after it. Compagnon de Promenade rehearsed this supernal moment, taking the last song of Promenade and elaborating on it, and now Casanova Companion attempts to complete this bridge: it begins with the final track of Promenade and ends with the opening track of Casanova. As we’ve discussed, “Tonight We Fly” and “Something for the Weekend” are themselves companions of a sort: adjacent songs that share intimate musical and thematic connections. And yet, like lines approaching an asymptote, the Companions fail to connect: it’s a live “Something for the Weekend”, not the real deal, so the two albums aren’t quite bridged. Perhaps Hannon will never be entirely freed from the gravity of “Tonight We Fly”, but this is the point where we can finally begin to look forward.
American Music Club are an indie rock band fronted by San Franciscan musician Mark Eitzel. But for our purposes, the song’s subject is more intriguing than the band that originated it. Born in 1935, Johnny Mathis is one of the commercial legends of 20th-century pop music. An expert purveyor of romantic schmaltz, he made his name with pop standards and Christmas songs that sounded like rock ‘n’ roll had never happened, selling 180 million records – he was already something of a relic when this tribute was written. Ironically, the song makes no attempt to imitate Mathis’s style, but with his usual smooth crooning and orchestral accompaniment, Hannon sounds considerably more like the man American Music Club were writing about than they ever did.
“Johnny Mathis’s Feet” is written like a folk song. With its comical title and opening line, it also initially sounds like one, but it soon morphs into something stranger – particularly the Divine Comedy version, which grants it an orchestral cinematic scale. The track begins with Hannon telling the audience who he’s about to cover, but even if you miss that bit, it quickly becomes evident that this isn’t one of his: Hannon wouldn’t write a story laden with American place-names, though he does adopts a faint American accent (which, of course, just makes him sound like Stephin Merrit).
The song begins with an act of prostration and prayer: “I lay all my problems at Johnny Mathis’s feet / I said, Johnny, Johnny tell me, can you tell me how to live? / All my hopes are unravelling, and I’ve just lost my lease / On my house without love, doors, or windows – without peace”. Hannon makes a small mistake here – the original was “songs”, not “problems” – but the story is the same: a lost musician confronting (or perhaps just dreaming of confronting) the icon whose example led him astray, searching for guidance. However, it quickly becomes apparent that Mathis is not only an authority-figure, but an actual god: “And with a wave of his jewel-encrusted hand across the glittering Las Vegas scene, he said / You gotta learn how to disappear in the silk and amphetamine”. This refers to Mathis’s 1980s drug addiction – ill from overworking on Broadway, he visited the notorious malpractising physician Max Jacobson, who called himself “Doctor Feelgood” and administered “miracle tissue regenerator” injections (ie, vitamins mixed with amphetamines) to numerous celebrities, from Elvis to JFK. As the song goes on, Mathis examines the narrator’s songs and dismisses them as “a mess”, asking “Why do you say everything as if you were a thief? / Like what you’ve stolen has no value? Like what you preach is far from belief?”
The song soars into its oddly vivid refrain: “And with a wave of his red-white-and-blue hand / Across the glittering Hollywood scene, he said / You gotta learn how to disappear in the silk and amphetamine”. Although the song is magical-realist rather overtly fantastical, the implication is that Mathis is in some sense America itself, with all the implications of glitz and power and dreaming that entails. And there’s reason to take this seriously: the band’s name is the sublimely generic American Music Club, so a track about confronting an American music deity is practically announcing itself as an anthem, a mission statement, a definitive song. It’s probably not a mistake that Casanova Companion, a US-exclusive record, should include such a track – it reaches for America in the same way that “Comme Beaucoup De Messieurs” reaches for France.
“Johnny looked at my old collection / Of old punk-rock posters / Anonymous scenes of disaffection / Chaos and torture / And he said, well, you were on the right track, but you’re a lamb jumping for the knife / A real showman knows how to disappear in the spotlight / In the spotlight…” The song is thrillingly open-ended, introducing a fantastical conceit and refusing to undercut it with a resolution or punchline. Mathis’s words are gnomic, but he seems to be giving broadly regressive advice – advocating that the narrator return to an older school of music and thought. We are denied the catharsis of knowing whether the narrator is accepted nor rejected – whether his god is ultimately condemning him or helping him. The song is ambivalent on the subject of fame, which it seems to treat as somehow mystical; something divorced from politics or personality. It also reflects Hannon’s own theme of transcendence, as embodied by that favourite song, “Tonight We Fly”. Here, though, transcendence is achieved not through love but through music, performance, and the icon’s cleansing effacement of their own identity. In other words, this is a way of talking about death.
Sadly, there’s no music video for the Divine Comedy cover, but there is one for the original. American Music Club’s video is set mainly in a gaudy nightclub, where we see Eitzel perform the song at a karaoke night. This is intercut with another scene, which initially appears on a nearby television monitor: the confrontation of the song’s lyrics. Eitzel is in the back seat of a limousine, driving through a desert, sitting across from Johnny Mathis himself. Well, almost: Mathis is portrayed by a stand-in, so his face is never seen. While this is obviously just a workaround for not actually having the man, it also amplifies the sense of Mathis as a godlike, sacred entity – someone who cannot be depicted.
But why Johnny Mathis? Was it simply that Eitzel liked him a lot? One could argue that the song’s point would have been much clearer if it had been called “Elvis Presley’s Feet”, and indeed, the King does haunt the song: Eitzel wears an Elvis wig and a fancy suit in the video-within-a-video where he meets Mathis, and footage of him in this same get-up is intercut with Eitzel’s on-stage performance as it crescendos, giving the impression of a man struggling to embody a god. But if anything, Elvis would have been slightly too mythic to place at the centre of this song: the icon of Mathis – black and gay and impossibly successful, oversignified, overloaded with meaning, still alive but fading into soft-rock irrelevance – allows for a more idiosyncratic, more personal narrative. “Mathis” does, after all, mean “Gift of God”.
And what inspired Hannon to cover an obscure song by a little-known American band, and put it on a record called Casanova Companion? While the song’s narrative shape and references to drugs and American-showbiz specifics are a little outside his style, we can see why he might have been drawn to it: the fascinations with music, fame, transcendence, and confronting a divine father-figure are all squarely in Hannon’s territory. One wonders, though, if he wasn’t tempted to change it to “Scott Walker’s Feet”.
This is one of those covers where Hannon improves on the original: he’s a substantially better vocalist than Eitzel, and vastly subtler. There’s an arch lightness in the way Hannon enunciates “old punk-rock posters” and “chaos and torture”, for instance; little touches like this give us space to lose ourselves in the multiple layers of authorship and distance at work here. Playing to the venue, Hannon changes the Hollywood line to “And with a wave of his red-white-and-blue hand / Across the glittering Shepherd’s Bush scene”. This doesn’t quite fit with the original song’s interrogation of the American Dream, but it does capture some of the same metatextual thrill as Hannon’s mentioning his own name in “Birds of Paradise Farm”, and it also adds to the playful idea of Mathis as a transcendent being. If the right words can conjure Johnny Mathis in 1996 London, maybe they can summon him anywhere; and there’s something oddly magical about that.
Casanova remains, in a sense, Neil Hannon’s highest achievement. The “Casanova Companions” are the final word on Casanova, and Casanova Companion is the final word on the “Casanova Companions”. As such, there’s something quite fitting about the inclusion of “Johnny Mathis’s Feet” – what is “A real showman knows how to disappear in the spotlight” if not a more vivid reiteration of the final “Goodbye” in “The Dogs and the Horses”? Hannon delivers the closing “spot… light” strangely, ending the music a fraction too early, and letting his voice go flat for the final syllable. Some would say this is a silly moment symptomatic of Hannon’s reliance on ironic distance – an unfortunate, insecure compulsion to joke at moments that risk verging on real emotion. While there is some substance to this critique, it overlooks that such a mingling of humour and vulnerability leaves the former as likely to be mistaken for the latter as vice-versa. Indeed, considering the transparent death subtext of “Johnny Mathis’s Feet” and the way it mirrors the conclusion of both Promenade and Casanova, such an analysis would necessarily…
Look, there’s “Birds of Paradise Farm”! And “Love Is Lighter Than Air”, and “Comme Beaucoup De Messieurs”, and “Motorway to Damascus”. There’s “Lucy”, with “Something Before the Weekend”. As the curtains close and the last prayers are said, all our demos and our B-sides appear around our bed. They have come to say one last goodbye.