Purveyor of archly ironic chamber-pop, son-of-a-Londonderry-bishop Neil Hannon has been writing acerbically brilliant lyrics to addictively jaunty melodies and thoughtful, plaintive riffs, since The Divine Comedy formed 27 years ago.
The indie act first came to prominence with in the 1990s with the albums Casanova (1996), A Short Album About Love (1997), and Fin de Siècle (1998). Singles such as Something for the Weekend, Everybody Knows (Except You), Generation Sex and National Express established Hannon as one of Ireland’s most successful and cleverly unique singer/songwriters. Always with his finger on the pulse the artist has found a way to make powerfully satirical music that engages with the big themes and questions - from love to politics, moral conscience, history, cultural decay and the banking crisis (see The Complete Banker on 2010’s Bang Goes the Knighthood).
Hannon returned after a seven year hiatus with 2016’s Foreverland, a collection of Wildean witted orchestral adult pop that is by turns funny, existentialist and imbued with pathos. Foreverland is deadpan, hyper-literate and historically engaged; it includes the ingenious track Napoleon Complex, a satire of imperious egocentrism: “Who pulls the strings? Who makes the deals?” he sings, “Stands five foot three in Cuban heels?”. Elsewhere on the album he sings about Catherine the Great, who could “dictate what went on anywhere and had great hair”; Hannon is able to manage profundity with mock heroism and deprecation filled with absurdly brilliant rhymes. How Can You Leave Me On My Own talks about feeling like a lost loser when your partner goes away and The One Who Loves You aptly sums up the manifold difficulties of dating: “Finding the one who is with you besotted is like finding the lesser spotted dodo in Soho,” he quips.
One commentator succinctly describes the Divine Comedy’s singular appeal: Hannon ‘makes you laugh, but what lifts the comedy towards the divine is the fact that he also makes you think.’
Currently working on a double album release for 2018 Hannon’s Divine Comedy are about to embark on a UK and Ireland tour which will arrive at the Millennium Forum in Londonderry on December 6 and Belfast’s Ulster Hall on December 7.
“Playing on the road tends to be a sensible affair for us,” confides Neil, “it’s not rock and roll so much as having lots of nice cups of tea and playing Scrabble. We’re just too old for wild nights of abandon.”
How does Neil feel about still enjoying success 27 years since the band first arrived on the scene? “I feel incredibly grateful. I’ve always had quite good quality control so I know the music we’re still producing is worthwhile and so long as our fans love it we’ll continue.
“I love touring and playing live on stage because I’m really a hopeless show off,” says Hannon. “I wouldn’t be showy off-y if I didn’t believe I had something worth showing off. I’ve always been confident on stage but I’m the complete opposite off stage. I was an incredibly shy child and music was my saviour. I was mad into music from about the age of six, into Top of the Pops and listening to Radio One. I began learning piano at seven and I learned guitar at 15. In the late 80s I just wanted to be indie guy. I loved REM, Pixies, My Bloody Valentine. But when I was 13 I was into synth pop and The Human League and then I had a weird period obsessing over Nick Kershaw. I love pop, I love indie and I love classical music so I was crazy and mixed up. I suppose my music is best described as orchestral pop.”
Who has had the most influence on the unique Divine Comedy sound?
“There are certain people who have had more influence than most like Scott Walker and Jacques Brel, Kate Bush and U2 but then also the great songwriters of yesteryear like Cole Porter and Noel Coward and Kurt Weill.”
Does he recognise the similarity between his own sardonic lyrics and those of former Smiths frontman Morrissey?
“I like to think I’m a bit more forgiving about loving humans,” he replies, pointedly.
What’s a regular day in the life of Neil Hannon?
“I have been in the studio a lot so this is my first day off for a while. I really enjoy being in the studio but I get jaded if I don’t take time off now and again. I throw the ball for the dog, I eat fried food and watch Man United beating people, hopefully.”
How does he describe his own musical education, how did he learn to write great orchestral pop songs?
“I don’t think it’s possible to teach someone how to write a good song because you need to be original and unexpected and doing things that nobody else would do. Nobody can teach you how to do the things that nobody else would do. The best way is just to listen to everything and I do worry when I talk to kids these days and they haven’t heard of Elvis Costello and I think you have to listen to these people, it’s absolutely essential. I mean songwriting is trial and error. I used to write about 50 bad songs before I wrote a good one - after a while you understand how to do it because you’ve practiced. It’s a lot easier to do. But you have to keep throwing yourself off track to create anything good. You don’t want to play it safe and keep making the same songs.”
Because the keynote song on most recent album Foreverland is entitled Napoleon Complex Neil decided to root out a Napoleon costume and don the breeches and bicorn hat of the French military leader and British bete noire and has looked dashing performing in it since. “The song Napoleon Complex is about wanting to rule the world, you know, because you’re kind of frustrated!” Neil sees the parallels between the popstar and the Napoleonic drive and sees the egotism of the proud man as ripe for satire.
On the new tour Hannon and his band of talented musicians will be “playing lots and a bit of everything, tracks from Foreverland, but nothing from the forthcoming double album because I never like to play new music until it’s released”.
Audiences can look forward to being entertained by a Napoleonic Neil singing about “love and the power of the state” - what might be described as the major preoccupations of his seriously addictive orchestral pop oeuvre.
The Divine Comedy play the Millennium Forum, Londonderry on December 6 and the Ulster Hall, Belfast on December 7.
Tickets are now on sale via the Ulster Hall and Millennium Forum box office as well as Ticketmaster outlets nationwide.