Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Album Review - The Divine Comedy - Victory For The Comic Muse

In an unusual move for IGUN, we're going to start with what we don't like about the new album from The Divine Comedy.

First single "Diva Lady" is a huge let down. Over an admittedly catchy samba rhythm and smatterings of brass and boogie-woogie piano, Neil Hannon tells all about some Mariah / Beyonce / Britney-esque Diva of his acquantance, Unfortunately, the best observations he can come up with is that she is demanding, spoilt and has a huge entourage. Well bugger me! Perhaps the b-sides will tell us that the sky is blue, kittens are cute and Embrace are shit.

Preceeding track "Mother Dear" is even more of a dissapointment - kudos for a jaunty banjo part which makes the whole thingl oddly reminiscent to the theme tune of "Scrubs", but here Neil Hannon commits a terrible pop crime by writing a song about his Mum. (This is even worse than writing tunes about your kid - another lyrical sin commited not once but twice on the last Divine Comedy record.) Bleuch.

Oh, and at only 11 tracks - one of which is an instrumental which clocks in at barely a minute - the whole album feels a little brief.


Having got all that out of the way, it is with great pleasure that IGUN can announce that "Victory For The Comic Muse" is a triumph - an album which pulls off the remarkable trick of feeling like a best-of scamper through the last fifteen years of Divine Comedy music.

Take opener "To Die A Virgin" for example.... a charming and hilarious account of hormone-addled adolescence, unrequited lust and near-terminal masturbation, it could have come straight from The Divine Comedys 1996 breakthrough record "Casanova", were it not for the uber-topical lyric "With all the bombs and the bird flu / We're probably gonna be dead soon / So here we are in your bedroom / Did I tell you I love you....?" Similarly, a cover version of the Associates new-wave classic "Party Fears Two" manages to be both faithful to the original and uniquely DC - mainly due to a scampering, galloping tempo which has characterised many of Hannon's best songs. ("Something For The Weekend", "Tonight We Fly", etc) Hannon pulls off the bizarre lyrics ("Even a slight remark / Makes no sense and turns to shark." Indeed...) with spectacular aplomb.

But whilst The Divine Comedy are best known to the public for tracks with a slight whiff of novelty about them, it has always been scratching the surface beneath which reveals the hidden treasures. And sure enough, "Victory..." does not dissapoint. On "The Light Of Day" Neil shamelessly presses every button marked "ballad" at his disposal, and produces a gorgeous heart-breaker which mines the unusual lyrical territory of sticking through bad times for the sake of true love. Strings flutter, oboes wander mournfully across the melody, and suddenly, IGUN has to apologise and claim we must have something in our eye. (*Sniff*)

But hey, surely anyone can write a love song .... and towards the end of the album there are two of the most unusual epics you will hear on a pop record this year. Whilst "Count Grassi's Passage Over Piedmont" tells tale of soaring Victorian ballon adventures with Neil's finest baritone duetting with himself for three and a half beautiful minutes, it is "The Plough" which is probably the stand-out track on the whole album. It seems to compress the middle act of some kind of Russian Opera into five wonderfully over-wrought minutes. Betrayal, religion, murder.. it's all here. Why a wee lad from Eniskillen is singing about hooking up with radical geurillas in order to take personal revenge on Communist opressors is a complete mystery, but remarkably it works brilliantly. Suddenly, you remember that the man behind "National Express" once also wrote a dark, paranoid tale of insomniac self-loating called "Through A Long And Sleepless Night" and that Hannon could make a serious claim to being one of the best songwriters of his generation. If there can be comparison to any recent pop record, only The Decemberists marvellous Jonah-themed epic "Mariner's Revenge Song" springs to mind - both songs share the same sense of preposterous narrative and huge, vaulting ambition.

There are other delights on this album - the wonderful character study "Lady Of A Certain Age" which has charm in abundance, musically transports us to a street cafe somewhere near Nice, and is worth the admittence price alone for Neil's pronnuiciation of "Givenchy"- but we should probably stop gushing. After 2004s dissapointing "Absent Friends", The Divine Comedy have unquestionably found their form again. The departure of genius arranger Joby Talbot, which could have done for their career, instead seems to have re-onvigorated Neil Hannon to produce some of his best music in a decade. Whilst "Victory..." lacks the focus of earlier DC records, which tended to have thematic threads so strong they could almost be called concept records, this instead feels like a musical celebration which revels in the contrasts of genre, style and emotion.

But on a personal note to Neil Hannon - please, no more songs about your dear old Mum!

Word by Matt


Anonymous Mike said...

"Lady Of A Certain Age" is indeed a fantastic song. great album.

4:40 AM  
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