Fin de Siècle was released in 1998, a year after the stripped-down, quasi-live Short Album About Love, but it doesn’t follow it stylistically. No: this is a proper Divine Comedy album, with the brand of maximalist orchestral-pop excess that the hat-trick of Liberation, Promenade, and Casanova have led us to expect. Fin de Siècle features more than a hundred musicians, combining the orchestral talents of the Brunel Ensemble and the choral efforts of the Crouch End Festival Chorus. With only ten tracks, the album might seem quite lean – something offset by several lengthy, expansive instrumental sections, for which we can thank the growing influence of arranger Joby Talbot. As its baroque title suggests, Fin de Siècle is not just an attempt to repeat the success of Neil Hannon’s preceding albums: anchored by some of his most straightforwardly commercial pop singles ever, it also drifts into some of his strangest territory to date, with experimental forays into opera, the spoken word, and Broadway musical.
The rotations of the Gregorian calendar, arbitrary though they are, have a way of amplifying the eternal human neuroses, dragging them into the light. As the meter approaches rollover, people flail to project some semblance of narrative logic onto the scrolling blankness of time, sometimes crystallising the essence of an era. In the last years of the nineteenth century, a mood swept France, in particular the intellectual circles of Paris, and spread across Europe. The prevailing feeling was one of ennui and pessimism, characterised by the sense that civilisation was approaching some manner of radical change. Interrelated artistic movements sprang up in response: the Aesthetes, who esteemed sensory pleasure and consumption above all else; the Decadents, who were fascinated by decay and deterioration, and turned to excess and parody. The mood came to be known as the spirit of fin de siècle.
The album’s title refers to this milieu; since it literally means “End of Century”, however, it also refers, playfully, to the time the album was released. It’s a good name: in calling back to the end of the nineteenth century and forward to the conclusion of the twentieth, it finds a way to unite Hannon’s contradictory interests in the antiquarian and the apocalyptic. The wordplay, however, suggests that perhaps the album isn’t about the end of either century, but about the commonalities between the ends of both – that it’s an album about history as a cyclical, eternal thing. The year 1999 is self-evidently a more portentous, more dramatic 1899 – it makes sense to expect that it should see the resurfacing of 1899’s metaphysical ills.
As the new millennium loomed closer, the apocalypse weighed more heavily on people’s minds. Doomsday cults such as the Stelle Group and Aum Shinrikyo sprang up, predicting imminent nuclear holocaust and world-rending natural disasters. The end of the world is a theme that has always lurked in Hannon’s work. It manifests in various forms, from Fanfare’s “Tailspin” to Short Album’s “In Pursuit of Happiness”, often for only a single song; and it seems that the mood of millenarian anxiety also, to some degree, affected Hannon. Certainly it looms over Promenade – a ponderous, album-length countdown to a world-rending New Year. As Allison Felus points out, “All [Hannon’s] best songs have always been steeped in death,” and “Fin de Siècle… is about the death of a whole century.” More than that: it’s the ultimate culmination of this theme – an entire album about the apocalypse, or more precisely, about the anxiety of living in a decadent modernity where the end feels nigh. Fin de Siècle is about the apocalypse, but it’s also about the cyclicity of history – two themes which directly contradict each other, casting a pall of irony over the entire album.
In the liner notes, Hannon introduces Fin de Siècle by way of an anecdote from his primary-school days. “It was 1977 and Jubilee fever had gripped Mr Lindsay’s heart…” The headmaster had Hannon and his classmates contribute items to a time capsule: “Swap-Shop T-shirts, Grease soundtracks and assorted ’70s tat, placed in a hole and covered with wet Derry earth.” Hannon recalls his early imaginings of one day digging up the capsule as an experience of vertiginous childhood sublime: “The fact that by then it would be the year 2000 made my heart sink with the impossible vastness of time. Of course I would never be thirty – I couldn’t even imagine being ten.” Everyone has a handful of childhood memories like this, I think – moments when our fledgling minds first brushed up against the scale of reality, like plankton against the leviathan; our consciousnesses recoiling, but changed, never to be quite the same.
Clearly, Fin de Siècle itself is intended as a sort of time capsule. The album attempts, on one hand, to encapsulate its fleeting cultural moment, hence its smorgasbord of cultural commentary on 1998; but it’s also trying to serve as a memento of one man’s personal obsessions and fixations, a snapshot of a mind, a life. Hannon explains: “I have tried with Fin de Siècle to learn the lessons of history. If you take the best bits from the past and aim resolutely for the future you might just end up with something that lives in the present. After all, no one wants a bunch of retro-crap… do they?”
To an extent, this album is Hannon summing up his twentieth-century work as the new millennium approaches; but like that work, it’s still branching out, extending tendrils into untapped genres, even entire musical traditions. He had experimented several times mixing music with the spoken word, most prominently with “Theme from Casanova”, but Fin de Siècle takes this to another level: three of the album’s ten tracks feature substantial spoken sections. Fin de Siècle is a Frankenstein angler fish, its body stitched together from opera, Broadway, spoken-word performances, and sprawling instrumentals, with its singles a glowing Britpop lure.
The front cover is a black-and-white photograph of Hannon in profile, before a Viennese monument to the modernist architect Otto Wagner. Hannon wears, as usual, a suit and tie; and the sunglasses, removed for the intimate side-step that was Short Album, have returned. The monument, in fact a tall pillar, is shot so tightly that it fills the photo: all we can see of it is the text that’s engraved on the chosen side (at around waist height – Hannon must be kneeling). ERNUERE VON DER GEMEINDE WIEN IM JAHRE 1959, it tells us. “RENEWED BY THE MUNICIPALITY OF VIENNA IN THE YEAR 1959”: a contextless shard of art history. Hannon faces to the right, like Caesar on a denarius, like the angel of history facing the future, like Bowie on the cover of Low. The band and album names are superimposed in tiny sans-serif white. Hannon looks diminished in a way we’ve not seen before: whereas the Louvre pyramid on Promenade seemed an expression of Hannon’s sharp cool, the Wagner monument here buries him under a weight of history and culture, the weight of the twentieth century.
The artwork created for Fin de Siècle, and used to promote the associated tour, consists mainly of a series of photos taken around Vienna. Like the cover, they’re mostly black-and-white; Hannon is in black tie, sometimes with sunglasses, sometimes without. In one of the more memorable images, he’s squashed into the corner of the frame by the looming edifice of the Karl Marx-Hof tenement complex; the opposite page is a mirrored version of the same picture, with the signage carefully edited to create the illusion that it’s a separate photo. In another, a pensive Hannon stands with his back to us, before the Heroes’ Monument of the Red Army. The only splash of colour is on the memoriam page, where we see a road lined with trees, stretching off into the distance, tinted a dreamy green: Fin de Siècle is dedicated, in part, to Dermot Morgan.
There’s no real effort here to move beyond the contemplative greyscale languor of the Casanova and Short Album photoshoots. Perhaps that’s appropriate, as this album doesn’t represent a radical break – it’s not until the new millennium that Hannon will try something as dramatic as Liberation. And even if Hannon’s moody posing and the photographer’s eye are familiar, the environs are intriguing: Fin de Siècle is, visually speaking, a brutalist album. We see Hannon wander an uninhabited world of concrete structure and sculpture, a colourless cityscape of imposing and unapologetic blocks. The foregrounding of Otto Wagner directs our attention to modernism itself. The early twentieth century was a time of profound change throughout Western culture – in art, in literature, in physics. Although these developments spanned diverse spheres of thought, they were connected by an underlying logic – an eagerness to Make It New, to experiment in form and content and technique, to shatter existing assumptions and singular perspectives. Brutalist architecture, challenging conventional understandings of aesthetics and human behaviour, was a part of this.
When discussing the themes of Fin de Siecle, it is worth keeping in mind that the Greek root apokalupsis does not refer to destruction: it means “to uncover”. One question the album seems to be asking: will the dawn of the twenty-first century involve a shattering of ossified thought, a revolution of understanding, in the same way that the dawn of the twentieth did? Will the new century have its Picasso, its Joyce, its Einstein?
Fin de Siècle begins with a single, “Generation Sex”. (Hannon’s summary before a 2004 performance at the London Palladium: “This is a moving little number… haha… about sex… and tabloid hell!”) As it begins, we hear neither music nor lyrics, but the voice of a woman, speaking quickly, stridently, enthusiastically: “Well, there’s nothing wrong with a woman having two men.” The performer is American broadcaster Katie Puckrik, known for her work presenting British TV shows. “Every woman should have at least two men,” she continues, as a needling harpsichord melody and the strains of a clarinet creep in. “If you don’t, there’s something wrong. I mean, guys do it all the time. Guys have a woman on this side of town, the other side of town, they have a woman in another city. Why shouldn’t we? I mean, it’s the nineties!” The horns kick in: “Generation Sex” has begun. The song – indeed the entire album – that follows is so colourful it makes the sober artwork seem like a dry joke.
It’s unclear whether Hannon wrote this narration himself or asked Puckrik to read out an actual talk-show transcript, which would presumably have been cheaper and legally more straightforward than sampling one. (Either way, we know that Puckrik was a backup: the song originally included audio from Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, specifically the scene where a journalist asks Sylvia Rank vapid questions about love and nightclothes, and receives equally vapid answers; Fellini’s estate wouldn’t clear the samples.) In any case, Puckrik’s performance here is over-the-top and caricaturish: Hannon isn’t actually interested in exploring the ethical complexities or feminist applications of promiscuity. Rather, he’s setting the scene for the song, establishing a theme (modern social mores as they relate to the media) and a tone (basically fun, but tinged with a certain melancholy regret as to how we spend our attention). It’s instructive to compare this to Casanova, which began with a similarly goofy dialogue between Hannon and two laughing woman, as befitting the tone and focus of that record. As on Casanova, it’s a questionable production choice, frivolous and broad in a way that might discourage listeners who’d enjoy the subtler stuff later in the album. The use of Puckrik, however, also illuminates the differences between the two records: Fin de Siècle is less interested in Hannon himself, and in the adventures of the characters he embodies.
Once it gets going, “Generation Sex” reveals itself as a brassy, fast-paced pop song, with a verve and energy much like that of “Something for the Weekend”. Hannon, detached and worldly, begins: “Generation Sex / Respects / The rights / Of girls / Who wanna take their clothes off / As long as we can all watch / That’s okay”. The lyrics could sound reactionary to someone half-listening, but Hannon’s point is very particular: he’s not criticising the increasing sexualisation of the era, but specifically the media’s role in engineering it. “And Generation Sex / Elects / The type / Of guys / You wouldn’t leave your kids with / Shouts ‘off with their heads’ if / They get laid”. This reference to the then-very-recent Monica Lewinsky scandal packs some surprisingly detailed commentary into just one sentence: Hannon condemns the character of President (and Epstein Airways frequent-flier) Bill Clinton, but again reserves most of his ire for the press who turned one of Clinton’s more innocuous transgressions into a media circus.
The lyrics continue in this manner: a list of bone-dry societal observations, essentially an attempt to skewer by summary a generation. Neil Hannon was born in 1970, right in the middle of the 1961–1981 range most commonly given for Generation X. Typical Gen-Xers, we’re told, are individualistic and self-sufficient, cynical, uninterested in work – latchkey kids, children of divorce and MTV. Considering that the distillation of the human population into “generations” is an imprecise art – as arbitrary in its own way as the Gregorian calendar – we can see why Hannon may have found the label applied to his age bracket unfitting, and decided to offer up his own definition.
In its best verse, the song introduces a delicate harp accompaniment, and Hannon sings, softer now: “Lovers watch their backs / As hacks / In Macs / Take snaps / Through telephoto lenses / Chase Mercedes-Benzes / Through the night / A mourning nation weeps / And wails / But keeps / The sales / Of evil tabloids healthy / The poor protect the wealthy / In this world”. Fin de Siècle was released on the 31st of August, 1998 – which is to say, 365 days after Princess Diana’s driver crashed that Merc while speeding away from a horde of press photographers. The sound of the harp evokes the kitsch artwork depicting Diana in heaven, Diana as angel or goddess, which became so strangely popular among the British working classes following her death. Hannon never actually uses the words “Princess” or “Diana” in the song, evincing a restraint which makes “Generation Sex” feel delicate rather than crass, acidic rather than obvious. (That she should feature so prominently on an album dedicated to Dermot Morgan stands as a testament to that odd synchronicity; the not-uncommon suggestion that Morgan was our “Diana moment”.)
In the third and final verse – there’s no chorus – Hannon sings, “Generation Sex / Injects / The sperm / Of worms / Into the eggs of field-mice / So you can look real nice / For the boys”. There’s a web of interesting tensions here: Hannon attempts to critique genetic engineering, but on aesthetic grounds. Rather than, say, criticise a system which allows corporations to patent genes for profit, he takes the rather feebler tack that hybrids are disgusting. (That worms don’t have sperm only confuses the point further.) Next, he calls out the cosmetic-industrial complex’s pressuring of women into consumption and sexual competition; but he misses the converse, which is that some people just like make-up. Hannon has written excellent, complex songs about female characters, but his ecclesiastical tone and delivery work against him here, and the result is condescension.
Finally, Hannon hits us with the song’s Twilight Zone ending, the inevitable approach to the mirror: “And Generation Sex / Is me / And you / And we / Should really all know better / It doesn’t really matter / What / You / Say”. As if realising he’s been preachy, he seems to throw up his hands and walk away, calling everything he’s said into question.
The song segues into another talk-show-style monologue by Katie Puckrik. This time, to the sound of an involved, enthusiastic audience, she defends the validity of interracial romance: “It doesn’t matter what colour you are, long you’re happy, you know? Lovin’ has no colour, you know? I rather be with somebody that’s white as keep makin’ me happy, than as somebody my same colour, and to be miserable the rest of my life.” Which might sound reasonable enough, except that Puckrik is white, and reads these lines in a mock African-American accent. This must have been dodgy in 1998, and is certainly dodgy now – but perhaps that’s the point. Hannon, a white man instructing a white woman talk-show host to perform as a black woman talk-show guest, to read a monologue which may be scripted or unscripted or something in between – a simulacrum of a pure and simple message of love, adrift in the musical outro of an apocalyptic sermon, a complicit condemnation; all that the song, that the album, has to say about the Baudrilliardian brave new world in which we find ourselves is captured here, in this moment, in microcosm.
After the sex comedy of Casanova and the plangent romance of A Short Album About Love, “Generation Sex” seems a sharp change of direction. It’s as if Hannon has come to see those preceding albums as somehow limited. There’s still some thematic continuity – it’s right there in the song’s title – but there’s a decided shift in scope, a zooming-out to place those albums’ concerns in a wider, more holistic, societal context. The song shares the subject-matter of Casanova, but its perspective is structural rather than personal.
This is a song which could have been crushingly lame – it’s easy to imagine a “satire” about how society is too sexual, too immoral, and how we should return to the good old days; an old man yelling at a cloud. Instead, “Generation Sex” is a jubilant tribute to something broken. Hannon highlights a sequence of moral failings, in various social sectors; and concludes that he is complicit in all that he criticises – and so are you. At its core, this may just be Hannon’s usual self-effacement, his instinct to contradict himself before anyone else has the chance; but writ large, transposed to a societal level, it becomes something oddly profound.
The music video is surprisingly stark. Evidently shot on cheap, blurry video, it features Hannon and the band performing in a hotel room, each wearing what can only be described as a black cyberpunk blindfold. When the song reaches the minute-long guitar-solo outro that follows the second Puckrik clip, a team of police storm the room and arrest everyone. We end with Hannon in the back of a police van, looking pensive. The video seems to have less to do with the song than it does with the idea of being on tour – the hotel setting, and the band’s being dragged away and bundled into vehicles all make it seem like an anxious dream dreamt on the road. Perhaps that’s appropriate: among all its criticisms of the media, the song fails to mention music: demonstrating the band themselves as blind cogs in a government machine is necessary to complete Hannon’s portrait of complicity. Now, before we move on, let us spare a thought for those truest children of Generation Sex, the mouse-worm hybrids.
The album’s second track is “Thrillseeker”. With its languorous electric-guitar progression, espionage-action strings, and vaguely libidinous vocals, it declares itself up-front as Hannon’s version of a James Bond theme. Like any self-respecting Bond film, the song begins in medias res, with the narrator in the midst of an action sequence: “When you hang by a thread / Strange things go through your head: / What was in that woodshed? / Will death be gentle?” The electric guitar mickey-mouses along with his every syllable, lending the song a broad, retro-cinema vibe to match the Bondian woodwind flourishes and exotic, playful castanets.
The callback to the central mystery in Hannon’s first single is, in itself, mysterious: is the thrillseeker the narrator from “Something for the Weekend”? Is he a Divine Comedy fan, recalling his favourite song on the brink of death? Is the narrator Hannon himself, an artist haunted by the question he chose to leave unanswered? Or is the woodshed that the thrillseeker is wondering about the one from Cold Comfort Farm? In any case, a Casanova reference makes sense here: the first two tracks of Fin de Siècle are somewhat transitional, echoing the sex-comedy tone of that album, easing the binge-listener into the new album’s more societal themes. It’s also worth remembering how Cold Comfort Farm used its woodshed: as a gothic symbol of a decaying old order. One of the film’s key ideas is that not every strange and awful thing in the past needs to be exhumed and dissected – that sometimes it’s better to face the future, to let go.
If Fin de Siècle is an album about a society on the edge, facing its possible extinction, “Thrillseeker” is a song about an individual in the same position. “‘Better to live one day / Like a lion than a / Thousand sheepishly’, say / Dead oriental”. Hannon’s grammar here is a little tortuous, but this is a reference to eighteenth-century Indian monarch Tipu Sultan, to whom the quotation is sometimes attributed (though not as often as it is to Benito Mussolini). The thrillseeker, then, is a literate man, or at least sees himself as one.
In the chorus, Hannon assumes a more muscular performance. “I’m a thrillseeker, honey, I can’t help it / I’d kill for that feeling now I’ve felt it / I’m a thrillseeker”. The narrator is singing, we assume, to a woman, a partner. He reminds her of his nature unapologetically, refusing to take responsibility for his actions, or his safety, or for anyone who might care about him.
The song is suffused by a sense of inevitability, of sins being justly punished. In the next verse, Hannon continues reciting his koans: “If you live by the sword / You will reap your reward / Death by faulty rip-cord / Or loose karabiner”. At this point, it becomes clear that the “thread” he’s hanging from isn’t a metaphor: the thrillseeker has had an actual parachuting accident. What’s not clear is whether he’s a recreational skydiver, risking himself directly for the sake of doing so; or, as the mood suggests, a Bondian spy airdropping at great risk into foreign territory. Hannon slips once more into moralising, intoning about sin and punishment, but as in “Generation Sex”, the one doing the moralising is himself complicit. “But it’s my absolute right / To kill myself if I like / And now it looks like I might / Have finally succeeded / And I don’t care”.
Suddenly, the floor seems to drop out from us, with a synthesiser melody that falls and falls, Hannon’s final “care” fading slowly, as if the thrillseeker has fallen off a cliff. We hear a heavily modulated, Kraftwerk-style voice, reciting a robotic “Thrillseeker… thrillseeker… thrillseeker”. That karabiner must have snagged on something, though, because the synths swing back up, and Hannon sings again, this time softer: “When they finally come / I’ll be stuck here like gum / Frying under the sun / Eggs over-easy”. The thrillseeker foresees his death. Subtly, in the background, we can hear an angelic choir; the end seems near. This is the second song on the album to mention eggs, and in both cases, that purest symbol of new beginnings is perverted, twisted into a dead end: in “Generation Sex”, ova are turned into mouse-worm chimerae for use in cosmetics; and here, the thrillseeker imagines himself being fried into an omelette by the solar heat, dying before his time, before the new millennium. “But it’s my triumph of will / Just to stay alive till / They’ve spent several million / Trying to save me / Albeit vainly / I don’t want their money”. In a great bit of comedic timing, these last two lines are each tacked on after a moment’s silence, like afterthoughts.
For the finale, Hannon resumes his triumphant proclamation: “I’m a thrillseeker, honey, I can’t help it / I’d kill for that feeling, now I’ve felt it / It’s the cruellest of hands, but I’ve been dealt it / I can see it, I can feel it, I hear it, here it comes! / Here it comes now! / Here it comes!” See them there: egg and sun, those two yellow-white orbs, nemeses, glaring at each other across the gulf of space. What is the source of the thrillseeker’s suicidal malaise? Perhaps our best clue lies in his spiteful fantasy of an expensive death, and the animosity for capitalist society that it reveals.
The thrillseeker is a man broken by modernity. Living under capitalism in the late twentieth century, his existence is regimented, hollow, and terminally boring. The only way can feel briefly, truly alive is to place himself in mortal danger. What matters isn’t which particular species of empty bourgeois he happens to be – double-O agent or extreme-sports devotee – but what his lifestyle represents escape from: the crushing grind of a nine-to-five. These thrills, these moments of joy and exhilaration, are evidently so rare, so difficult to attain, that he is willing to trade his life for them. His escape is revolution or death.
The album’s third song is “Commuter Love”. Transitioning from searing heat to icy cold, we find ourselves on a dreary train platform. We hear human bodies shuffling dutifully about, voices murmuring on far-off loudspeakers, and the ambivalent respiration of a lone accordion. The lyrics consist of the narrator’s internal monologue as a woman on the platform catches his eye, and we experience every step of their epic, tragic, entirely one-sided romance. “Freezing / Monday morning / She is waiting / For her train to come / I brush past her / Smell her perfume / Watch her hair move / As she turns to go”. The start is slow and plodding: throughout each verse, Hannon raises his pitch on the last syllable of each line, giving it a monotonous tick-tock progression. The percussion throughout echoes with a soft, subtle electronic effect. (The title is a play on Kraftwerk’s “Computer Love”, another song about human emotion mediated and constrained by technology, by modernity.) For Hannon, trains are a contemplative space: in Liberation’s “Europe by Train”, a vector for exotic and wordless dreams; here in “Commuter Love”, a sadder, more fully articulated version of the same thing.
“She doesn’t know I exist / I’m gonna keep it like this / Not gonna take any risks / This time”. Those last two words – leading into a heavy, urgent percussive bridge – are the heart of the song. The narrator has experienced a heartbreak – either one that’s very recent, or one that he’s failed to get over. Either would explain why he doesn’t mention it directly: it’s so vivid for him as to be immanent in his internal monologue. The oblivious woman passenger doesn’t actually hold any deep meaning for him – she merely reminds him of a past partner, dredging up memories of that first meeting and, though he tries not to dwell on it, the painful circumstance in which that relationship ended. Considering Hannon’s style, it was likely a grandiose break-up, but the lyrics are ambiguous enough to allow darker readings – perhaps the commuter is a widower.
The narrator grows increasingly fanciful, projecting a host of desirable personality traits onto the woman: “She’s not / Like the others / With their papers / And their headphones on / She reads novels / By French authors / With loose morals / She can do no wrong”. He slides into hyperbole – it’s as if he’s noticed how absurd his feelings are, become self-conscious, and decided to start exaggerating them to avoid being taken seriously. It’s not even clear whether she’s actually reading a French novel on the platform (though that’s certainly the sort of thing that can spark a daydream about a stranger); perhaps the cover is obscured and he’s filling the blank with his imagination. Perhaps she’s not reading at all. Some of these projected traits may well describe the woman from the commuter’s past – memories bleeding in vividly as he conflates the two.
“Commuter Love” reiterates the basic story of “Songs of Love”, another track about a lonely outsider eyeing girls he doesn’t know and fantasising about relationships he has no intention of pursuing. The story here is a little more universal than the earlier song’s Rear Window scenario: the liminality of public transport, the definitional fact that no-one present is where they want to be, leaves minds with nought to do but wander. Strangers of all ages and genders, packed together in an enclosed space, are left to think what-if. (Not for nothing did Roger McGough set “At Lunchtime: A Story of Love”, his apocalyptic sex poem, on a bus.) But “Commuter Love” also manages to sketch out a more interesting protagonist than “Songs of Love”: a character whose past and interiority we can only glimpse through his present-tense stream of consciousness.
“I wouldn’t say I’m obsessed / I don’t wanna see her undressed”, sings Hannon – a suspiciously specific denial, recalling the dubious claim in “The Frog Princess” that “I saw nothing through her see-through dress”. The commuters tells us – tells himself – that his desire is pure and lofty and platonic, but of course it’s not. His daydream grows more elaborate: “We can be prince and princess / In my dreams / And we’re dancing / Through the evening / Till the morning”. In an incredible, stirring moment, Hannon’s words are repeated by opera singer Hilary Summers: My dream, she echoes; and then, a moment later, Dancing. No previous Divine Comedy song had featured opera, in any form. It’s not as full-on as the opera segue in “Bohemian Rhapsody”, but it feels just as lovely and strange and unexpected, brilliantly capturing the heightened, otherworldly sublimity of the narrator’s secret fantasy life. There’s an echo of “‘Heroes’”, and David Bowie’s plaintive “I / I will be king / And you / You will be queen”; but the fairy-tale royalism has a sharper edge here, where the narrator’s lower-class status and mundane, freezing environs have been skilfully established. Building on Hannon’s usual theme of time’s slipperiness, this moment also articulates vividly the difference in how time passes in reality and in fantasy; how, like the Pevensie children, we can lose ourselves, live out entire imaginary lives, and then snap back to reality to find that only a moment has passed, that nothing has changed.
This fantasy seems to break something in the commuter, and suddenly the song plunges into a frantic electric-guitar solo – one that seems, if not angry, then distressed, repeating itself as it spirals higher in pitch. He thrashes against the bars that divide his inner life from his outer one.
The song’s connection to the perils of modernity is left unspoken, hidden in plain sight. Where, exactly, is the lovelorn commuter commuting to, this miserable Monday morning? Work, of course: atomising, life-sapping work. Were he free to live his own life in the way that he found most amusing, rather than being exploited for his labour, perhaps he would be happier – at the very least, he might have something better to do than fabulate human connections while being shuttled back and forth through dismal grey places for the purpose of fattening his employer’s wallet. But the commuter, lacking the societal perspective that might help him contextualise and understand his problems, continues to view the woman as what’s missing from his life. He tells himself a final, forceful time: “She doesn’t know I exist / I’m gonna keep it like this / I’m not gonna take any risks / This time”. The accordion and the train-platform loudspeaker rise around us like a cold fog, and we say goodbye to the lonely commuter, subject of one of Hannon’s subtlest character studies.
The fourth song, “Sweden”, assaults the listener with a lurching, operatic bombast of brass and booming percussion. Quieting down, the assault gives way to a darkly playful electric guitar and vibraphone, and Hannon begins, wistfully, to sing: “I would like to / Live in Sweden / When my work is done / Where the snow lies / Crisp and even / ‘Neath the midnight sun”. This is a song about escapism, but it’s definitely not escapist: despite the travelogic lyrics, the music remains uneasy, off-kilter, even sinister.
We hear an electronic Kraftwerk shimmer as he narrator describes his fantasy: “Safe and / Clean and / Green and / Modern / Bright and breezy / Free and easy”. The electronic undercurrent builds in intensity, the choir ramping up, and suddenly the chorus thrusts us back to the orchestral bombast of the opening bars. The voice of Hilary Summers returns, suddenly taking the lead, in full Wagnerian melodrama mode. “Sweden / Sweden / Sweden”, she sings, matching the orchestra every inch. It’s really Summers who makes this song – she practically tramples Hannon, who’s reduced to an arch madman muttering “Sweden… Sweden…” (This combination of exuberant female guest vocals with the male artist simply reciting the song’s title, trying out different modulations, seems influenced by Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me with Science”.) The chorus also features the Crouch End choir, who complement Summers with an unearthly, regimented chanting. The liner notes don’t include lyrics for backing vocals, and it’s difficult to make out, but they seem to be saying, “Sweden, Sveria, Sweden, Sveria”.
Next, the narrator grows more assertive, but at the same time more opaque: “I am gonna / Live in Sweden / Please don’t ask me why / For if I were to / Give a reason / It would be a lie”. It seems that he doesn’t truly understand the nature of his obsession with Sweden – or perhaps he does know, and doesn’t want to reveal it. Perhaps he harbours only dim suspicions, and isn’t willing to investigate further, not wanting to admit the truth to himself.
As we shift back to the “Autobahn” electronic melody, Hannon chants dreamily: “Tall and strong and blonde and blue-eyed / Pure and healthy, very wealthy”. Once we learn that the narrator’s dream of Sweden revolves around an Aryan ideal, the truth becomes undeniable: “Sweden” is a song about fascism. The narrator’s ideology is hollow: he has fallen in love with an aestheticised idea of a far-away white ethnostate. Like Short Album’s “If…”, this song has a narrator who initially seems reasonable but gradually reveals himself to be demented; whereas that escalation was exponential, lurching into madness with the closing seconds, the escalation in “Sweden” is geometric, building steadily.
In the final verse, the narrator’s breakdown reaches its completion, and he decays into outright fantasy, no longer even trying to make his feelings seem rational. Singing softly, sweetly, he affirms: “I’ll grow wings and fly to Sweden / When my time is come / Then at last my eyes shall see them / Heroes, every one”. Buoyed by a heavenly choir, he enunciates the names of his Swedish Mount Rushmore – “Ingmar Bergman / Henrik Ibsen / Karin Larsson / Nina Persson” – and finally we reprise the bombastic opening, with Hannon practically screaming, over and over, “Sweden! / Sweden! / Sweden!”.
There’s clearly a deliberate bathetic joke here, in following three canonical artists with the lead singer out of the Cardigans, to highlight the incoherence of the narrator’s mythologising. More interesting, though, is the fact that Henrik Ibsen was Norwegian. Regardless of whether this was a mistake on Hannon’s part or another joke, it’s a great illustration of the phantasmic nature of the narrator’s beliefs – he hasn’t conducted even the most basic research into his heroes. His concept of Swedishness is as amorphous as it is passionate.
When the narrator announces his plan to live in Sweden “when [his] work is done”, what exactly is this “work”? It may seem, on a first listen, that he’s a musician – that Hannon is daydreaming about his own retirement – but I think not: the narrator is soon revealed as a dark character, and there’s no confusion between him and Hannon. Rather, “work” here refers to wage labour itself. The narrator in “Commuter Love” felt trapped in a dreary, zombified state, endlessly shuttled to and from the office, with only romantic fantasies to keep him going; the narrator in “Sweden” is another worker drone, with a similarly empty life, sustained by dreams of where he’ll go once he’s finally free of his boss. The commuter’s daydream is semi-realistic, but he lacks the steel and conviction to make it happen, and it wouldn’t really satisfy him if it did; the sweeaboo’s fantasy is simply inane, and he needs help. These are not healthy, constructive dreams: they are nacre wrapping grit. Both songs are about men on the verge of class consciousness – men who should be agitating for better pay, better hours, better conditions – but they’re not quite there. If they spoke to each other, they might begin to understand the structural nature of their problems – or could at least commiserate over a couple of pints, perhaps snap each other out of their respective unhealthy headspaces. The narrator in “Sweden” correctly senses that something is very wrong with his life and how it’s organised; frustrated and searching for an answer, he fails to understand the real problem, and instead trips into fascism. He becomes, to use an anachronistic term, redpilled.
In one interview, Hannon claims that the song emerged from his frustration with pop music’s focus on the ups and downs of romantic relationships: “I mean, obviously the most important parts of a human being’s life are probably played out in terms of relationships and other people. But that doesn’t account for about 80 per cent of the rest of the time, where soft furnishings are as important. A lot of people will wait all week just to go to Ikea to buy a sofa, and that’s the only thing preying on their minds. So why isn’t that a good enough idea for a song? That’s pretty much where I got the idea for ‘Sweden’ from… a trip to Ikea. Basically, I find humour as intellectually stimulating as anything else, and I just get very bored if it’s all po-faced and serious.” Hannon may have believed he was writing a joke, but “Sweden” is the song that comes closest to diagnosing the rot, to expressing what’s at the heart of the album’s disaffection with modernity: that heady mixture of ignorance, capitalism, and white supremacy. Regardless of its initial spark, “Sweden” is a timeless, politically astute track, and one of Fin de Siècle’s best. In conclusion: Ari Aster picked the wrong song for the end credits of Midsommar.
The first half of Fin de Siècle comes to a close with track five, “Eric the Gardener”. This song was inspired by an article Hannon read about Eric Lawes, the English metal-detectorist who discovered the Hoxne Hoard, a stash of Roman gold and silver coins, in 1992. (The song’s title may have been inspired by Andrew Paresi, a comedian who performed under the name Eric the Gardener, but he’s clearly not a meaningful influence here.) Despite all this, the song is decidedly not about the Hoxne discovery, but something rather more esoteric. At eight and a half minutes, it’s the longest track on the album.
We begin with the sound of birdsong. An electronic bleep flickers into life – a metal-detector, sweeping the soil. The sound stabilises, becomes a tone: something has been found. A six-note piano phrase materialises, and begins to loop briskly, again and again, like a Michael Nyman counter-melody. Matching this six-note phrase each line, Hannon begins pleasantly to sing. “Julius Caesar came / Saw, conquered, went away / ’Cause it rained here all the time / Too many sniffs and colds / Got up his Roman nose / So he left it all behind”. Unusually for a Divine Comedy song, this is very specifically a British reference. Hannon generally elides the difference between Britain and Ireland – as the final track on Fin de Siècle makes quite clear, he feels that he belongs to both. His music is Anglo-Irish, and the distinction between those two elements is seldom relevant. But the Romans never invaded Ireland.
The song avoids mythologising Caesar – he’s presented, notably, as an ordinary human, subject to mild illnesses and irritating weather. His nose is discussed by name, and made the fulcrum of his world-shaping decision for the Romans Empire to abandon these islands. “So he left it all behind / For Eric the Gardener to find / Eric the Gardener / Eric the Gardener will find / Eric the Gardener”. Strings rise, gently, signifying that this Eric is the spiritual centre of the song.
“Julius Caesar knew / That when his life was through / Something of him would stay behind / Not in a Roman tomb / Or an Italian womb / But buried deep in English slime / For Eric the Gardener to find”. In these lines, Hannon sets up three ways in which we survive death. The first two of these – the decaying bones, and the living bloodline – he mentions only to dismiss as irrelevant. Eric isn’t searching for Caesar’s skellington, and he has no interest in imagining he’s Caesar’s nth-great-grandson. No: it’s specifically the notion of those artefacts he left behind in Britain that occupies Eric’s world – the idea of something that Caesar held, grasped in his living hands, and which survived him; and the ephemeral aura that that imbues, the particular flavour of communion-with-history that that allows. We’re not even told what Eric’s initial discovery is – the bleep indicates metal, so we might assume it’s coins, but we needn’t know, because that’s beside the point. The dig, the search itself, takes on metaphysical significance.
We’re swept into a wordless church-organ crescendo, and it ends, suddenly, with Hannon singing, in a more hushed tone: “Julius Caesar sleeps / Soundly beneath your feet / With the rest of humankind / Dig deep and dig some more / Dig to the planet’s core / Dig till you’ve gone out of your mind / But all you will ever really find / Is Eric the Gardener / Eric the Gardener will find / Eric the Gardener”. The six-note counter-melody returns, now on woodwind, now accompanied by a harp glissando, gentle and marvelling, at the end of each bar. One wonders: is Hannon addressing Eric, now, or us? And what does it mean to find Eric?
We’re left with the very Zen idea that Caesar left his treasure behind so that this twentieth-century man can find himself. Eric is incomplete, adrift: out-of-place in modernity, ill-equipped for our world, he longs for a connection to the ancient past. Eric’s goal is not the furthering of archaeology, but spiritual and philosophical wholeness; he longs for the perceptual sublime that comes from contact with the infinite. The Roman Empire as a kind of secular spiritualism for modern Britain, with metal-detecting as a non-denominational Grail quest, is fertile thematic territory – Mackenzie Crook and Toby Jones’s very good sitcom Detectorists is essentially a long-form adaptation of this song, right down to the quasi-spiritual quality it ascribes to the English search for Roman treasure. (No disrespect to composer Johnny Flynn, but they should absolutely have used “Eric the Gardener” as the main theme.)
“Eric the Gardener” is the track that best reflects Hannon’s time-capsule preface. Apocalyptic anxiety permeates Fin de Siecle, but the album has rather fewer songs dealing with the other side of the millenarian fulcrum: where we’ve come from.
Hannon’s voice fades out before the four-minute mark – the rest of the song is entirely instrumental, a miasma of wafting strings and exploratory synths riffs, flickering and glimmering like the dust-devilled Autobahn. Every now and then, fading in and out, we hear a great rushing, like a crowd cheering in the distance; the echo of a Roman legion in some long-forgotten battle. Even the piano melody, in prefiguring the exact cadence of the words “Eric the Gardener” long before they’re sung, helps to articulate the song’s underlying theme of timelessness, of things that sit in the ground and wait millennia to be uncovered. According to the credits, “Eric the Gardener” is co-written by Hannon and Joby Talbot. Talbot was the band’s arranger and pianist from 1993 to 2001, but it’s on Fin de Siècle that he really shines, making his most substantial contribution to the Divine Comedy. Rather than being an intentional co-author, it seems Talbot was more an arranger who really outdid himself this time, earning co-composer credit on two tracks.
Six and a half minutes in, something shifts, and the instrumental begins to descend, to drift lower and lower, gradually, like a dying leaf claimed by the wind. It takes the next two minutes to hit the ground; then there’s a final, contemplative lowing of horns, and silence.
Are we to understand that Eric is Caesar reincarnated? The song doesn’t tell us: it spirals into tautologies, leaving its final implication unspoken. Still, it’s worth noting that the name Eric derives from Eiríkr – meaning, in Old Norse, “eternal ruler”.
There is another subtext here. For some listeners, this song – with its story about a man looking over the countryside of Great Britain, contemplating a brief visit made to the island by a legendary, posthumously deified leader with the initials “JC” approximately two thousand years ago, and wondering if JC left some trace or presence here that might yet be immanentised via the modern narrator’s actions – may ring a bell. I refer, of course, to the apocryphal myth that a young Jesus travelled with Joseph of Arimathea to England. This story also forms the basis of the hymn “Jerusalem”, set to William Blake’s poem of that name, which asks: “And did those feet in ancient time, / Walk upon Englands mountains green: / And was the holy Lamb of God, / On Englands pleasant pastures seen!” Blake presents a sequence of queries, asking whether the divine countenance gazed upon the green hills he now sees – it’s as if he’s wavering, vacillating, wanting but not daring to believe the story. The poem ends with an affirmation, and the announcement of a new mission: “I will not cease from Mental Fight, / Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand: / Till we have built Jerusalem, / In Englands green & pleasant Land.”
“Eric the Gardener” is a retelling of “Jerusalem”. I doubt that Hannon was consciously alluding to Blake – this type of coded message frankly isn’t his style – but that’s beside the point: it’s simply a richer song when the intertext is considered. (Besides, this isn’t the first Divine Comedy song with oblique echoes of Blake’s poem – remember the Timewatch EP.) Jesus Christ and Julius Caesar are, after all, counterparts of a sort: near-contemporary patriarchs, figureheads of an old order and the one that supplanted it. Caesar is the song’s manifest subject, but Jesus is its latent one. (Conveniently, the particular Bible verse where one figure mentions the other – “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” – has Jesus attempting to get people to pay their taxes, which nicely ties into the album’s socialist themes. If Caesar and Christ agree on something, you know it’s good.)
Eric’s spiritual search for any traces ol’ JC may have left in Britain’s soil seems, then, to be an allegory for the Christian search for meaning. By focusing nominally on Caesar rather than Christ, the track bypasses our preconceptions, enabling us to experience a fundamentally Christological spiritual meditation without any of the baggage that that would normally bring. Alternatively, perhaps the song represents an atheist’s search for meaning in a world without God. After all, the song’s omniscient narrator informs us that Eric will find himself rather than Caesar: that man’s quest will lead him to a reconfigured cosmology with himself at the centre of things.
Now that I’m reasonably sure I’ve thoroughly excavated “Eric the Gardener”, I’ll see if I can prove Hannon wrong by digging to the core of Fin de Siècle.
The album’s second side also begins with a single: “National Express”. Peaking at #8 in the UK charts, it’s flat-out the most successful Divine Comedy song ever. Written at the same time as “Songs of Love”, but omitted from Casanova because of its relatively platonic subject-matter, “National Express” was inspired by the honky-tonk music of Mrs Mills, a pianist who performed on 1970s comedy programmes such as The Morecambe and Wise Show and The Two Ronnies.
After the brassy, almost music-hall intro, Hannon assumes the role of an advocate or advertiser for a bus company: “Take the National Express / When your life’s in a mess / It’ll make you smile”. Glossing over the company’s services, he focuses instead on the bus’s passengers, painting them into a Hieronymus Bosch tableau: “All human life is here / From the feeble old dear / To the screaming child / From the student who knows / That to have one of those / Would be suicide / To the family man / Manhandling the pram / With paternal pride”. The song recalls its A-side counterpart, “Generation Sex”, both in its combination of ambivalent, superious lyrics with bouncy upbeat music, and in the way that it cycles, line by line, through a cross-section of contemporary British society. Like “Generation Sex”, it’s essentially an itemised list of social observations; but where the former song has Hannon condemning everyone’s sins before admitting complicity, a sort of public self-flagellation, “National Express” is less judgemental. It scans the passengers on the bus (a synecdoche for society), notes their various flaws and unpleasantries, and then concludes with a gleeful invitation: take a trip, and become one of them.
At its core it’s a solid drums-and-guitar pop song, but what really makes it work is the low, soft brass progression heard during the verses: there’s one drawn-out blast per bar, gradually ascending and growing louder, and it really gives the song a feeling of deranged unstoppability – apt, for a song about a coach. In the chorus, Hannon deploys non-lexical “ba-ba-ba”s right out of Liberation’s “Bernice Bobs Her Hair”: “And everybody sings (ba ba ba-ba, ba ba ba-da) / Yeah! / Uh-huh! / All right! / We’re go… / …ing where / The air / Is free”. One wonders why he doesn’t do this more often – it’s incredibly infectious.
The bus in “National Express” may be the most notable vehicle in Hannon’s oeuvre, but it’s not the first, nor even the first he’s used as a metaphor for life – consider “Your Daddy’s Car”, where Hannon sang, “We are driving from the day we are born”. Fin de Siècle has already linked public transport with wage labour in “Commuter Love”. The commuter in that song, sitting on a grim train platform, began to retreat to an inner fantasy world; the man on the National Express has been broken by work and consumed by his fantasy world entirely.
In the second verse, Hannon turns his attention to the catering. “On the National Express / There’s a jolly hostess / Selling crisps and tea / She’ll provide you with drinks / And theatrical winks / For a sky-high fee / Miniskirts were in style / When she danced down the aisle / Back in ’63 (yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah) / But it’s hard to get by / When your arse is the size / Of a small country”. At a glance, the song seems like a straightforward advertisement parody, with the joke being the contrast between the joyous music and performance and the drab thing it’s describing (screaming children, unattractive hostess, overpriced service). But it’s not that simple: the narrator’s complaints are too mild and toothless to function as satire, and the song is genuinely so irresistible and rousing that any problems mentioned simply fade away. As a result, the song feels like a sincere celebration, all the more affecting for its embracing of flaws. Again: Hannon sounds ecstatic as he sings about that hostess. Following its chart success, the National Express Group asked Hannon, several times, for permission to use it in actual advertisements; sensing that this would destroy the song forever, he refused. There’s no reference to beautiful rural vistas, or urban glamour; none of the gestures towards the importance of visiting family that usually characterise transport advertisements. At no point does the narrator describe anything visible through the window. Rather, “National Express” presents a self-contained little bubble world, a condensation of society.
Critics at the time suggested that the song showed Hannon “sneering at the working classes”, an accusation he denied angrily: “Most other lauded songwriters in the history of pop have observed and written about what they see and ‘National Express’… is pure observation… I’m on this bus, this is what I see. ‘The family man’… is me having a dig at my brother for having a kid and being Nineties Man, you know, and he’s not exactly working class.” This train of thought brings Hannon to shakier territory: “Besides, what is working class any more? The boundaries are so immensely blurred. It annoys me that people can be so bloody stupid. They’ve taken an image that I used for Casanova, one about which I said blatantly at the time I was just having a laugh about, that it wasn’t me at all, but they want to believe it. They keep on and on about this elitism which was never there!”
It’s true that bus coaches are hardly the exclusive domain of the poor, and the song doesn’t describe its passengers using any clear class signifiers. Nonetheless, the character Hannon has written for himself here is distinctly aloof, almost like a safari-goer, stimulated simply to be around such exotic creatures as plebeians. We presume the narrator is himself a National Express passenger, but the song never uses the word “I”, and Hannon never situates himself in the milieu he’s observing; with no such clarification, it’s easy to imagine he’s looking down on it. Combined with his customary Noël Coward enunciation, it is difficult to escape the sense of class tourism – one imagines the narrator of “National Express” would get on great with the girl from Pulp’s “Common People”. And there is a certain misogynistic edge to the line mocking the fat hostess, even if Hannon phrases it in an amusingly off-kilter way; and this flash of callousness is enough to make us wonder which other lyrics might veil contempt.
In the song’s closing lines, Hannon restates his call to action: “Tomorrow belongs to me! /
It belongs to me / When you’re sad and feeling blue / With nothing better to do / Don’t just sit there feeling stressed / Take a trip on / The National Express! / On the National Express / Let’s go! / National Express…” He chants the name softly, again and again, as we spiral away into spirited musical improvisation and fade out. Taking the final lines seriously, it seems this song isn’t about travel or class: it’s about mental health, and specifically about overcoming depression. Perhaps there’s a reason the narrator is so relentlessly jubilant throughout: there are thoughts and feelings he’s striving to banish, to keep at bay.
On closer inspection, the song is bookended by evocative hints about the listener’s mental state: their life’s in a mess, they’re feeling blue. When Hannon commands us to “Take a trip on the National Express!”, the key component isn’t the last two words, it’s the first three. The narrator’s advice, in short: Get out of your room. Leave the house. Be among strangers. Which strikes me as reasonable enough.
There is a better defence against the charge of “sneering”, and it’s the distinctly anti-capitalist, anti-work current that suffuses the entirety of Fin de Siècle. Even if we do assume that the passengers are working-class, even if we’re meant to sneer at them: they’re still singing. They are alive in a way that the narrator’s audience are not. They are better.
One could say the brash Britpop sound of “Generation Sex” and “National Express” was a little late to the party; Fin de Siècle was released a year after Oasis’s Be Here Now, the overblown album widely cited as killing Britpop. Some critics at the time said that these two singles sounded like parodies of Divine Comedy songs. There’s some truth to that – there is a very safe, distilled quality to them. In particular, “National Express” sounds as if Hannon put his two biggest hits to date, “Something for the Weekend” and “Everybody Knows (Except You)”, into a blender and then skimmed the foam off the top. But this seems silly to consider when you remember just how well it worked: “National Express” became Hannon’s most successful single, the Divine Comedy’s sole top-ten hit. It represents the commercial pinnacle and endpoint of Hannon’s twentieth-century approach, but its success is the result of real craft, of technique honed to mechanical perfection.
The music video, which is certainly the Divine Comedy’s best, adds a framing device that essentially makes it a short film. We begin in medias res, partway through a conversation between a male doctor and a woman who’s clearly on the verge of tears. The entire scene consists of close-ups of their hands – his scribbling on a form, hers worrying away at a tissue. “You don’t understand what exactly?” asks the man. “What his work problems are, or… why he’s working so hard?” The acting is low-key, the dialogue intensely naturalistic, despite the surreal situation – the overall effect is much like the “doctor” sketches in Chris Morris’s Blue Jam. “Well, you know, it’s his job, really,” she replies. We realise that the woman is having her husband sectioned. “And he’s always been happy with it in the past,” says the doctor. “This is the first time he’s been under quite so much pressure… And how long has he been a bus driver?” She hesitates a moment, thrown by this, then says flatly, “He’s not a bus driver.” The brass kicking in the instant we cut to the wheelchair’s wheels rolling across the asylum grounds is perhaps the greatest moment in a Divine Comedy video.
The video makes the song’s mental-health subtext explicit: rather than a bus, it takes place in and around a psychiatric hospital. The narrator, portrayed by Hannon, is revealed to be a mental patient. As a porter pushes him about, Hannon cheerfully performs the song, direct to camera, gesticulating airily to match each line. The porter is tall, black, and heavily built, with a shaved head – it’s as if the idea was to cast Hannon’s polar opposite. He takes Hannon indoors, where nurses chat away to porters and absent-minded patients – portrayed by other Divine Comedy members – lay in bed, presumably adrift in worlds of their own. When we reach the chorus, it’s juxtaposed with a slow zoom towards the far side of the ward, where a patient with his back to us dribbles a basketball among flickering lights – an oddly brilliant, disquieting horror-film image.
For the second verse, Hannon lays in bed as the “hostess” provides the “passengers” with “drinks” – in fact the porter is bringing the patients their medication. Hannon cheerfully attempts to pay him, downs his pills, then ambles out of bed while he’s not looking – when he reaches line about the hostess’s arse, he grabs the porter’s, causing him to hit his head on a lamp. Angered, the porter forces Hannon back into the wheelchair, then takes him downstairs by elevator – a ten-second trip which synchronises perfectly with the song’s bridge section, as the metal walls provide an unexpected diegetic explanation for the reverberation effects on Hannon’s vocals. (We also get some of his better physical acting here – Hannon manages some impressively deranged eye twitches.) The porter berates Hannon as he wheels him across the grounds, but neither he nor we can hear a word. Hannon grabs a nurse’s arse, much to everyone’s irritation, and the porter spends a good ten seconds jabbing furiously at his shoulder – a truly strange bit of acting that seems straight out of a silent film – before taking him to a room and subjecting him to electroconvulsive therapy. Finally, Hannon is wheeled back across the grounds, half asleep and smiling. “National Express… National Express,” he murmurs, and we dissolve to a shot with a bus’s-eye view of the open road rushing by, and drift up towards a clear blue sky.
Only in the final shot do we glimpse the hallucinatory bus-ride that Hannon’s character has been experiencing. We do, however, get a sense of how it corresponds to his actual surroundings. The wheelchair itself is the National Express bus – its wheels receive numerous close-ups whenever it’s pushed across the pavement in the grassy hospital grounds, emphasising the vehicular qualities so central to the video’s main metaphor. For the most part, the bus’s passengers are in fact fellow patients, with the bus’s staff being the hospital staff. That said, it seems that his hallucinations are fluid and ever-changing: the porter is the “family man”, but he’s also the “hostess”. The “screaming child” is not one, but two of the ward’s other (adult) patients. If the song’s specific National Express bus is the narrator’s wheelchair, then it follows that National Express in general is a rebus – a hallucinatory, dream-logic substitute – for the NHS itself. Maybe Hannon’s attempt to pay the porter for his medicine is an allegory for the horrors of privatisation, and the encroachment of capital into healthcare – after all, “We’re going where the air is free” rather suggests that air has been privatised where the narrator lives; and Hannon does take a suicidal delight in the prospect of costing his healthcare provider millions in “Thrillseeker”.
The video’s milieu is lifted straight from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Hannon’s institutionalised troublemaker is clearly a play on Randle Patrick McMurphy – from sexually assaulting hospital staff right down to the electroshock-therapy ending, a milder version of McMurphy’s lobotomy. There isn’t really a Nurse Ratched figure, unless you count the antagonistic porter.
We’re never actually told what the narrator’s job is, but the most obvious answer is that he’s a musician. The wife signs the release form as “Mrs Hannon”, and the ward’s other patients are played by band members, all of which suggests an autobiographical reading. After all, the patient really is diegetically singing – the doctor only thinks he’s a National Express driver because he’s heard him – though the music is presumably just in the patient’s head. Does this song show Hannon extrapolating from his own stresses and anxieties about his job, imagining what might happen if he really let it get to him? But it’s boring to assume that songs must always be about the singer. A more interesting idea: perhaps the narrator himself was a doctor?
But it’s not the particularity of his job that matters – it’s what work has done to him. As his wife tells us, the stress of the job is what’s caused his breakdown and landed him in the hospital. (One almost wishes they’d included the conversation at the beginning of the album track – granted, that sort of thing gets old fast during repeated listens, but “Generation Sex” demonstrates that it could have worked with the right musical accompaniment.) In isolation, “National Express” is a lightweight song, but the video reveals it to be a cautionary tale, a dark nursery rhyme. Take care of yourself, implies the narrator; don’t let work take over your life, or you’ll end up just like me.
It may sound like faint praise to call “National Express” the best Divine Comedy video, as they’ve never been consistently great; but in terms of the sheer amount of depth it affords the song – dramatising an easily missable subtext into a triumph of dramatic irony – this video is outright essential. Hannon’s patient, a king being wheeled about his delirious domain, is perhaps the one truly iconic image in the band’s videography. If I have one complaint, it’s that I wish Hannon had put a little more effort into making it seem like he’s actually singing and not just lip-synching – as in several of his music videos, he seems faintly embarrassed by his own song here, as if he’d rather not sing it in front of the crew without the music. This lackadaisical miming doesn’t quite fit with the broad choreography and the rousing vocals, and while this could be justified by the conceit that the character is a feeble psychiatric patient, the video might have been even more effective had Hannon’s acting been emphatic enough to make us feel the power the character imagines he has.
The next song is “Life on Earth”. The most stately and sober track on Fin de Siècle, it’s also the most conservative, functioning as a manner of abstract cautionary tale – atypically for Hannon, it’s a warning against mad dreams and escapism. Like Casanova‘s “Middle-Class Heroes”, the title plays on that of a better-known song by another artist: David Bowie’s “Life on Mars”, which Hannon and Yann Tiersen would record a cover of later in 1998.
This is the song that sounds most like advice – even more so than “National Express”. The narrator, it seems, is an aged or dying man, attempting to pass on some words of wisdom to his heir. Like “Commuter Love”, the song begins with the contemplative sounds of an accordion, but here it continues throughout, merging with the song’s military drumbeat to create an obliquely French-historical tone. Hannon sings: “Build your coffin of balsa wood / Spend all that you earn / When you go, you are gone for good / Never to return”. In other words, “Life on Earth” is based on exactly the same idea and dramatic conceit as “The Dogs and the Horses”, the final track of Casanova. It’s similarly elegiac and – once it gets going – Scott-Walkerish, though the lyrics venture into some interesting new thematic territory.
“Always to thine own self be true / Not to fools like me / Who’ll change their minds / For the sake of rhyming schemes”. These are perhaps the most quietly amazing lyrics Hannon has ever written. In the space of these few lines, Hannon undercuts himself, quietly casting double on every lyric of every Divine Comedy song. In art as elsewhere, the belief in the role model, the hero, the great man, is of course misguided – symptomatic of a failure of critical thought. A tolerance – indeed an appreciation – for imperfection, and indeed the occasional fuck-up, is necessary for a healthy relationship between artist and audience. While “Life on Earth” has other themes, the message here is exactly that of Eminem’s “Stan”. As an example, Hannon highlights one particular artistic failstate: the way that the constraints of the songwriting medium can cloud the artist’s true beliefs. Another layer to the joke is that he’s saying this through song – could it be that even these lines were twisted to fit the rhyming scheme, and fail to represent his intended meaning? As he sang on “Generation Sex”, we should know better: it really doesn’t matter what you say.
Lest we think Hannon has gotten the Scott Walker influence out of his system with Short Album, he delivers the chorus in his well-honed Walker-epic style: “Au revoir joie, bonjour tristesse! / Good times come and go / Life owes nobody happiness / Only pain and sorrow”. In the next verse, the song slips back into gentle, military percussion, and Hannon resumes his soft recitation, as if eulogising at a soldier’s funeral: “So, don’t rely on the starry skies / Screw the universe / You ought to try / To live your life / On Earth”.
If the narrator in “National Express” was encouraging a younger person to shake off depression, the narrator in “Life on Earth” is doing the opposite: teaching his young listener to accept that there are no easy answers, to accustom themselves to misery, and to prepare for it to grow as they age. Don’t be distracted by utopianism: snatch what transient moments of happiness you can in the here and now.
The instrumental bridge features an introspective piano melody – reverberating into distortion, almost as if the recording has been reversed – set against the ethereal backdrop of the Crouch End choir. This is the song’s doomed fantasy – just like those of “Commuter Love” and “Sweden” – tempting the narrator towards ruin. The choir builds to an otherworldly, tantalising fever pitch, but at the last moment the narrator finds the strength to resist, and Hannon tears into a triumphant, realist final verse: “So, au revoir joie, bonjour tristesse!” Goodbye joy, hello sadness! In the closing words of the song, the narrator quietly states his aim to follow his own ethos: “I’m gonna try / To live my life / On Earth”. Given the song’s deathbed tonality, we get a sense that he’s cursing himself for an idealistic youth, trying now to take control, to commit to a better philosophy in his final days.
Connecting to the album’s wider theme, “Life on Earth” also serves to indict the science-fictional response to existential danger. One common response to the impending apocalypse is to trust in technology, kicking the can of responsibility down the road of the future – the classic example being that, should climate change destroy the Earth, we can “simply” escape to Mars.
Indeed, it seems Hannon might be criticising science-fiction music here – he admits that his own ironic, self-contradictory songwriting can be opaque and frustrating, but the fact that he’s saying this within one of those songs makes it quite clear that he still thinks his approach is the way to go. Is Hannon saying that his world of Forster and Wordsworth, populated by figures such as Aphrodite and Holly Golightly and Lucy Honeychurch, is richer than Bowie’s Martian landscape, realer and more meaningful than Ziggy Stardust and Major Tom and the Glass Spider? Possibly he has a point. But still, a song which essentially warns us against trying to immanentise the eschaton can’t help feeling a little narrow-minded by Hannon’s standards – it’s something of a philosophical let-down after the transhumanist ascension of “Tonight We Fly”.
If we ignore the Martian intertext and focus instead on the song’s funereal quality, another reading suggests itself: perhaps “Life on Earth” is simply an atheist tract, stressing the importance of living mundanely and not seeking comfort in the hope of an afterlife. This would be more in keeping with Hannon’s work – it’s like the smouldering aftermath of the fiery “Don’t Look Down”. “Life on Earth” almost feels like it should end the album, as “The Dogs and the Horses” ended its own – but perhaps that simply demonstrates the difference between the romantic-elegiac Casanova and the anxious but ultimately forward-looking Fin de Siècle.
The next song is “The Certainty of Chance”. Though its romantic melodrama and cinematic atmosphere might recall an early Scott Walker ballad, it’s more like Hannon’s take on the Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony”, which was released the previous year – it has the same beat, and the same combination of buoyant, sweeping stringscapes and pop-philosophical lyrics. “A butterfly flies through the forest rain / And turns the wind into a hurricane / Yeah / I know that it will happen / ’Cause I believe in the certainty of chance / The certainty of chance”. Each time Hannon hits the word “chance”, the song relaxes into a slow, falling four-chord melody. It’s mysterious, ambivalent, and deeply cathartic – which feels strange coming so early, especially as this catharsis is repeated several times. The butterfly effect, like Schrödinger’s cat, is a physics metaphor that captured the public imagination, becoming a mystical-zoological symbol of the strangeness of the universe, quite divorced from its original illustrative meaning.
In the second verse, Hannon muses on another instance of a trivial action causing global chaos: “A schoolboy yawns, sits back, and hits ‘return’ / While round the world, computers crash and burn, yeah / I know that it will happen / ’Cause I believe in the certainty of chance”. This is a clear reference to the Y2K phenomenon – the belief, sometimes apocalyptic in its implications, that the world’s computers would malfunction when the clocks rolled over from 31/12/1999 to 1/1/2000. I’m not sure if Hannon’s idea was that any input at this moment could cause worldwide chaos, or that there was something particular about this schoolboy and his computer; for a more in-depth dramatisation of this scenario, see “Treehouse of Horror X”.
Suddenly, the narrator arrives at some wonderful epiphany. The string section ascends to rousing heights, with the piano gleefully underscoring the new sharpness of his sight, the clarity of his understanding: “And I believe… I can see it all, so clearly now / You must go, and I must set you free / ’Cause only that will bring you back to me, yeah, yeah, yeah / Oh, I know that it will happen / I’m sure that it must happen / Oh, I know it’s gonna happen / Because I believe in the certainty of chance”. That falling melody is reprised, now with a triumphant brassy edge.
The romantic implications of determinism, and how little actions can have cosmic consequences, is clearly something that’s interested Hannon for a while – on “Songs of Love”, he sang “Fate doesn’t hang on a wrong or right choice / Fortune depends on the tone of your voice”. In “The Certainty of Chance”, there’s something quite affecting about the abrupt, climactic transition from cosmic mystery to the small and personal. The plaintive longing in these final words, for a future the narrator tries so desperately to convince himself is inevitable, is perhaps informed by Morrissey’s 1992 song “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday”.
What is the nature of the narrator’s epiphany? It seems to centre on a relationship, but there are no firm details we can use to prise open the song’s meaning. Is he breaking up with a partner who wants to move on? Granting a child permission to leave home? Letting go of a loved one who’s dying, or who wants to be euthanised? The most challenging line to parse is the narrator’s proclamation that to “set [them] free” is the only way to “bring [them] back”. Depending on how we interpret the broader story, this projected reunion could be literal (remarrying, or getting back together after a break), figurative (ending a failed relationship so that those involved might grow to like each other again, as friends), or spiritual (accepting the end of an earthly relationship in hope of some reprisal in the afterlife).
“The Certainty of Chance” is essentially a determinist’s love song. The narrator’s epiphany seems to hinge on a belief that everything that would ever happen was ordained at the moment of the Big Bang; that if one knew the position and velocity of every particle in the universe, one could calculate the future with total accuracy. He takes a Doctor-Manhattan’s-eye view on affairs, and concludes that there is no point in trying to impose order in the here and now, as true order is revealed in the eternal. As pop-single subject-matter, it is fairly heady. (The narrator of “Life on Earth” would want to give the narrator of “The Certainty of Chance” a kick up the arse.) This is another reason the brutalist aesthetic of unadorned blocky sculpture and architecture is such an ideal fit for the album artwork: determinism suggests that our universe is itself a four-dimensional block, solid and unchangeable, our lives fixed like filaments within it.
Neither the butterfly effect (an uncontroversial truth) nor the Y2K bug (a real programming problem, avoided at great expense, but more interesting as a paranoiac-apocalyptic notion in the zeitgeist) rely on the philosophy of determinism – indeed, the butterfly effect is compatible with the idea of a random universe. What matters, for our purposes, is that the narrator muses on each of them before turning his attention towards determinism as such: he’s in an introspective state, and this is the concept he’s irresistibly drawn to. In additional to his scientific-deterministic leanings, the narrator seems to believe in some higher power – that his relationship will be healed according to fate, or destiny, according to some divine moral judgement; that it is determined because it is right.
Perhaps the narrator’s contemplation of the butterfly effect and the millennium bug, his mental darting between these sprawling theories, is a more approachable allegory for the impossible superintelligent contemplation it would take to calculate the future: he is scrying in the most complex concepts he can grasp, holding them up to meet his gaze, attempting to Magic-Eye from them his mathematical destiny. The effectual butterfly and the millennium bug are both insects, after all: you just have to squint a bit.
Verses one and two each have the narrator contemplate a seemingly trivial event which causes devastation. His subsequent epiphany, though abstract, also focuses on causality – he realises that he must take some particular action to achieve a counter-intuitive result. This is perhaps a little too out-there to really function as the plot of a pop single, but I think it gets at a certain truth about the human experience – more specifically about communication, and how the seemingly trivial things we do and say to each other can cause obscure devastation; and, perhaps, healing.
Hannon sings his final line before the four-minute mark, and the song begins to wind down. But it’s not over yet: like “Eric the Gardener”, this is a Joby Talbot co-write, and it keeps on giving. The orchestra fades out with a blast of electric guitar, but the song keeps unfolding, unspooling. For the next minute, we’re treated to an instrumental soundscape, strings and clarinet chasing and weaving round one another. It’s intensely cinematic – like the score for a montage where our hero travels by night through dark and troubled woods.
The instrumental shifts to a two-chord string melody, rocking back and forth as one would a disquieted child, a harp fretting somewhere in the dark. Then, with a minute left, something extraordinary happens. Hannon begins, softly and without a trace of irony, to speak. “Sometimes at night the darkness and silence weighs on me. Peace frightens me. Perhaps I fear it most of all. I feel it’s only a façade, hiding the face of hell. I think of what’s in store for my children tomorrow. ‘The world will be wonderful,’ they say. But from whose viewpoint? We need to live in a state of suspended animation – like a work of art – in a state of enchantment, detached… hah… detached…”
This speech is paraphrased from Federico Fellini’s 1960 film La Dolce Vita. The film follows Marcello Rubini, a jaded journalist, and his episodic, disconnected misadventures across Rome over the course of seven days and nights. In one episode, Marcello attends a party at the home of Steiner, a seemingly affable intellectual. When they have a moment in private, however, Steiner reveals the truth beneath this facade: “Sometimes at night the darkness and silence weigh upon me…” The speech is the hinge of the film, coming immediately before the halfway intermission. One wonders why Hannon didn’t place “The Certainty of Chance” at the end of Fin de Siècle’s A-side – it would have been pleasing for the speech to appear in exactly the same position on the album as in the film.
Other aspects of La Dolce Vita also resonate with Fin de Siècle. The film’s title is taken from a line in Dante’s Divine Comedy: one popular reading is that it’s an oblique adaptation, or parodic inversion, with Marcello as a Dante figure, his episodic encounters across a debauched and sinful modern Rome corresponding broadly to the pilgrim’s descent through the circles of hell. Even setting aside the band’s nominal connection to Dante’s poem, there is something quite Inferno about “Generation Sex” and “National Express”, and the itemised catalogues of sins and sinners they present for our edification. Another episode in La Dolce Vita focuses on Sylvia Rank, a beautiful Swedish-American film star with whom Marcello becomes hopelessly obsessed – not entirely unlike the narrator of Hannon’s song “Sweden”. The film is also the source of the word “paparazzi”, in fact a neologism which plays on the name of Paparazzo, Marcello’s photographer friend. Photographers in this film are like weather – omnipresent, mindless, impossible to dissuade. They stalk and swarm round the characters to an extent verging on the surreal. In “Generation Sex”, Hannon doesn’t actually refer to the photographers involved in Diana’s death as “paparazzi”, but we know what they are.
Including snatches of dialogue from period dramas or continental romances is a Divine Comedy trademark, so it might seem odd that the album features Hannon reading out the monologue himself. In fact, Hannon did intend to include audio of Steiner’s actual speech, but Fellini’s estate refused to allow it. This decision came so late that a version of the album with La Dolce Vita samples in both “Generation Sex” and “The Certainty of Chance” had already been created; the copyright-infringing discs were destroyed, and Hannon went back to the studio to record replacements.
And I’m very glad that he did. In the final version, Hannon paraphrases or condenses several lines of Steiner’s monologue, and even omits one that would have tied it more closely to the album’s themes: “The world will be wonderful. But from whose viewpoint, if a telephone call can announce the end of the world?” Hannon’s version is less specifically apocalyptic, but more darkly abstract. It’s also just a beautiful dramatic reading – not as naturalistic as the original actor’s, but still taking the material seriously, thoughtfully. Later in the film, Marcello discovers that Steiner has murdered his two young children and killed himself; only then do we understand the depth of fear and despair onto which his speech was a window. Shorn of this context, Hannon’s version loses its brutal effect, but it also gains an enhanced mystique. What does it look like, to live in suspended animation, detached, detached?
The actual song component of “The Certainty of Chance”, as a sort of New Age breakup anthem, seems to have little to do with the suicidal outro speech. But perhaps that’s part of the point: in the film, Steiner seems a warm, contented family man. Maybe the narrator of “The Certainty of Chance” is a manic depressive. Or perhaps the song component, soaring and romantic, is just a distraction, a story he is telling himself to keep the dark at bay.
La Dolce Vita opens with a statue of Christ, his arms spread in exaltation, being airlifted above Rome by helicopter – an emblem of the decay of the spiritual in the modern age. The film concludes with the discovery of a monstrous sea creature on a beach – the mysterious and sublime, now dead and rotting. If this is Revelation’s beast from the sea, then perhaps the apocalypse itself has been aborted; but what is life in a postmodern age, where cosmic design and grand prophecies go unfulfilled, and the future stretches out, endless, like grains of sand on a beach?
Bizarrely, “The Certainty of Chance” was released as a single. Moody and strange, it barely charted, peaking at #49 – but it was a single nonetheless, and that meant a music video. With no obvious way to translate this song’s story to a visual medium, the director arrives at a novel solution: even though it omits the instrumental outro and speech for reasons of time, the music video is a pastiche of La Dolce Vita. It’s nowhere near as precise as (say) the Alfie recreation in the “Becoming More Like Alfie” video, but it’s still recognisable. The video takes place at a press conference; like Fellini’s film, it’s shot in black-and-white. Just like Sylvia in the scene that “Generation Sex” originally sampled, Hannon sits, relaxed, amid the glare of an interview-lighting set-up, and is questioned by bustling journalists, surrounded by hovering video cameras, and buffeted by the constant white flash of photography. Where Sylvia sat on a couch in an opulent living-room, however, Hannon gives his press conference on a stage that looks like it’s in a warehouse or the back of a studio. Looking around, he begins, indifferently, to sing. The other band members sit on either side of him, like apostles at a boring Last Supper. Scaffolding and black and white walls stretch out of view on all sides – it’s very much in keeping with the brutalist aesthetic of the album artwork.
The coverage of Hannon is steady and smooth, but intercut with juddering low-framerate handheld footage of the press as they shout and thrash like the audience in a moshpit – it’s a cold parody of a concert film. We drift in and out of television screens that stand around the area, each displaying a live feed of Hannon as he sings. As usual, he’s obviously lip-synching, but in this setting, as this disaffected neorealist-film-protagonist character, it really works: he seems dislocated, somehow apart from the world around him, adrift in modernity.
Hemmed in by microphones, Hannon punctuates his words with little hand gestures and Jarvisisms. As he reaches the third-verse epiphany, Hannon rises to his feet – his movements become broader, though he still seems distant, somehow elsewhere. At last, Hannon turns and walks off-stage, the band trailing him. In the final moments, we’re allowed to hear the paparazzi, but their shouts are incoherent.
The penultimate song of Fin de Siècle, and its strangest, is “Here Comes the Flood”, which can only be described as a big-band Broadway number about the end of the world. This isn’t just the climax of Fin de Siècle – it’s the climax of a thematic thread that runs through all Hannon’s work to date.
After a brief, sauntering piano intro, the song falls into a military drumbeat like that of “Life on Earth”, but punctuated by the ominous blasts of a brooding brass section. The lyrics consist mainly of descriptions of possible apocalypses – one likely influence is “It’s the End of the World as We Know It”, by Hannon’s former obsession REM.
When Hannon begins to sing, he’s quiet in the mix, a little distant – it’s not quite clear whether he’s backed by the men of the Chorus or just multi-tracking his own vocals, but he sounds like he’s part of a Broadway choir. The vocals, in this verse, are restricted to the right-hand channel of the stereo mix. “Here comes the flood / Rivers of blood / Baby / Here comes the quake / Evacuate / While you still can / Here comes the fire / Our funeral pyre / Baby! / Here comes the flood / Here comes the blood… / …bath”. Hannon begins with a reference to the Book of Revelation, where Earth’s waters run red; the other potential apocalypses he mentions – earthquake and fire – are similarly geological, but maintain that biblical tinge, with the firestorm being described in ritualistic, funereal terms. The melody matches the vocals exactly, note for syllable – first guitar, then saxophone – a choice which lends “Here Comes the Flood” a broad, cartoonish quality.
The Crouch End Festival Chorus have drifted in and out throughout the album – lending an operatic scale to “Sweden”, or a numinous, ethereal quality to “Life on Earth” – but it’s on “Here Comes the Flood” that they really get their chance to shine. The second verse, sung by the women of the choir, comes through the left channel – we can almost perceive the stagecraft, almost see the changes in lighting that would be involved. “Here comes the fly / Fifty foot high / Baby / Here comes the war / More blood and gore / Than you can stand / Here comes the race / From outer space / Baby! / It’s all over / We’re all gonna / Die!” Rather than biblical, these potential apocalypses are science-fictional – specifically in a 1950s American B-movie sense. They involve flying saucers and radioactive mutants.
Then, in perhaps the weirdest moment on Fin de Siècle, we hear a new voice – what sounds like a 1940s Brooklyn accent – not singing, but talking: “If the good Lord had intended me to live in LA, he’d have given me a machine gun.” The melody continues unabated, now taken up by a vibraphone, soldering the monologue into the song. The speaker is actor Dexter Fletcher. In “Here Comes the Flood”, Fletcher serves as a world-weary narrator, offering dry reflections on the end he believes is nigh. “Still… here I am. Just another worried little citizen of this modern-day Pompeii, waiting for the melt-down, the show-down, the great American close-down. When that fault-line that runs right through society’s fabric finally snaps, and the whole damn thing starts unravelling.” Explicating the song’s satirical point about the media, the narrator moves on to a remarkable metaphor in which various existential dangers compete to destroy humanity in a sort of horse race: “Why watch the sports channel, when you can watch CNN? Ladies and gentlemen, the greatest race in history. The race to end all races. In fact, the race to end history! In lane one: the San Andreas Fault. In lane two: global recession. In three: El Niño. In four: chemical war. Lane five: interracial conflict. Lane six: Auto Immune Deficiency Syndrome. On your marks, get set, wait for it… go!” We’re plunged into chaos, surrounded by panicked murmurs, as if lost among the huddled masses.
Dexter Fletcher is, in fact, English – but he’s spent his career getting typecast as Americans, because his breakout role was a memorable performance as Spike Thomson in Steven Moffat’s Press Gang. Set in the newsroom of an English school newspaper, Press Gang follows the comedic, romantic, and occasionally tragic misadventures of the Junior Gazette news team, in particular the love-hate relationship between Lynda Day (editor; cold, professional) and new recruit Spike (bastard; cocky, American). As a result, Fletcher became a go-to for British film and TV directors looking for a locally grown but reasonably convincing American side-character. Moffat wrote Spike as a motormouth whose reliance on self-aggrandising jokes and compulsive verbal sparring concealed an underlying anxiety and need for approval. Hannon liked the show, and, in a bizarrely convenient coincidence, it turned out that Divine Comedy drummer Miggy Baradas had happened to be Fletcher’s best friend in school.
The monologue that Hannon has Fletcher perform in “Here Comes the Flood”, while longer and perhaps more fanciful, is very much the sort of thing Moffat routinely gave Spike – conversations littered with colourful asides metaphors stretched beyond breaking-point. It’s very easy to imagine “Here Comes the Flood” as a song from an imaginary Press Gang musical: Lynda making some sort of dry off-hand remark about the end of the world, and Spike spontaneously responding with the entire spoken-word section of the song, would be very much in-character for both. The Broadway-style production is vivid enough that you can almost see the stage blocking: Fletcher strutting about, delivering his “race to end history” bit to the audience; Julia Sawalha fixing him with a withering gaze.
The final verse is delivered by the entire choir, men and women together, including Hannon: “Here comes the flood / Rivers of blood / Baby / Here comes the bomb / It won’t be long / Till we’re all gone / Here comes the sun / Run baby run / Baby!” Now the threat is somehow biblical and man-made at once, the world fraying, overrun by its multiple endings, Spike Thomson facing the apocalypse. The sun, a recurring motif throughout Fin de Siècle, appears in its apocalyptic aspect, swelling into a red giant to consume the Earth. Is this what the thrillseeker saw coming, in his final moments?
At last, adopting the didactic mode used sporadically throughout the album, the choir leave us with a warning: “If you believe all that you read, you’ll know the end is nigh / We’re gonna… / Die!” In the penultimate moment, Hannon casts doubt on the entire premise of the song, suggesting that perhaps the world isn’t ending after all, and that our heads have been filled with false visions – that all of this catastrophising is simply the decadent media ouroboros from “Generation Sex”, and that we’ve spent the whole album going round and round inside its stomach. It’s similar to the self-undercutting line in “Life on Earth”, but it turns – perhaps reduces – the song into something moralising and instructive: an unambiguous message not to trust the media. The Bible, Hannon suggests, is as much a mind-warping mass-media entity as an American news network. The Church and the media-industrial complex, feeding on human fears and anxieties to sustain themselves, cannot meaningfully be distinguished.
And with that final “Die!”, pandemonium breaks loose, and the choir dissolve into screaming rabble. As to whether Hannon thinks a godly or ungodly apocalypse more likely: there’s a strange howl that could perhaps represent something supernatural, but the most prominent sound in the climactic chaos is, tellingly, a barrage of sci-fi lasers. They drown out the screams of the population, and fade away. The brass section dies out with a quiet piano flourish, and we are left with the sound of dust and wind, whistling through what used to be the world.
Hannon was amused when, around 2013, he saw a fan poll conclude that “Here Comes the Flood” was the worst Divine Comedy song. “I like the idea that on an album that’s otherwise obviously stupendous, you sometimes have a dubious track that needs the listener to put in a bit more work – or may not work at all.” He’s being too humble – it’s one of Fin de Siècle’s highlights.
“Here Comes the Flood” is driven by two conflicting modes of apocalyptic anxiety. On one hand, there’s a spiritual fear of Armageddon, in the Christian-eschatological sense; on the other, there’s a mundane fear of a scientifically explicable extinction event. The song’s name serves as a Rorschach test: “Flood” can suggest Genesis, and the cruel hand of divine justice, but it can also suggest man-made climate change. The real anxiety at the core of “Here Comes the Flood”, then, is science vs religion. The male voices sing the religious opening verse, the female voices sing the subsequent scientific verse, and both crowds join together for the final verse. (Hannon is a subdued presence for most of the song – it’s a little like the Europop EP, where he demoted himself to John Allen’s backing vocalist.) Perhaps there is also a certain political significance in the fact that the male, God-fearing singers are on the right, whereas the more scientifically-minded female doomsayers are on the left. Perhaps another way to look at it is the tension between fantasy and science fiction – but look, now we’ve dug so deep we’ve come out on the other side.
The album concludes with one of Hannon’s most powerful songs, the autobiographical “Sunrise”. At a little over three minutes, it’s the shortest track on Fin de Siècle, but its brevity and tight structure only heighten its impact: “Sunrise” is Hannon’s sole engagement with the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
It begins with a harpsichord, urgent and delicate. Hannon begins to sing in a high, frail register, as if trying to recapture his choirboy days: “I was born in Londonderry / I was born in Derry City, too / Oh what a special child! / To see such things and still to smile / I knew that there was something wrong / But I kept my head down and carried on”. Sketched out in a few short lines, it’s a moving portrait of a youth lived in fear. Hannon uses the naivety of a child’s eyes to reveal the horror of violence as it is experienced and witnessed, its ideological context immaterial. It should be noted that this was a daring opening line: even using the word “Londonderry” is considered aggressively royalist in Ireland, and would have destroyed the song if he hadn’t immediately neutralised it with the Irish name.
Rather than vacillate with a conventional verse-chorus song structure, Hannon transitions directly into a second verse. The drumbeat kicks in, imbuing the song with a galloping momentum like that of “Tonight We Fly” or “Something for the Weekend”, and Hannon rephrases his initial lines: “I grew up in Enniskillen / I grew up in Inis Ceithleann, too / Oh what a clever boy! / To watch your hometown be destroyed / I knew that I could not stay long / So I kept my head down and carried on”.
Hannon launches directly into the bridge section – a series of four questions, his voice rising with each one as the strings build, like the second coming of “Don’t Look Down”, to a white-hot, feverish intensity: “Who cares where national borders lie? / Who cares whose laws you’re governed by? / Who cares what name you call a town? / Who’ll care when you’re six feet beneath… / The ground?” Those last two words – delivered, after a moment of silence, in Hannon’s porcelain falsetto – function almost as a non-comedic punchline, segueing into a sweetly sad glockenspiel twinkling.
The final verse is pure, snowballing joy, the bass drum lending Hannon’s words a Scrooge-on-Christmas-morning impact: “From the corner of my eye / A hint of blue in the black sky / A ray of hope, a beam of light / An end to thirty years of night”. The image of an interminable night brings us, once more, to Sweden, where darkness lasts around the clock in January. For Hannon, the forces that create the Troubles are as amoral and irrelevant as the motion of the spheres. “The church-bells ring, the children sing / ‘What is this strange and beautiful thing?’ / It’s the sunrise / Can you see? / The sunrise / I can see / The sunrise / It’s the sun ris… / …ing”. The orchestra fades away, and we’re left with the glockenspiel, like a music box, twinkling peacefully out. Hannon, after reflecting on his own dicey childhood, decides to let go, simply glad and hopeful that the next generation might not face the same thing. This is his definitive statement on one of the forces that shaped his life, all the more powerful for the fact that it’s unparalleled in his work. After “Sunrise”, there could be no need for Hannon to comment on the Troubles ever again.
The position Hannon espouses in this song is purely, defiantly pacifist, to the extent that he does not even allude to either republican or unionist ideals. Indeed, he seems remarkably uninterested in the forces behind the violence. “Everything about it was so pointless,” he says in a 2006 interview. “Sunrise” may be Hannon’s most political song, but it’s far from radical: the very source of its emotive power – its child’s-eye perspective – also prevents it from engaging in any commentary on the ethics of violent resistance to imperialism. Ireland has a rich tradition of songs about the occupation, but compared to “The Fields of Athenry” or “Come Out Ye Black and Tans”, Hannon’s offering seems frankly equivocating. Whatever else it might be, “Who cares where national borders lie?” is, at its core, a defence of the status quo. But what “Sunrise” lacks in broader critique, it makes up for in vision and fire, and in its gripping anecdotal authenticity. The simple case it makes against violent direct action is difficult to refute.
Songs about the Troubles were ten a ha’penny at the time, but were often written and performed by artists with no actual connection to Northern Ireland. The most notable entry in the subgenre, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, was by the Dublin band U2, more opportunistic than revelatory; while the best Troubles song, “Zombie”, was by the Cranberries, from Limerick. “Sunrise” has the distinct advantage of actually emerging from a life lived in the North. Rather than the usual “describe some bombings and gun violence, then call for peace” format these songs followed, “Sunrise” is in the unique position of being specifically about the Good Friday Agreement, which brought the Troubles to an end in 1998. It’s an epilogue to the genre, a capstone. And the sun itself –from the death of the thrillseeker to the Los Angeles apocalypse to the Good Friday Agreement – is the album’s way of representing the vast, inapprehensible future – the oncoming twenty-first century, in all its radiant, glorious, terrible potential.
Once you’ve heard it, the time-capsule liner notes are difficult not to read in the voice Hannon used for the “Certainty of Chance” outro. “I am now twenty-seven and time seems impossibly short. I’m already planning my return to Londonderry in 2000. I long to see exactly what rubbish we thought future generations would find so fascinating. I can almost hear the gasps of astonishment as the first mouldy copy of ‘Speed and Power’ is brought to the surface.” The island of Ireland is to the eastern hemisphere what the year 1999 is to the second millennium: the last bastion, standing on the brink of a vast, all-consuming ocean. For an album with 1999 as its temporal focus to have Ireland as its spatial focus is perfectly elegant.
Hannon wrote “Sunrise” five years after leaving Northern Ireland, and said “it has taken that long just to calm down and talk about it with any sense of perspective or objectivity. I thought I would write about it one day but I was waiting for the right tune to come along. This rising baroque chord sequence seemed to do it for me. It seemed to be saying the same thing as the lyrics and so I just put the two together.” Hannon was careful to ensure the song’s sustained sincerity. “There’s only so much irony people can take before they start to say, ‘Well, he never says anything he means, so we might as well not listen to him.’ With a song like ‘Sunrise’, if there was the slightest hint of irony the whole thing would have collapsed.”
Perhaps the best critical comment on “Sunrise” comes from The Right Reverend Brian Hannon himself, in a radio interview. “When I saw the song … I pricked up my ears, because depending on what was said – how it was said – I was wondering, will I be able to live with this? What was Neil going to say?” After quoting the “who cares?” verse, the Reverend considers: “It’s not for me to say it, but he has every right, as a young person, to say that, and indeed to say what I do, in many ways, in fact agree with, but which it is not my job to go out preaching… He doesn’t say ‘All right, there’s the dawn of a new day coming.’ He doesn’t just say that outright. He says there’s a hint of blue in the black sky, a ray of hope.” Brian Hannon highlights the parallel, always present but usually only implicit, between his calling and that of his son, the pastoral and the musical: “Lovely build-up, crescendo, and then with magnificent voice production, that I didn’t know he had it in him, this marvellous proclamation of the sunrise hitting a high note that I could never have hit, with a complete freedom that belied the rather controlled childhood treble singing … ‘It is the sun rising.’ And that was a proclamation of faith, of hope, and that it really will happen. And please God, if people have got the guts, it will.”
But “Sunrise” must also function as an ending of Fin de Siècle, a conclusion to its argument. The album’s core theme is the moral decay, the hollowness, of modernity; the Troubles were but a localised symptom of older, deeper failings in how civilisation organises itself. The song does not discuss the murderous colonial occupation of Ireland, but we can diagnose it. We know that it is just another head of the same hydra, the same imperialist-capitalist ideology that has metastasised into every cell of modernity. Here is the secret, unspoken hope of “Sunrise”: that the turn of the millennium heralds not only an end to sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, but an end to our entire way of doing things, in all its cruelty and stupidity.
Fin de Siècle reaches its climax with a world-destroying Flood, and concludes with a new dawn in a clear sky. Hannon is alluding, of course, to the story of Noah’s Ark. “What is this strange and beautiful thing?” It’s the sunrise, but it’s also the rainbow: the sign of the pact that the Flood will not strike again. The apocalypse at the heart of Fin de Siècle is diluvian in nature: a torrent, a flood, a washing-away. The album transitions from the goofy science-fictional tableau of destruction in “Here Comes the Flood” to a shameless and sincere vision of a new beginning. Hannon seems to position the Troubles as one of the many ills of modernity that deserve to be washed away. A more radical interpretation – which Hannon would not be likely to agree with – is that the Troubles are the Flood, a repercussion for eight centuries of colonial subjugation, necessary for the eventual dawn of a 32-county socialist republic.
“Generation Sex” casts a roving Sauron gaze across the panopticon of modernity, itemising social ills involving fixation on sex and mass media. “National Express” is something similar, but with a narrator more fully broken, who has lost himself entirely. The other songs focus on individual characters – members of Generation Sex, passengers on the bus coach to hell. We encounter two potential suicides – one recklessly self-destructive (“Thrillseeker”), the other nihilistic and fearful (“The Certainty of Chance”). We encounter a delusional racist (“Sweden”), a lonely voyeur (“Commuter Love”), an obsessive eccentric (“Eric the Gardener”), a regretful old bullshitter (“Life on Earth”), and, most oddly, a Steven Moffat protagonist (“Here Comes the Flood”).
Not all of these characters are sinners, as such, but all are damaged. All have something deeply wrong with their lives, and these problems stem from the same root: the world is broken. Several songs offer more specific hints. “Freezing / Monday morning”. “Well, you know, it’s his job, really.” “I would like to live in Sweden / When my work is done”. The poor protect the wealthy in this world. We can read between the lines: the fatal flaw of the siècle approaching its fin is work, which is to say: capitalism. This, above all, is what the second Flood has come to purge. This album uses the Good Friday Agreement as a synecdoche for the potential good of the twenty-first century, but it’s only a ray, only a beginning. The hoped-for day is not shown, not even alluded to, but we know what it is: an end to work, to capitalism, to empire. Fin de Siècle? Tiocfaidh ár Lá.