Amazingly, this is the Divine Comedy’s 27th year, and their eleven albums span 26 of those years. This is the first since 2010’s ‘Bang Goes the Knighthood’ although Neil Hannon has also put out a second Duckworth Lewis Method album and dabbled in opera and classical pieces in the intervening years. This though is a welcome return from Hannon in his main guise and is possibly the highest quality Divine Comedy release to date.
Everything you’d want is here, lascivious artwork, humorous history referencing lyrics, orchestral pop production and fabulous crooning. Other musicians are involved but Hannon has a go at everything himself too. The title track is a vocal arrangement masterpiece, a highlight, not just of this album but of the musical year. It’s a rich tale, almost a shanty of a pining for paradise, and the chorale refrain of ‘What are we looking for…’ is a true show stealer. The lead single ‘Catherine the Great’ is the best historical song since Boney M’s ‘Rasputin’, it ought to be on the national curriculum and has some great lyrics; “She had great hair, and a powerful gait, Catherine the Great” and “If I could touch but the hem of her dress, tell her a joke, bake her a cake, Catherine the Great” don’t get you then are paralysed from the brain down. ‘Funny Peculiar’ is classic call and response music hall pop, a duet with partner Cathy Davey and has a whistling solo. If I’ve not sold this too you yet, then you’re obviously not trying hard enough. ‘The Pact’ moves us effortlessly through the world of show tunes and ‘To The Rescue’ returns us to more straightforward pop band form whilst managing to namecheck Marilyn Monroe and Che Guevara in one line.
Second single ‘How Can You Leave Me On My Own’ puts some humour into loneliness, ‘When you leave I become a beer swilling, time killing moron, I surgically remove all the green food from my diet’. It’s jaunty and sad and features a donkey noise effect. It’s nowhere near the best song here but it’s still almost perfect. ‘I Joined the Foreign Legion to Forget’ is a bar song extraordinaire, and tackles the same subject from a different angle, running away to be alone and forget. When the album hits one of it’s few lesser songs the arrangements and musicality raise it above previous albums. ‘A Desperate Man’ is a story of a fugitive in a nun’s disguise set to a tango. ‘Other People’ is a very short song, opening with a vocal only as if drifting through time from a black and white movie before becoming awash in luscious strings then ending abruptly. The closer ‘The One Who Loves You’ is another soft pop belter and has the immortal line ‘Finding the one…who is with you besotted, Is like finding the lesser spotted dodo in Soho, so rare’.
This is the consummate Divine Comedy album, a summation of all the previous parts merged into a complete one. One of the albums of the year.
If you move quick and it may already be too late, you might be able to pick up the deluxe edition which includes ‘In May’, Hannon’s second involvement in operetta, in which he scores (and here sings) the words of Frank Alva Buecheler’s play in the form of letters from a son to father as he grapples with terminal cancer. It’s in stark contrast from the main album. It’s not without humour, but it is black humour and the tale is sad and tragic and often harrowing as hope is lost, sometimes rekindled and finally extinguished. It’s a tough listen because of the subject matter but it’s gripping and very good. Song cycles (as they’re often referred to) are often hard work and a struggle to get through, this one not so though, it’s tale draws you in and you desire to see how this plays out even through the setting of constant piano and string quartet and is sombre almost exclusively. It’d be a shame if this is only ever available only via this limited deluxe CD set as it deserves a much larger audience.