Friday, June 15, 2007

The Divine Comedy

Over the years, the name has encompassed other musicians, but the driving force of the band and its main (sometimes only!) member has always been Neil Hannon. He chose the name The Divine Comedy aged 18, almost at random. He and two Enniskillen school friends needed a new name for their band and Neil spotted a copy of Dante’s epic poem on the family bookshelf. It stuck, and a year later it was the name under which the trio signed to Irish run indie Setanta Records. After some lackluster response to their first few recording efforts the original line-up of the band broke-up but Hannon continued to record alone with the name re-appearing in 1993 with Liberation.

Liberation had a fairly diverse musical outlook that goes from the tongue-in-cheek synth pop, it is also characterised by a plethora of literary references: 'Bernice Bobs Her Hair' recalls a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald; 'Three Sisters' draws upon a play by Anton Chekov; and 'Lucy' is essentially three William Wordsworth poems abridged to music. This led to a degree of critical acclaim, but commercial success still proved elusive.

It was only some minor success in France that really enabled Hannon to proceed to his second effort Promenade. Released in 1994, this was heavily driven by classical influences, with Michael Nyman's stylings clearly an influence. Hannon himself acknowledged this when he apparently sent a copy of his new album to the composer, jokingly asking him not to sue. Essentially a concept album about a day spent by two lovers, it also received similar critical acclaim to that which Liberation was afforded. Still commercial success eluded Hannon.

Around the same time, Hannon also wrote and performed the theme music for the TV sitcom Father Ted (which would subsequently be incorporated into the song "Songs of Love" on the album Casanova), and later wrote the music for the deliberately bad mock-Eurovision song "My Lovely Horse" for one episode. This would not be the only time they would be responsible for a TV theme, as "In Pursuit Of Happiness" was also used by the BBC science and technology show, Tomorrow's World. Hannon also recently composed the music for the comedy series "The IT Crowd".

My Lovely Horse from Father Ted:

The album Casanova (1996), and in particular the single "Something for the Weekend" led to the band's first major successes, with Neil Hannon becoming a distinctive, albeit unlikely, popstar in an immaculate suit, and always appearing the elegant dandy. The foppish image, but not the suit, was ditched for the more sombre album Fin De Siècle in 1998, although its biggest hit, the jaunty "National Express", a song about the national coach operators.

Becoming More Like Alfie from Cassanova:

Something For the Weekend Live:(the hilarious horror movie parody):

The National Express:

A serious side to the band was also in evidence in 2000's collaboration with Ute Lemper on her album Punishing Kiss, most of which featured The Divine Comedy as Lemper's backing band. Neil Hannon and Joby Talbot also contributed two original songs and an arrangement of Brecht and Weill's "Tango Ballad", whilst Neil Hannon sang two songs ("Tango Ballad", "Split") as duets with Lemper.

The 2001 album Regeneration attempted to remove the band still further from its association with comedy. Hannon hired famous producer Nigel Godrich to "remake" the band. Neil ditched the suit and donned the Britrock band image. However, the album was a greater critical than commercial success, and soon after its release it was announced that The Divine Comedy were splitting up.

Bad Ambassador (poor lovesick Bigfoot!):

Eventually however a new album surfaced with a new line-up in the form of 2004's Absent Friends. Striking a balance between the occasionally earnest sound of the band's later material and the lighter tone of the more popular releases, it encapsulated the essence of The Divine Comedy.

Come Home Billy Bird:

Hannon's ninth album under the Divine Comedy moniker, Victory for the Comic Muse (a reference to his debut), was released in June 2006. It is suggested by fans to be less personal and more free-approach in tone than his most recent albums. The bulk of the record was recorded in just two weeks, hence the more spontaneous sound, and features appearances from Travis bass player Dougie Payne.

Neil Hannon also provided vocals for songs on the soundtrack for the film of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy released in 2005, working with Joby Talbot, the composer for the film and former Divine Comedy band member. This sci-fi connection continued in late 2006, when he contributed vocals to two tracks - 'Song For Ten' and 'Love Don't Roam' - on the official Doctor Who soundtrack. In an interview with, Hannon explained that, "literally, I was asked to add my vocal by the composer of the songs, who writes for the show. And I didn’t feel that I could say no, simply because I spent my childhood watching this program. It would be just plain wrong to not do it."

Here is The Divine Comedy's (still unofficially released) politically charged song Guantanamo, set to photographic evidence from the archives:

And finally the incredibly beautiful Tonight We Fly. It's one of my favorite songs of all time and here is is live:


daniel said...

Thank you, that was a great post. Really, nothing like Neil Hannon to start a day. By the way, I think that album with Ute Lemper, Punishing kiss, is incredibly underrated.

Rob said...

Hi, great post, sorry just seen it. I wonder whether you've heard the track of Neil's that I've posted on my site:


Elrossiter said...

hello there.

just discovered this wonderfull blog and have been skimming backwards through time and had to stop here. i also love the divine comedy though theres much here i didn't know about them. but yes they are brilliant-so captivating and diverse. love the way neil tells storys-alfie is great, love the gin soaked boy- the waiting for the geoff goldblum line ha ha. so dark at times too-'see the certainty of chance'. my lovely horse is genius too.

so yeah nice one becca, thought i'd say hello.

elrossiter x