On 20th October, 1996, The Divine Comedy performed with the Brunel Ensemble at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London. The previous day, during rehearsals for the gig, they recorded an entire album. The result, A Short Album About Love, consists of seven tracks. It’s also something akin to a compilation album, as Neil Hannon had originally written most of these songs for previous albums. The majority were considered for inclusion on the 1996 album Casanova, but didn’t make the final cut, with several having been too straightforwardly romantic to fit the sex-comedy tone on which Casanova ultimately settled. Short Album was released on 10th February, 1997 – just in time for Valentine’s Day.
Songs cut from albums more usually filter out into the world as B-sides, or (given enough mass) accumulate into EPs. Hannon, however, must have been particularly confident in his Casanova outtakes: rather than disseminate them through the conventional channels, he opted to consolidate them into this major orchestral project. Short Album isn’t simply a compilation of previous recordings – rather, all seven songs were arranged for the Brunel Ensemble and recorded in one session at Shepherd’s Bush, regardless of whether earlier studio versions existed. The result is a record with a particularly coherent, unified sound and atmosphere. The performance featured a 30-piece orchestra (or 26-piece, depending who you believe): violins, violas, and cellos; oboe, flute, horn, saxophone, trumpets, flugelhorn, and trombone. The regular Divine Comedy band is still present, but they often sound subsumed – this is really the Ensemble’s show.
There was an element of decided grandstanding in Hannon’s premiering an entire album’s worth of new material in the second half of the Shepherd’s Bush gig, complete with Ensemble, the day after recording – and in taking the orchestra on tour across Europe five months later to promote the record. As Hannon said at the release of Short Album, “It seemed perfect at the end of 1996 to say, ‘This is what we can do’, and in a way, this album and the gigs with the orchestra in March are just rubbing salt into the wound.” If this seems slightly daring, there’s good reason for it: Hannon was in the afterglow of a trio of hits, his first singles all having charted well. Boosted by a holiday release and a high-concept name, there could be no safer bet than some Casanova DLC.
The record hovers curiously in the space between studio-album and live-album status. An odd hybrid form, it sounds like a live album recorded at a gig where every single audience member was listening in respectful silence. It sounds, in other words, like a sermon: there’s something distinctly ecclesiastical about this album, and the way it juxtaposes Hannon’s lone, unfiltered voice with the empty venue’s churchlike reverberating acoustics. Listening to it, one almost imagines him performing from a pulpit.
Casanova and Fin de Siècle, the albums Hannon released in 1996 and 1998, were very much in tune with the Britpop zeitgeist, but Short Album, right between them, is quite different – an oasis of romantic orchestral pop, much of it uncharacteristically sincere. The theme and timing make it seem like a companion piece or addendum to Casanova, even though the sound is quite different. Any dichotomy we draw here will be a flawed generalisation – the relationship between these albums is really one of yin and yang, and they both have songs that would fit well on the other – but broadly: if Casanova is day, Short Album is night. Casanova is fundamentally a sociable, extraverted album: it opens with women’s laughter, samples dialogue from films, and plays all sorts of textual games with narration – one track being narrated by Joby Talbot, others by Hannon himself, either addressing other characters or assuming a raconteur role to describe his adventures to the listener. Short Album, in contrast, is asocial and introverted: its thoughts and feelings are the sort that keep us awake in the solitude of the early hours. This is partly a result of technical factors – the album’s quasi-live nature leaves less room for the kind of mixing, experimentation, and layered performativity that characterised Casanova – but the different tone also reflects the record’s different themes. The discrete existence of A Short Album About Love implies a binary in which Casanova is A Long Album About Sex.
While the songs themselves cover a range of tones, the album’s artwork is decidedly sombre. The cover features a blue-tinted close-up of Hannon in profile, seated in the dark behind the rain-spattered window of some unseen vehicle, touching his fingertips to the glass; the remaining art consists largely of other black-and-white or blue-tinted photographs of Hannon peering thoughtfully from behind car windows, plus a few taken at the Shepherd’s Bush gig. The mood is one of introspection, of dislocation from modernity: the cover hints at the strange thoughts that come to us in the shower, or as we stare out bus windows on long, solitary journeys. Hannon also looked pensive on the cover of Casanova, but here he’s ditched the sunglasses, and the tonal difference is striking – now that he’s no longer playing with the aesthetic of coolness, the ironic distance between performer and audience is much reduced. Some of these photos look quite casual, maybe even un-posed, which is worlds away from such previous looks as “standing ankle-deep in a forest stream while wearing a suit” or “curling up in a ball on the ground at the corner of the Pyramide du Louvre”. On Short Album, Hannon presents himself not as a performer putting on a show but as a person letting us in on something.
Liberation, Promenade, and Casanova were each internally diverse, with instrumentation, genre, and production varying substantially from track to track – by 1997, a typical Divine Comedy record might include a romantic ballad sandwiched between a synthpop song and a slightly avant-garde electronic instrumental. Short Album, then, represents a conscious narrowing of focus – a decision by Hannon to relax his creative ambitions in favour of delivering a more sustained, cohesive, intimate musical experience.
Naturally enough, that sustained, cohesive, intimate musical experience basically turns out to be a Scott Walker tribute album. Since Liberation, where Hannon first dared mimic Walker’s velvet tones and found that he could make it work, pointing out every moment of clear influence has become pointless: Scott Walker is to Neil Hannon what that infrared wind-turbine thing is to the Teletubbies. Nonetheless, it has to be said that Short Album is particularly drenched in early Walker, from the pop-romantic crooning of the Walker Brothers to the grandiose cinema of the four eponymous Scott albums. Hannon will never be quite this Scott Walker again. It’s equally obvious, in retrospect, what Hannon would choose as the subject-matter for his focused mini-album. The Divine Comedy is about a lot of things: love, art, and liberation; death and transcendence; nature, animals, and fathers; the repressions of upper-middle-class Britishness and the romance of the European continent; the passage of time; literary film adaptations; and the apocalypse. But mostly, really, love.
Sonically, there’s nothing weird or experimental on Short Album. However, the record does have one dark, immersion-breaking secret, which is that it doesn’t actually feature Hannon’s vocals from the day. As he meekly conceded in a radio interview, he was unhappy with his performance during the rehearsal; since he had been singing in a separate soundproofed room, he was able to redo the vocals to his satisfaction later, and combine those recordings with the original instrumentals.
The album’s name plays on A Short Film About Love, a 1990 drama film directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski. While this might look like another of Hannon’s merely nominal artistic references – remember, he didn’t get very far into Dante – a viewing of the film reveals some striking resonances. The protagonist Tomek (who bears a passing resemblance to Hannon – well, if Hannon melted slightly) is a teenager who stalks and obsesses over his neighbour Magda, using a telescope to spy on her romantic ups and downs, Rear Window-style – a dynamic which grows more complex when Tomek confesses and Magda’s initial alarm turns to intrigue.
The film’s title vacillates between the descriptive and the ironic – it’s a story about an unhealthy relationship that develops between two unwell people, but then again, that may well make it a more authentic portrayal of the fraught, strange, dodgy ways in which real human beings relate and interact and love. In one sense, Hannon’s détourned title shades more obviously into the ironic end of the spectrum, because “short album” is not actually a real medium in the way that “short film” is; however, the album actually is quite short, whereas the film, at 80 minutes, is not a short but a feature (albeit a fairly short one, if that makes sense). Incidentally, Short Album isn’t even the shortest Divine Comedy album – that dubious honour remains with Fanfare for the Comic Muse.
While Hannon may have lifted the title simply for its matter-of-fact modesty, several songs on Short Album do reflect or echo elements of Short Film’s plot. However, the Divine Comedy track which most closely resembles the film is probably the previous album’s “Songs of Love”; comparing the two, it seems as if Hannon connected with something in Tomek’s sad loneliness and decided to make it sweet rather than sinister, expressive rather than awkward, societal rather than personal.
The “A Short X About Y” format, which so concisely expresses the dry sometimes-mock modesty of Hannon’s work, has become something of a calling-card for Hannon and an inside joke for fans. The video recording of the Shepherd’s Bush gig, buried for arcane legal reasons, was originally to be titled A Short Film About A Short Album About Love; the band’s main fansite is called A Short Site About the Divine Comedy; and most peculiarly, in 2006, the American tribute act The Devine Comedy released A Short Album About Horses, a promotional novelty EP with country/western covers of some of Hannon’s equestrian=themed songs (though not all – that’s a surprisingly long list).
The songs on Promenade add up to form a complete story, like chapters in a novel, exploring one relationship between two characters. However, we’ll see that Short Album is closer structurally to Casanova – a sequence of unrelated stories, linked only by theme. Rather than a novel, it’s a short-story anthology: a selection of seven love stories, dealing with seven different kinds of love.
It seems that the first song, “In Pursuit of Happiness”, was actually one of the last Short Album tracks to be created: Hannon wrote it after the release of Casanova, following a conversation with bassist Bryan Mills about John Barry’s “Midnight Cowboy”. To an inattentive listener, it might sound like a perfectly straightforward love song. We meet Hannon’s narrator as he declares his affections to his prospective partner, purely confident and direct, without a hint of hesitation: “Hey, I’m not the type / To say one thing and do another / And if it’s all right / I’d kinda like to be your lover / ‘Cause when you’re with me / I can’t help but be / So desperately / Uncontrollably / Happy!” The song is initially driven by acoustic guitar and castanets, but the Ensemble give it substantial scope to grow, gradually adding strings, percussion, and horns to the mix as it progresses, buoying up its narrator, matching his jubilant surety.
The focus here is on the narrator and the tide of emotion he’s caught up in – we learn nothing about the woman herself. This is something that recurs throughout Short Album: the women to whom these songs are directed remain ciphers – something of a change in focus for Hannon, whose previous records had given us female characters such as Bernice, Neptune’s Daughter, and the Woman of the World, who are developed to a level of complexity that’s quite unusual by pop-music standards. Listening to Short Album is often like eavesdropping on one half of a phone conversation. Women are a sort of dark matter that we can only learn about indirectly, by the effects they exert on the songs’ male narrators.
Amidst these declarations of love, Hannon slips in an oddly ominous promise: “And hey, I’m not so blind / That I can’t see where we’re all going / And it’s no fault of mine / If humankind reaps what it’s sowing / Just as long as we are together forever / I’ll never be anything other than / Happy!” However, he brushes right past this dark intimation of the species’s future, not letting it impinge on his triumphant-romantic tone for now. At this point, the song soars into a lengthy instrumental bridge, Hannon flexing his orchestra, an inarticulate tumble of inchoate joy. This whirlwind of strings continues for almost the entire second half of the song before crescendoing, then retreating into quiet. In the coda, Hannon – accompanied only by acoustic guitar – softly adds, “Hey, don’t be surprised / If millions die in plague and murder / True happiness lies / Beyond your fries and happy burger”.
The apocalypticism of Neil Hannon is one of his weirdest, most overlooked qualities. Much as Promenade concluded with a seeming dissolution of reality in “Tonight We Fly”, now Short Album announces up-front its own engagement with the end of the world. That line disavowing humankind does not, as we may initially have thought, mean that the narrator is a happy-go-lucky sort who doesn’t care about society’s approval: it means that he’s seizing the day because he thinks there’s a real chance of an extinction-level event occurring within his lifetime. Just like that, the song quietly transitions from romantic certainty to eschatological certainty.
I said that Short Album is about seven kinds of love, and it’s at this point that the first variety becomes clear: love in the face of Armageddon. We realise, at the end, why the narrator of “In Pursuit of Happiness” is so bold and unselfconscious in his declaration of love: he knows that, in a real sense, he has nothing to lose. Indeed, he seems to welcome death, viewing it as the doorway to eternal romantic love – he doesn’t just want her for the rest of their fragile and transient mortal lives, he wants her forever.
The song’s urgent, needling repetition of xylophone and pulsing strings stands revealed for what it truly is – a television news bulletin. It calls to mind whirling globes, lunatic Brass Eye graphics, and scrolling chyron text, all declaring death and devastation – it’s as if Hannon has fused a Scott Walker song with a 1990s BBC news jingle. Ironically, just as Hannon would later have to reject the National Express’s attempts to license his satirical song about them, so too was “In Pursuit of Happiness” reclaimed by the media – it’s been used in numerous advertisements and television programmes, most notably when Joby Talbot adapted it into the theme for Tomorrow’s World.
In contrast to the environmentalist pleading we heard in Fanfare for the Comic Muse, Hannon makes no effort to avert catastrophe here. Rather than asking the human race to change their ways, he just promises his prospective girlfriend that the afterlife will be better. Even more cuttingly, the final line’s invocation of McDonald’s – veiled by the wryly out-of-touch reference to a “happy burger” – directly implicates the exploitations and pollutions of late capitalism and corporate America in the oncoming apocalypse. McDonald’s is the road to death, and death is the road to eternal love. “In Pursuit of Happiness” is a hell of a mission statement.
The second track, “Everybody Knows (Except You)”, is the only Short Album song released as a single. This was a sensible choice, as it’s easily the most accessible track on the record: a light, airy pop song with a catchy nominal hook. Hannon makes his premise clear at the outset: “Everybody knows that I love you / Everybody knows that I need you / Everybody knows that I do / Except you”. In contrast to the unbridled expression of the opening track, this song is about a failure of romantic communication: the narrator is trying to convince a woman that he loves her, but she doesn’t believe him. “Everybody Knows” is also the point where the album strays furthest from its pseudo-live conceit – with Hannon performing his own “Ba ba-da ba” backing vocals throughout, there’s no maintaining the conceit that we’re listening to an unaltered stage recording.
The narrator plunges right into the pathetic fallacy: “I told the stars above / About the one I love / I told the morning sun / Yeah, I’m telling everyone”. His feelings are so powerful and universal that the celestial bodies turn gladly to hear about them. As the song’s musical bombast increases, its lyrical scale shrinks – each entity the narrator tells about his emotions is smaller and more intimate than the last. With “I told my mum and dad / They seemed to understand”, the song descends from the cosmic scale to the merely generational. “I told the passers-by / I made a small boy cry”, Hannon sings cheerfully, having some fun with the narrator’s social ineptitude as he descends to the toddler audience.
While I maintain that Short Album does not resolve into a story, “Everybody Knows” could conceivably serve as a sequel to “In Pursuit of Happiness” – first the narrator tells the woman how he feels, and in the second, she thinks he’s untrustworthy. It has to be said, however, that the song doesn’t communicate its concept very effectively. A close reading of the lyrics reveals the narrator’s problem is that he cannot convince the woman that he loves her, but since this isn’t specified in the title, hook, or chorus, some (perhaps even most) listeners come away with the impression that the narrator is in the rather more sympathetic predicament of not being able to bring himself to confess those feelings in the first place.
“I told all of my friends / Again and again and again / I drove them round the bend / So now you’re my only friend”, sings Hannon. It’s easy to see why listeners tend to misunderstand the song, as discussing your emotions with everyone but their actual target is a considerably more human and relatable situation than insistently pursuing someone who thinks you’re only pretending to love them, and the majority of the lyrics could describe either situation equally well.
There are some intentionally sinister songs later on Short Album, but when Hannon sings “I’ll get through to you / If it’s the last thing that I do”, it’s unclear whether he recognises how menacing that sounds. We might take it as a figure of speech, but the narrator’s persistence here verges on coercion and stalking, and sounds particularly fatalistic and threatening in light of the opening track’s overt death-wish. The tone is saccharine, but if we read between the lines, there’s an edge of delusion: “I’m going crazy baby / What do I have to do? / You know I love you baby / Maybe you love me too / Everybody knows I live for you / And everybody knows I adore you / Everybody knows that it’s true / Except you / Except you…”
“How come everyone knows except you?” asks Hannon near the end of the song, and it’s a question we’re entitled take seriously: why does she find it so difficult to believe that the narrator loves her? What exactly did he do to earn her mistrust? I wouldn’t ascribe intentionality here, but Short Album’s elision of women’s perspectives allows some readings that are very much at odds with the tone of the music – it’s entirely possible that the narrator of “Everybody Knows” has cheated on his partner and is trying to gaslight her into taking him back.
Three versions of the “Everybody Knows” single were released. Each was decorated with a tinted version of one of the album’s black-and-white photos, and each included its own unique selection of B-sides. The red-tinted version includes “Make It Easy on Yourself”, “A Drinking Song”, and “Something for the Weekend”; the orange one includes “Johnny Mathis’s Feet”, “Your Daddy’s Car”, “Europe by Train”; and the green includes “Bath”, “Tonight We Fly”, and “Middle-Class Heroes”. In other words, it’s a healthy mixture of hits and deep cuts from Liberation, Promenade, and Casanova, plus a couple of unexpected covers. Notably, none of the B-sides were recorded during the rehearsals that became Short Album – they’re all taken from the actual gig on the following day, so they’re true live recordings, complete with audience cheering and Hannon’s inter-song banter.
In the music video for “Everybody Knows”, Hannon appears as a sort of Renaissance poet – as he says in an interview, he’s “all blond ringlets and a big ruffly shirt – halfway between ironic and Byronic”. He sits at his desk with quill, parchment, and goatee attempting to compose a love letter; he releases a messenger pigeon; he strides across his spacious Romanesque villa as LED stars twinkle outside the windows. Aesthetically, the video resembles a moderately lavish episode of Top of the Pops; I would cautiously speculate that it inspired the fantasy sequences in “Bed Time”, an episode of Steven Moffat’s Coupling which aired a few years later and follows much the same concept.
As with the videos for the three Casanova singles, we actually get to see the woman Hannon is writing about, portrayed in this case by a redheaded model. However, while the lyrics suggest a man pursuing an ordinary flesh-and-blood girl, the video portrays quite a different scenario: Hannon’s character experiences hazy visions of an ethereal, shining woman who fades in and out of existence, manifesting in reflections, peering over his shoulder, gently guiding his hand. The video, in other words, reveals the song as a tribute to the Comic Muse – this female figure who looms at the fringes of Hannon’s work, inaccessible and transcendent, an embodiment of creativity and music itself. This isn’t hidden or subtle: when we glimpse the first lines on Hannon’s parchment, we see that they’re the opening lyrics of the song itself. “Everybody Knows” might be a song about love, but it’s also a song about its own creation: the narrator’s struggle to communicate his feelings expresses the songwriter’s struggle to find the right words.
If the song is even about a woman, it’s about a woman who’s not present: the narrator isn’t pestering a real woman in his life, but his own mental image of her. Like the inclusion of a model who’s clearly having a great time in the video for “The Frog Princess”, this certainly helps take the edge off the song’s potential skeeviness. The two meet at last in a dark and snowy hallway, and Hannon gets his first proper screen kiss. She lowers her eyes, and steps back, and steals away into the night; and he finds himself again at his writing-desk, dreaming alone.
The song, it has to be said, does verge a little on the mawkish side – there’s a faint trace of the wistful about it, particularly in the video, but not being quite able to convince a girl that you’re really into her is hardly a profound tragedy. Like “The Pop Singer’s Fear of the Pollen Count”, this is a mercilessly cheery song of the sort that really does require the listener to be in a certain mood. Releasing “Everybody Knows” as a single was the correct choice, as it’s the most accessible track recorded that night in Shepherd’s Bush, but it’s certainly not the best.
Where Short Album really peaks is with its third track, the stirring and poignant “Someone”. The track starts slow and easy, like a lounge song with an improbably large string section. The narrator seems to be a man embarking on his first meaningful relationship, and experiencing the overwhelming new feeling of having his own bleak worldview disintegrate in the light of hope. Hannon begins cautiously, the narrator recounting a past experience in the third person: “Someone I once knew / Told someone like you / Love is just a word / Now I’m not so sure / That’s true.” That “someone”, of course, is the narrator himself, while “someone like you” is a woman from his past – he’s recalling a time when, presumably in the process of leaving or rejecting this woman, he expressed the sentiment that love does not exist.
The opening lines seem to be addressed to the narrator’s new partner, but the word “you” never reappears – rather, he seems to retreat into himself as the song continues, speaking about this new woman in the third person in monologue rather than dialogue: “Someone made me see / How someone like me / Needn’t be so closed / Just ’cause they once chose / To be”. It seems he’s having difficulty talking about his feelings directly, and feels more comfortable in a hall-of-mirrors of “someone”s and “somebody”s.
After the brash and needy opening tracks, “Someone” provides a welcome change of pace. This song’s narrator is strikingly reticent, vulnerable, and indirect – even shy. He has never experienced love before, and wasn’t even particularly interested in it, but now that he’s had an unexpected taste, he finds himself gripped by an overpowering hunger for intimacy – and more specifically, he realises, to be desired; to make someone else feel the way he now knows he can feel. He admits, almost reluctantly: “I… need… to be someone’s somebody”.
We learn that the narrator was depressed, perhaps in relation to what happened with the woman in his past, but that he’s now found a new glimmer of hope: “Someone heard my call / When I was all at sea / Someone rescued me / When my life was all / But through”. The sea is a complex motif in Hannon’s music – something vast, and dark, and numinous. Most notably, the heroine of Promenade is a sort of water spirit. In “A Seafood Song”, she and the hero enjoy a veritable buffet, bookended by strangely melancholy daydreams about the fishermen who must have caught what they’re eating; and later, in “Neptune’s Daughter”, the heroine finds herself lured into the sea, in an ambiguously suicidal trance, until the hero rushes after her, snatching her back from the brink of death or transcendence. In “Someone”, that rescue is repeated with the genders switched: now it’s the male narrator who’s lost and unmoored, and the female figure who brings him back to shore.
This is a song about falling in love after giving up, but it’s also about a broken person learning, after a deep sadness, to love themself. We don’t know how long ago the conversation (break-up?) recounted in the opening lines took place, so it’s entirely possible that “Someone” is a rebound anthem. There’s also a hint of unhealthy co-dependence in this new relationship: the narrator makes it clear that he is unable to function alone; but he has someone for the time being, and perhaps that’s enough.
The song is hopeful, but with the uncertain and frightened hope of someone whose luck has only just started to change: “Someone made me feel / Like someone really cares / I hardly even dare / To believe it’s real / It’s really true.” All the tracks on Short Album are more interested in their male narrators than their female muses; ironically, while “Someone” is more about its narrator than any of the other songs are, it’s also the least masculine track on the album. It’s also the song closest to the album’s theme: not only is it an examination of a particular kind of love – in this case, the thrill of finally beginning to know and understand oneself through contact with another – but it’s also one character’s journey from rejecting the idea of love to accepting it. At the heart of the record, “Someone” is a case for the value of listening to a short album about love in the first place.
We might expect Hannon to return and wrap things up with a final verse, because that’s how “In Pursuit of Happiness” is structured, but this time he just… doesn’t. The instrumental bridge just rolls on and on, for almost three full minutes, carrying the song all the way to its conclusion; it’s allowed to speak for itself, doubling as the coda. At six minutes, this is the longest track on the album, but its last line is sung just a little over halfway through. The final “I need to be someone’s some-body” is one of the few significant uses of post-production mixing on the entire album, with the last syllable reverberating as if its singer has just fallen down a well. Hannon’s confidence in his music here is striking, and makes “Someone” feel like a considerably more mature composition than the earlier songs.
With the brass section plodding on matter-of-factly below, the strings and percussion pick up steam – it’s like the endless climax of “Hey Jude”, where session musicians just seems to keep joining in, the song spiralling in scope and scale. But the tone is neither straightforwardly triumphant nor tragic – it’s strange and tumultuous, continuing to explore the introspective, fraught emotion of Hannon’s narrator long after he stops singing. In particular, the bridge makes extraordinarily effective use of searing electric-guitar feedback – the song boils over like a forgotten kettle on-board a space shuttle that’s burning up in re-entry. When it fades out, we feel as if we’ve come to know someone.
The fourth track, “If…”, is Short Album’s strangest and darkest moment: a list-song that charts its narrator’s slide from love into murderous obsession, or perhaps merely reveals the darkness that always lurked behind his affections. Like “Everybody Knows”, this song represents an attempt to communicate love; however, its narrator expresses his feelings purely and solely through metaphor. He recites a litany of counterfactuals about the woman he loves, each one imagining her in another form, and insists each time that his feelings would remain if it were so: “If you were the road / I’d go all the way / If you were the night / I’d sleep in the day / If you were the day / I’d cry in the night / ’Cause you are the way / The truth and the light”. The earlier examples are relatively straightforward, but the latter is our first clue that something isn’t quite right, paraphrasing a verse from the Gospel of John: “Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” The narrator’s first sin is idolatry.
Fittingly, the song is driven by a hushed, lilting melody played on the electric organ – an instrument Hannon often uses in ways that evoke Christianity, most obviously in his incidental score for a certain priestly sitcom. In “If…”, this ecclesiastical quality casts the narrator’s messages in a prayerful light, as if he’s begging for the approval of someone he considers a higher being. This song, in other words, is not about a healthy relationship.
In “If…”, Hannon plays with the conventions and standards of the love song, pushing against the boundaries of what we’ll acceptable as romantic until they stretch and finally break. There are numerous lyrics which we may find jarring, depending on our personal tolerance for obsessiveness, tweeness, and tasteless metaphors; however, the song maintains a careful ambiguity regarding the narrator’s level of self-awareness – whether his creepy metaphors are an actual warning-sign or just the result of awkward phrasing – which is resolved only in the final lines. The lyrics become progressively more sinister and disturbing throughout the entire song, but the music maintains a sweet and innocent tone until the last eight seconds, at which point it instantly catches up, and the music and lyrics become tonally synchronised. It’s a fantastic structure for a horror story told in the form of a song.
The creep towards the baffling and inappropriate continues: “If you were a tree / I could put my arms around you / And you could not complain / If you were a tree / I could carve my name into your side / And you would not cry / ’Cause trees don’t cry”. Carving names or initials into bark is an actual traditional romantic gesture (albeit a tacky one that mars perfectly good trees), but Hannon takes this practice and scrambles its elements, merging the tree with the partner rather than with her name. It’s not entirely unlike suggesting matching tattoos – we can just about imagine a poor lovestruck dolt making this declaration sincerely.
The particular species of love explored in this song is an amorphous, formless thing, capable of crossing any and all boundaries. “If you were a man / I would still love you / If you were a drink / I’d drink my fill of you / If you were attacked / I would kill for you / If your name was Jack / I’d change mine to Jill for you”. This is a dedication that transcends both sexuality and gender, recalling the longing for womanhood that characterises much of Casanova. In another song, it might make for a moving portrayal of dedication and loving commitment, but in this context it suggests self-annihilating obsession.
“If you were a horse / I’d clean the crap out of your stable / And never once complain”. The narrator’s train of thought seems to snag on this particular hypothetical, and he repeats it, the strings suddenly soaring to coronate his fancy: “If you were a horse / I could ride you through the fields at dawn / Through the day until the day was gone / I could sing about you in my songs / As we rode away into the setting sun.”
Some critics have praised Short Album for its maintained dignity and seriousness, suggesting that its commitment to sincerity places it a cut above the more comedic and whimsical music for which Hannon is known. Here, however – halfway through our analysis – it becomes necessary to acknowledge an inconvenient truth: A Short Album About Love is also a Father Ted concept album.
When Father Ted was recommissioned for a second series, Hannon’s involvement – which had previously consisted of knocking out a quick 30-second instrumental theme plus a handful of brief jingles to be strewn haphazardly throughout the initial six-episode run – ballooned into something much more substantial: the writers now felt confident enough in Hannon to have him write and record original songs for the show. In the 1996 episode “A Song for Europe”, Ted and Dougal decide to enter the Eurovision Song Contest, writing their own lyrics but plagiarising the music from an old, obscure entry. In reality, the lyrics were written by Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews, while the music was composed by Hannon, who also performed both priests’ vocals. The result, “My Lovely Horse”, fails Ted and Dougal within the narrative, but in the real world it became a massive surprise success, to the point that it’s probably the best-known Divine Comedy song in Ireland.
The lyrics begin: “My lovely horse / Running through the field / Where are you going / With your fetlocks blowing / In the wind?” For the most part, this is a song of pure and unbridled affection, a celebration of summer frolicking: “I want to shower you with sugar lumps / And ride you over fences / Polish your hooves every single day / And bring you to the horse dentist”. However, in the final lines, Ted and Dougal overreach, aiming for a poignancy they can’t achieve: “My lovely horse / You’re a pony no more / Running around with the man on your back / Like a train in the night, yeah / Like a train in the night”. The song reveals itself as a story of loss, portraying the transient attachment a breeder or farmer feels for the animals he raises but cannot keep – or, subtextually, the sad pride that a father feels for a child he knows must grow up and move on.
When Ted and Dougal are brainstorming for lyrics, Dougal initially suggests, “My lovely horse / I want to hold you so tight / I want to rub my fingers through your tail / And love you all night”. Ted offers some constructive criticism, saying, “We want to keep out of the whole area of actually being in love with the horse.” Hannon didn’t write the lyrics for “My Lovely Horse”, but “If…” repeatedly reworks its lines, images, and themes, even incorporating elements that Ted and Dougal discuss but decide against. The show’s bestiality joke, for example, makes its way into “If…”, with the narrator fantasising about the woman he loves actually transforming into a horse, as if she’s snorted the powder from Sorry to Bother You. We might even say that “If…” is the song that would have been written had Ted let Dougal take the lead – had Ted valued complex, difficult art more than he valued maintaining a clean and respectable image.
Notably, the song remains a fantasy for its narrators as well as a fiction for its writers: it’s about wanting to spend time with a horse, then seeing it taken away by someone else. Like Ted, the narrator of “If…” imagines himself riding his beloved horse through sunny fields; however, he then assumes the role of the man who rides it into the night when it’s “a pony no more”. The narrator of “If…” even specifies that, if the woman he loves were a horse, he would write songs about the horse, and sing them while riding the horse, just as the priests do in their music video.
Of all the ways that Short Album serves as a response and companion piece to Casanova, this is perhaps the weirdest: just as Casanova included two songs developed from potential Father Ted themes, Short Album includes at least two (and arguably three) songs which echo “My Lovely Horse”. If Casanova is the secret soundtrack to Father Ted series one, then Short Album is the secret soundtrack to Father Ted series two: Hannon wrote the albums roughly contemporaneously with his scores for the first two series, and the cross-pollination is clear.
What’s most ironic about all this is that Father Ted isn’t even Hannon’s favourite sitcom. When he appeared as a contestant in the 2012 edition of Celebrity Mastermind, the specialist subject he chose was Frasier – largely, he later conceded, because of his affinity for the character of Frasier’s brother, Dr Niles Crane, as played by David Hyde Pierce. One of the show’s longest-running storylines centres on Niles’s obsessive secret love for Daphne Moon, his father’s physiotherapist. Part of why this makes for entertaining television is that it’s far from the saccharine will-they-won’t-they scenario found so often in American sitcoms – like the scopophilic dynamic between Tomek and Magda in A Short Film About Love, it’s complicated, awkward, and often downright creepy, and the series draws much of its best comedy, and drama, from this tension. Really, any of the songs on Short Album could be interpreted as describing some stage in Niles’s relationship with Daphne. Quite what Hannon found so fascinating about this refined, mild-mannered, self-conscious, over-enunciating, hopelessly romantic upper-class aesthete, with his mellifluous voice, immaculately tailored suits, slight build, fair hair, well-honed deadpan, fondness for classical music, preoccupation with maintaining an image of appreciating high culture, and name beginning with the letters “n”, “i”, “l”, and “e”, we may never know. (Hannon won Celebrity Mastermind.)
This horse tangent comes at the middle of “If…”, which then sails on into even murkier territory. Hannon sings: “If you were / My little girl / I would find it hard to let you go / If you were / My sister / I would find it doubly so”. The music, with its gentle strings, resolutely ignores the increasingly sinister nature of the lyrics, even at this quasi-incestuous turn. For his final if, the narrator returns to the animal theme: “If you were a dog / I’d feed you scraps from off the table / Though my wife complains”. This is the point where the mask finally starts to crack proper, as any woman will recognise the red flag of a man’s eliding the little detail of his wife’s existence: it turns out that the narrator is already married to someone other than the addressee. (Alternatively, and perhaps more disturbingly, perhaps the neglected wife is just another part of his fantasy life.)
And now, at last, we reach the grand finale, where the entire song comes into focus. As the narrator follows this last thought to its conclusion, the placid music rapidly escalates into blaring horror-score bombast, Hannon singing the final lines with murderous certainty: “Yeah, if you were my dog / I am sure you’d like it better, then / You’d be my loyal four-legged friend / You’d never have to think again / And we could be together till the end”. It’s only in these final seconds that the song lets us know it’s in on the joke: what we may have thought were just slightly odd, wry jokes by the narrator, or unwise choices by the songwriter, are actually deliberate elements of a psychodrama – expressions of the narrator’s unwell mind. The inattentive listener feels the floor open up beneath them – this is not a good song to listen to as you drift off to sleep – whereas the attentive listener has any misgivings about strange or ill-judged lines suddenly, violently confirmed. It’s as if the narrator of “Everybody Knows”, desperate to convey and prove the truth of his feelings, has finally snapped.
The song was written hurriedly, not long before the recording of Short Album, which probably explains its simple, almost mechanical structure (you could probably encode it in a for-loop program that contains an if-then statement and ends after iterating through an array of possibilities), as well as the Father Ted elements, which probably just happened to be in Hannon’s mental RAM at the time.
There are moments where Hannon’s portrayal of an unhinged stalker begins to shade into self-portraiture: rather than a caricature of evil, the narrator is a somewhat sympathetic figure who shares many of the writer’s interests. The personifying of the tree recalls the slightly naff environmentalism of Fanfare for the Comic Muse, while both horses and dogs appear in a similarly supernatural context on Casanova’s closing track, “The Dogs and the Horses”, albeit as psychopomps rather than components of a deranged power fantasy. Hannon even takes the opportunity to quickly pack in one of his wistful metonyms for time’s flow across our lives, with the narrator riding his lovely horse from dawn till dusk at the exact centre of the song (and, therefore, the album).
The early reference to Jesus is interesting in light of the later lyrics, since Christ, in his various aspects, is also often portrayed as an animal – sometimes a lion, sometimes a lamb. In this case, however, it’s made quite clear that what all the song’s transformation fantasies – tree, horse, dog – really express is just the desire to be able to control, dominate, and dehumanise another, without any requirement of consent or possibility of resistance or retribution.
Many works have used the same title, which seems to have originated with Rudyard Kipling’s stoic paternal-advice poem “If—”. However, the song more closely resembles Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 film if…., which follows quite a similar trajectory – a teenage comedy-drama whose school-shooting climax is somehow as abrupt as it is inexorable.
In a 1999 interview, Hannon said, “The songs I find most interesting are not about a tried-and-tested theme. Even if you’re writing about love, you have to come at it from a strange angle. You have to draw people in, with something that’s going to confuse them. You can never have in writing what you like to think about yourself.” By this standard, “If…” is the most successful song on the record.
Over on the B-side, the fifth track, “If I Were You (I’d Be Through With Me)”, finds itself in the curious position of having to continue Short Album after the nightmare crescendo of its midpoint. Since this is not actually a horror album, Hannon goes for the obvious solution: breaking the tension with something light and pleasant. “If I Were You” returns to the lounge-song sound that characterised the first half of “Someone”, and features a similarly self-conscious and insecure narrator. And, like “Someone”, it’s about finding oneself in a situation that seems too good to be true: “If I were you / I’d look at me / And fail to see / The things I see in you”. If the first four songs were all about the initial stages of relationships – about finding someone, and proving or one’s demonstrating love – then this track is about something slightly more adult: the fear that a stable relationship will collapse. It seems the narrator has reason to feel unworthy, as he admits – without yet mentioning any details – that he hasn’t been treating her well: “And if I were you / I wouldn’t let / The shit you get from me / Get the better of you”. Hannon takes his characteristic self-deprecating tone and turns it up to a parodic degree, with a narrator who actively, repeatedly disparages himself, tempting fate, practically inviting his girlfriend to abandon him.
“Don’t you ever wonder why / I could never make you cry?” sings Hannon, before soaring into the chorus: “Well, if I were you / I’d ride away to / A pasture new / Where I could graze on / The grass so succulent and sweet / If I were you / I’d be through with me”. Yes, reader: this is another song about a lovely horse.
Now, granted the word “horse” isn’t actually used here; and the song later mentions being among a flock of sheep, which might give the listener a more ovine impression. However, the term “ride” confirms that this daydream is about being a riding animal, even if it doesn’t involve a rider in the conventional sense, and a horse is the most plausible possibility. If I didn’t know the chronology of Hannon’s discography, I might think the entre Short Album project was just a particularly extravagant effort to raise money for My Lovely Horse Rescue. However, Hannon wrote “If I Were You” in 1994, on the way back from a festival in Edinburgh, so any lyrical resonances with “My Lovely Horse” are probably coincidental (unless they were added in rewrites).
The song hinges on what’s known as a pataphor – a figure of speech that transcends metaphor to the same extent that metaphors transcend the literal, drifting off into its own self-sustaining fantasy world. The narrator attempts to empathise with his partner, but gets so swept away in his own dream of her escaping him that his attempts to articulate himself verbally simply break down. As the lyrics lose focus, the task of carrying the momentum of their meaning falls upon the performance and the music.
Despite a bombastic chorus, the song maintains a relaxed tone throughout, buoyed up by a soft piano melody and güiro flourishes; the recurring phrase “I’d be through with me” is always delivered softly, keeping the song’s momentum in check and its attitude gentle. The narrator never fully articulates the reasons behind his insecurity, but wryly provides us with a smattering of trivial details: “If I were you / I wouldn’t need / To always read / The magazines that I do / They make me blue”. It’s enough to give us a sense that this is no grand or tragic melodrama, but something more mundane, probably rooted in the same little problems and frustrations that characterise all relationships. The narrator has allowed these things to fester in his mind, and would rather end things entirely than face the relationship’s problems: “So if I were you / I’d make the break / Before I take / My frustrations out on you / Just break on through”.
Leading in to the next instance of the chorus, Hannon sings the song’s most fascinating line: “Don’t you ever, in your dreams / Take a lover and make her scream?” After all that prevarication, it becomes vividly clear that the conflict at the heart of the song is ultimately a sexual one. We now see that the first verse’s ambiguous “I could never make you cry” referred to a cry of pleasure, not of emotion. It seems that the narrator has been unfaithful to his partner, but his muddled, desperate attempt to make her understand involves asking her to imagine being him. “If I Were You” is a song about empathy, but it’s an empathy that ultimately turns out to be self-regarding and self-serving: the narrator struggles to put himself in his partner’s place, but only so that he can get a better look at himself, and justify asking her to empathise with him in turn.
After some ethereal non-lexical singing in the orchestral bridge, Hannon reprises the chorus, newly emphatic and assured: “I’d live real fast / And die real young / You see, if I were you / I’d end my days / In a field of stupid sheep / Just grazing the grass so succulent and sweet / If I were you / I’d be through with me”.
In this tumble of ideas and metaphors, it’s easy to miss just how strange this song is: the narrator is literally fantasising about being his girlfriend while she becomes a horse so that she can dump himself and die after a lifetime eating grass. (Reminds me of a DeviantArt painting I thought I’d repressed from my memory.) The reference to the stupidity of the sheep is particularly telling: it’s as if the narrator, uncomfortable with expressing his emotional needs and acknowledging his own faults, has found himself instinctively heaping sillier wishes and images on in order to obscure them. The more he trips over his own words and mixes his metaphors, the clearer we see just how earnest he is. While it’s quick, the narrator’s wish to “live real fast and die real young” (albeit, ahem, in the form of his horse ex-girlfriend) also connects to the exuberant death-wish of “In Pursuit of Happiness”, where the narrator considers his physical world an infertile territory, something to be escaped and left behind.
After the derangement of “If…”, whose narrator had no sense of his own horrific flaws, we get a song that consists entirely of introspection and self-critique. Despite being tonal opposites, “If…” and “If I Were You” are closely related. Granted, the decision to place two songs with such similar titles back-to-back is a little confusing – especially when both involve elaborate fantasies in which the narrator gallops across fields astride, or as, his partner, who in each case has become a horse. All of this serves, however, to emphasise the extent to which the latter is the necessary answer and remedy to the former. After trying out a long list of increasingly wrong wishes and thought-experiments, Hannon finally arrives at the correct one, which is simple empathy: “If… I Were You”.
It seems that the sixth track, “Timewatching”, is a song that Hannon just can’t leave alone. A riff on Nat King Cole’s “When I Fall in Love”, the song first appeared on the 1991 indie-rock EP Timewatch, while a drastically different orchestra-backed version was included on Liberation two years later.
The version on Short Album is very close to the Liberation version, to the point that a casual listener wouldn’t even notice a difference, but the song has been re-recorded again with the Brunel Ensemble to match the album’s sound. Rather than just cello, it now features a full string section, affording the track a more cinematic, Walkeresque quality.
“Timewatching” fits the theme of Short Album, but it’s clear that it wasn’t written during the Casanova sessions – there are no pop hooks here, no philandering antics. This is an even bleaker, more sombre piece of music than “The Dogs and the Horses”.
The Liberation version was already much slower than the Timewatch one, but Short Album slows the song down even more, adding almost another minute to the runtime. No lines are removed; however, in the closing verse, Hannon changes “If I fall in love / It could be forever” to “When I fall in love / It will be forever”, subtly imbuing the song with a sense of funereal finality.
“Timewatching” is a love song, but a dark and uncertain one whose narrator longs for someone who shares his ambivalence about love, and truly understands his paradoxical, mingled fear and desire for intimacy: “So I’ll never fall in love / But the moment I can feel that you feel that way too / Is when I might fall in love with you”. Hannon’s delivery here is a little deeper than in the previous version, a little softer, sometimes barely above a whisper. When we reappraise the song in the context of Short Album, what’s striking about how similar its situation is to that of “Someone”: the broken narrator is contemplating a wonderful incipient relationship, but he’s struggling to gather himself, steeling his faith in the world.
Short Album concludes with its seventh song, “I’m All You Need”. It’s the simplest, sweetest track on the record, with the soft strumming of an electric guitar and an electric-organ melody. The song begins with a dismissal: “But don’t look a horse / In the mouth / Don’t let a frog / Get you down / Dragging you round / Like a dog / On a lead / I’m all you need”. Hannon is saying that none of the problems and tribulations we’ve just explored over the last six stories are insurmountable – it’s as if this song’s narrator is telling his (prospective) partner to set aside lesser, worldly concerns, and focus on just being with him in the moment: “Baby / I’m in love with you / And my love could go on and on / Maybe / You could love me too / And our love could go on and on / Yeah”. The song’s unconventional structure simply repeats these two verses, again and again, in an ABABAB format, with no chorus.
As Hannon sings the same lines over and over, he seems to re-evaluate them, turning them over, finding new angles: triumphant, plaintive, flat, thoughtful. Finally, the song reaches its conclusion: “Maybe / You could love me too / And our love could go on and on / And on / And on / And on / And on…” As Hannon repeats those last two words, quieter and quieter, the string section glides to crystalline heights, bringing the song to the same kind of ethereal climax heard in “Europe by Train” and “Don’t Look Down” before fading to a peaceful and post-sermonic silence.
More broadly, this is one of the most distinctive, recurring motifs of Short Album: songs begin conventionally verbal and articulate before spiralling into the rapturous and the voiceless. It’s appropriate that this album, unusually for a Divine Comedy record, does not rely on literary references – ultimately, it’s about feelings that cannot be expressed through words. (The expanded version of the album adds four bonus tracks: first “Motorway to Damascus”, “Love Is Lighter Than Air”, and “Birds of Paradise Farm”, which I think are better discussed in the context of Casanova Companion; and finally “Make It Easy On Yourself”, a live cover of the song by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Hannon basically recreates the Scott Walker version, apart from a memorable moment at the end where he replaces “Oh baby” with “Oh Elvis” – actually a reference to Elvis DaCosta, Hannon’s backing vocalist for the Shepherd’s Bush gig, but it’s impossible to hear it without thinking of Presley.)
“I’m All You Need” has the same buoyant, jubilant confidence and optimism as “In Pursuit of Happiness” and “Everybody Knows”, but after the darkness of the four intervening tracks” – the frailty of “Someone”, the psychosis of “If…”, the selfish selflessness of “If I Were You”, and the lonely pain of “Timewatching” – the return to that initial tone feels cathartic. We’ve come full-circle. The opening track equates eternal romantic love with death; and so the album’s closing lines, which portray eternal romantic love, also inherit a deathly quality. Everything is finite in our world: your only chance of being with someone forever is in the next one. When Hannon’s narrator sings that his love will go on “And on / And on / And on…”, this is the leap of faith he’s taking. Of course his voice fades into silence at the end: those strings are a tunnel of light, and this album is valiantly hopeful about what awaits us at its end. It knows that love is death, but its thesis is that perhaps, if we’re fortunate, death is love.
In a 2016 interview, Hannon mentioned Short Album only to dismiss it, saying that “a lot of those songs weren’t particularly love-song-esque. They were long. And odd. I feel like I’ve written better songs about love in my latter years. Mostly because I have more knowledge of the subject.” Hannon is known for his ironic lyrics, but the greatest irony of Short Album is one that he couldn’t possibly have foreseen: the album ends with a song whose narrator asks his partner to focus on their relationship, setting aside distractions – all examples of which he provides are animals. Years later, Hannon would end up helping his partner Cathy Davey to run an animal shelter. Davey absolutely is a woman who looks horses in the mouth, lets frogs get her down, and gets dragged around by dogs on leads; Hannon is not all she needs.
Of course, “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” is also an English idiom, meaning “don’t investigate the possible inadequacies of a gift”, which might suggest that the narrator of “I’m All You Need” is acknowledging his own flaws but asking his partner to overlook them and trust him. If we examine the song’s two subsequent animal metaphors, however, they reveal some problems. (Bit like receiving a horse with dodgy teeth, that.) Hannon skims past this, but the lyrics actually state that the frog is the one dragging the narrator’s partner around, with the dog existing only as part of an analogy describing the frog. With all due respect to this magnificently powerful amphibian, perhaps the point is not the particular arrangement of words, but the close proximity of horse, frog, and dog – the three animals who have songs named after them on Casanova. Granted, the specifics don’t line up in any obvious way – the frog in “The Frog Princess” was a French ex-girlfriend, who presumably isn’t dragging the addressee of “I’m All You Need” around on a leash, and the dogs and horses in “The Dogs and the Horses” were long-lost pets who manifested as psychopomps for a dying narrator. The point is not the content of the references, but that the references are being made.
The question, then, is this: what is A Short Album About Love actually saying about Casanova? What do these seven short stories, taken together, tell us? Well, if we go with the idea that the airy, reassuring “I’m All You Need” sweeps aside the concerns of Short Album’s previous songs, then perhaps we should take these references to mean that it’s also sweeping aside Casanova. This isn’t a better album, but perhaps it’s a more adult one, more willing to engage with those murky thoughts and thwarted feelings that really occupy most of our lives; those hours when the party is over, or when it never really starts, and we’re left wondering what good might come to us. Sleep tight, and never look a lovely horse in the mouth.