The Divine Comedy (Contemporary Musicians)
Neil Hannon and his band the Divine Comedy gave Britain instrumentally diverse, sophisticated, and intelligent pop music during the 1990s. From Enniskillen, Ireland, came a gifted musical artist who created highly refined pop music for more than a decade. Hannon offered pop music that was well written, composed, and orchestrated. The finesse and skill Hannon put into the Divine Comedy's recordings demonstrated respect and appreciation for the value of musical instruments more so than gimmick and effects. His music was highly regarded by critics and listeners even though it often earned only modest commercial success.
Drawing on a wide range of influences, Hannon received inspiration from artists such as Ravel, Stravinsky, Michael Nyman Philip Glass, Scott Walker, The Beach Boys and Electric Light Orchestra. Ken Micallef from Launch.com captured Hannon's mode in a description of his work: "[his music shows] dual fascinations of literature and romance with lavish orchestral arrangements and a mercilessly dry wit. Dressed in a suit of fine linen as he sings of love, lust and revenge, bon vivant Neil Hannon offers Britain a sophisticated respite from all that rude rock music." John Kelly further identified Hannon in a 1998 article for the Irish Times, "Fronting the Divine Comedy, Hannon masquerades successfully as the decadent sophisticate in an intriguing combination of send-up and serious purpose.... Only the most humorless cynic could ever take a dislike to Neil Hannonis is a most enduring class of genius and there is clearly much more still to come from this unique pop star son of the manse."
Hannon was born in Londonderry, Ireland, the son of a Bishop in the Church of Ireland. He lived his childhood years in the Northern Ireland town of Enniskillen as a shy, simple person who was modest in words but confident in thought. He lived the lazy life of one disillusioned, but always knowing he was creatively talented and showing it in his school homework. He professed to be a "Protestant" as a youth, but admitted he felt out of place in a 1993 autobiography posted on the Indulgence website, "It later became clear that my family's religious persuasion was all that I had in common with the drum-beating, sash-wearing, 12th of July regulars I was lumped in with." Even though Hannon described himself as non-religious, he admitted he was likely influenced by religion and claimed to be a deeply spiritual being. He began his musical life in Enniskillen and Fermanagh, where his liberal political philosophies were accompanied with six years of lessons at the piano. He began writing music at the keyboard during that time and soon was composing songs and playing in bands.
The Divine Comedy was formed by Hannon, John McCullagh and Kevin Traynor in Ireland. They moved to England in search of a productive music career. The three started by recording for indie label, Setanta Records. Their first LP, Fanfare for The Comic Muse, was released in 1990. It was the product of the guitar-driven trio which included Hannon, only 19 years old, on guitar and vocals, McCullagh on bass and vocals, and Traynor on drums and percussion. The project was considered an average offering however, and McCullagh and Traynor returned to Ireland to study.
After his bandmates returned to Ireland, Hannon set out writing songs on his own. He described this time to Kelly, "I was only really living in my own head and I don't think I was existing in the real world for quite a few years. I was in atticland and that's where the music came from." He initially waited to record a bunch of songs for the next album with producer Ian Broudie, but it did not happen. Experience in the studio with the Divine Comedy's previous lineup must have given confidence to Hannon, because as he described his self-produced effort in the studio to Serge Nicolas of the Magic Mushroom, "Rapidly I understood I didn't need somebody else's advice. I had a very strong personal opinion, linked to the music I recorded." Liberation was released in 1993 and received positive reviews but experienced meager commercial success.
The Divine Comedy's next project built upon Hannon's meager success with Liberation. Promenade, released in 1994, gained more praise including the title of a Best Album of '94 from Q magazine. A major goal for the album's songs was stage worthiness and Hannon wrote the album with a desire for performing the songs live. Piers Clifton admitted in his sketch for Rock, The Rough Guide, that a few of the tracks were odd, but, "...the music was a more than sufficient tonic: a mixture of strings, woodwinds, acoustic guitar, and piano..." Perhaps it was the influence of a new friend who held some similar visions as Hannon that brought about the band's transformation. It was during the recording of Promenade that he met the young composer and musician, Joby Talbot, who continued with the band after joining to play piano for touring.
The Divine Comedy also picked up a few more members after Promenade's release. During a supporting tour for Tori Amos, Hannon met up with two old friends, Bryan Mills and Ivor Talbot (no relation to Joby Talbot). Mills came on to play bass and Ivor Talbot worked as a roadie before joining as guitar player. Stuart "Pinkie" Bates joined to play the Hammond organ and Miggy Barradas replaced an injured drummer.
The Divine Comedy's music of the early 1990s embodied the return-to-values movement in England as Gilles Tordjman of French publication Les Inrockuptibles stated, "How can one be astonished that The Divine Comedy has, in its way, come to be the incarnation of the 'back to basics' movement, in bringing refinement and instrumental skills back to light in a sphere of expression which, since time immemorial, has formed itself against the established forms of the music which went before it?" Hannon spoke often of writing a symphony at some time in his life. His love for composing and respect for the skills it requires were evident in his interview by Tordjman, "No doubt I'll be 50 by the time I'm ready for a symphonyou need time to mature. But I'm a hard worker, so I'm getting ready. Each new song is a new stage, a new step to climb, a new difficulty.... It was the same for The Beatles and The Stones: first of all you do your lessons and then everything becomes possible. It's the course I've followed, very wisely." Even though the album was again respected by the critics and lagged commercially, the Divine Comedy gained more listeners.
The fourth album, Casanova, released in 1996, marked the rise of Hannon to pop star status. Three singles experienced mainstream radio play and hit the charts. The album reached Gold status in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Also, Hannon's live performances were more entertaining than ever. The popular single, "Becoming More Like Alfie" gave Hannon the chance to include some showmanship in the band's performances.
Hannon expressed his perceptions of modern sexuality on Casanova, some quite personal. The tracks show appreciation for healthy, uplifting sexuality, wonder toward homosexuality and femininity, and disgust with greedy, selfish impulses, which much of British pop music portrayed. Hannon revealed how he wrote much of his music in his conversation with Mark Eitzel of the American Music Club, "I find it really impossible to just sit down and write lyrics. It annoys me, because I always find that the lyrics are ruled by the tune they have to meet."
Hannon demonstrated his love for symphony and his talent for writing pop music supported by orchestra when he released 1997's A Short Album About Love. Recorded with the 30-piece Brunei Ensemble orchestra in two days at the Shepards Bush Empire theatre, Hannon stepped closer to his dreams as a musician. Keeping in synch, he took the ensemble with him on the supporting tour. Hannon admitted the huge influence of Scott Walker in his interview with Kelly, " It changed my perspective completely. I listened to too much Scott Walker. I overdosed on Scott Walker until I started to sing like himut that and Michael Nyman kick-started the Divine Comedy into something new."
The Divine Comedy's new direction emerged when they worked with Nyman, a contemporary classical composer, during 1997. The band arranged classic Nyman tracks and also arranged their own songs for Nyman's string quartet to perform. A special project including Hannon, Joby Talbot, and Nyman, called Grizzly Knife Attack, was performed at the new music festival in Edinburgh, Flux.
Just when Hannon seemed to finally realize his dream on A Short Album About Love, with the Brunei Ensemble, he went further. The 1998 release, Fin de Siecle, included the Ensemble and the Crouch End Festival Choir on background vocals. The album had more than 100 musicians contributing. Rob Farrer, who appeared on early projects, joined the band during this time on percussion. Along with fantastic symphony and choir-supported pop songs, Hannon finally mentioned some of his Irish background, wondering if peace could settle into Northern Ireland. He admitted his songwriting tendencies to Kelly, "I think all the musical reference points are from elsewhere but I think the attitude is totally Irish." The album hit Gold-selling status in 1999, behind a popular single, "Generation Sex."
Setanta Records released a compilation album in 1999, A Secret Historyhe Best Of The Divine Comedy. It included tracks from the five prior albums as well as a few unreleased songs and hit Gold in only three weeks. Hannon worked in 1999 with many well-known artists including R.E.M, Tom Jones, and Ute Lemper.
Hannon's artistic muse shifted for the new millennium. Leaving the orchestras behind, he set out with his six bandmates and trying something new, gave them more creative freedom. Stating to Michael Hubbard, writing for musicOMH.com, Hannon revealed his new mode, "With every album you just have to find ways to keep yourself interested." The Divine Comedy's first release on their new label, Parlophone Records, was Regeneration, in spring of 2001. An accompanying tour commenced thereafter.
Fanfare for the Comic Muse, Setanta Records, 1990.
Liberation, Setanta Records, 1993.
Promenade, Setanta Records, 1994.
Casanova, Setanta Records, 1996.
A Short Album About Love, Setanta Records, 1997.
Fin de Siede, Setanta Records, 1998.
A Secret Historyhe Best of The Divine Comedy, Setanta Records, 1999.
Gin Soaked Boy, Setanta, 2000.
Regeneration, Parlophone Records, 2001.
Buckley, Jonathan, Orla Duane, and Mark Ellingham, editors, Rock: The Rough Guide, second edition, Rough Guides, Ltd., 1999.
Irish Times, April 1996; August 1998.
Les Inrockuptibles, April 1994.
Magic Mushroom, 1993.
musicOMH.com, http://www.musicomh.com/ (April 10, 2001).
The Divine Comedy Official Website, http://www.thedivinecomedy.com (February 9, 2001).