Sunday 23 July 2023

A Short Album About Love/ The Divine Comedy (1997): Albums of my Life: an A-Z

   ...being aware of The Divine Comedy back in the 90s, in particular Everybody Knows (Except You) and National Express which felt like little more than novelty records at the time. Because there is something of the novelty and the theatre about Neil Hannon. He's quirky and feels like a throwback to 60s balladists, yet obviously plays to this and doesn't take himself too seriously. He's so much more than the frontman of a band that skirted the Britpop era-- he's a composer, a storyteller and an absolute legend of the industry. Of course, being a youngster at the time with a penchant for the likes of chart pop and then R 'n B, I was not ready to recognise this until years later.

It was only when I was in my early 30s that I started to delve into The Divine Comedy's extensive back catalogue. My first dabble was a compilation album where I was introduced to such 90s wonders as The Frog Princess and Something for the Weekend. On finding the album 'Absent Friends' from 2004, it became increasingly clear that a love affair was developing; the song Our Mutual Friend is a good example of Hannon's genius in the respect that he conveys such narrative and emotion with his lyrics. The use of strings on that track add such a stomach-twisting journey through the sweetness and excitement of falling for someone...only to face the inevitable stab to the guts in the climax of the song. I can remember listening to the album with my dad on a journey back to Kent and I remember how that song affected him. We listened to the album loud and without speaking; in the gap between Our Mutual Friend and The Happy Goth he uttered something like: "that's an incredible song". He had tears in his eyes. I think I have inherited his hypersensitivity to music because I so often react in the same way. The power of music.

It's taken me to stand back and think carefully about why 'A Short Album About Love' is my Divine Comedy record of choice. In truth, I could have chosen any one of about seven or eight of their albums because they all contain a majority of fire-tracks. This sweet, yet mighty little album has only seven songs which all pack a punch in one way or another. A huge appeal is the full orchestra used on this album elevating its intensity and emotional impact. This is felt from the very first track In Pursuit of Happiness with its dynamic brass section and soaring strings. In fact, some parts of this song remind me of a death-defying illusionist's trick, the feeling of jeopardy at the climax (which is amusingly juxtaposed by the final lyric: 'Hey, don't be surprised, if millions die in plague and murder/ True happiness lies beyond your fries and happy burger' .

Everbody Knows (Except You) took on a new feel for me as an adult. It focuses on the potency of a crush and the crushing pain of that crush when you can't pluck up the courage to tell the recipient. Hannon's skill of injecting a real feeling of heartache into such a daft pop song is something to respect, and he manages to achieve this at various points on this album. For me, the beauty of this is that this is what real life is actually like: being in love is both the most intense and serious thing in the world and simultaneously absolutely ridiculous-- the things we do and the people we become. We then move to track 3, Someone, which I find to be one of the most stirring and affecting songs on this album. Even as a cynical person in many regards, it manages to do something to me; it gives me a childlike renenewal of faith in love and happiness. Hannon's vocal feels so believable, as if he craves to be someone's somebody so deeply that it hurts. Coupling the vocal with the mind-blowing orchestra (oh, the strings, those strings), this is's a masterpiece. Having seen The Divine Comedy live quite a few times now (the last being the 'Absent Friends'/ 'Victory for the Comic Muse' live album concert in Sepetmber 2022 at The Barbican), my only regret is not having got to see this album played live.

There's a return to the tongue-in-cheek lyrics on the next song, If... , but the sweetness is such a lovely counterbalance. The song is about doing anything for your loved one, and Neil means anything! The lyrics are silly and odd which, as mentioned earlier, addresses the side of relationships that aren't neat and perfect-- something that feels so charming and real. The end is rather dark though! It tickles me everything I hear it!

Another beautifully orchestral song is If I Were You (I'd Be Through With Me). Hannon's voice is deep, resonant and witty, both in his lyrics and vocal. The way the song flirts along in its Scott Walkeresque charm only to culminate in such a dynamic, theatrical instrumental is magical. Hannon suggests that if he were his lover he would run away to live in a field with sheep, grazing on 'the grass so succulent and sweet'. That feeling of not being enough surely resonates with most of us. And it's good to be able to laugh at that through Hannon's songwriting!

Timewatching is the penultimate song on the album and provides a sobre contrast to the tone of If I Were You. The solemn reminder that nothing lasts forever in this world serves to ground the album's exploration of love. The relatability of closing off to protect yourself from being hurt, denying yourself love and happiness is bittersweet to reflect on. But as the song reaches its conclusion, the resisting heart admits defeat, and falling in love- with all its vulnerabilities- is accepted.

Though Timewatching is an incredibly powerful and beautiful song, I'm glad that we get I'm All You Need as the album's final track. This poppy, upbeat finale reprises the duality that we all know and love when it comes to Neil Hannon's work. There's a reference to being a dog again, this time one who is being dragged around by an impatient 'owner'-- one which Hannon encourages the dog to leave in favour of his own love! The funniest thing about this song is the cheesy, spoken word section towards the end! It's a fantastic lean into the clichéd trope in love songs from bygone decades and yet feels right for the song. Interestingly, we move away from the pessimism or self doubt and end the album with a promise that Hannon's feelings for his  lover will go 'on and on and on'. This choice makes me happy because deep down, like most people, I want to believe in love triumphing over it all.

To top off the intoxicating contradiction of this album, the funniest revelation for me was to be found in the liner notes of the 2020 vinyl re-release:

So there we go, he really is a brilliant storyteller!

1. Someone-- the swelling orchestra, the earnestness of the lyrics and vocal, this is a beautiful love song

2. I'm All You Need-- the lyrics make me smile

3. If I Were You (I'd be Through With Me)-- great instrumentation and vocal

... I need some faith

' If you were a dog
I'd feed you scraps from off the table
Though my wife complains  (If...)

... dark red like wine, blood and a beating heart

'Songs in the Key of Life'/ Stevie Wonder (1976)
'Silk Degrees'/ Boz Scaggs (1976)
'Steam'/ East 17 (1994)
'Share My World'/ Mary J Blige (1996)
'Silence is Easy'/ Starsailor (2003)

What is your favourite album beginning with S?

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