There are many bands whom I love, admire, and obsess over in equal measure but who's albums I very rarely listen to from end to end. The concept of the LP is, for me, the ultimate expression of pop music as an art form, and most of the reviews on these hallowed pages focus on how albums flow and work end-to-end, so in that light my opening statement here might seem a little out of character. To hear individual tracks in isolation is to miss out on the context: you miss the dramatic ebb and flow that long-form music allows; the rise and fall of dynamics, textures, and tension over the course of some twelve or so songs is not something that one gets to appreciate in this world of "shuffle" and iTunes and mp3s. But every cloud, as they say...
One upside of digital music libraries is that they allow the determined album-listener like myself to create the albums that should have been. Acts like Ryan Adams, The National, and Bright Eyes (all of whom I love intensely) seem unable to fill any of their records with 100% good music, but each of their "best of"s would be contenders for the title of Best Collection of Songs Ever. None of those acts has yet to release a "best of", but thanks to the joys of iTunes playlists I can construct them for myself.
The Divine Comedy has always been one of those select group of acts that fall into this category. Quite a few of my all-time-favourite songs have come from the quill of Neil Hannon (especially when he teamed up with arranger Joby Talbot) but there's yet to be an entire album that's kept me happy from start to finish. But that could all change with the latest offering, Bang Goes the Knighthood.
There's been a four year gap since Victory for the Comic Muse, and I couldn't help but feel that made an all-to-tidy bookend to a career that started with the Fanfare for the Comic Muse LP. Coupled with Neil's success with the (stupendously excellent) Duckworth Lewis Method project and I was worried we'd seen the last of The Divine Comedy, but thankfully rumours of their death have been greatly exaggerated.
On first inspection Bang Goes the Knighthood comes across as a classic Divine Comedy record; there are three or four obvious singles tied together with the borderline-comedy ditties that make up most of Hannon's oeuvre. Sometimes these jaunts seem just a little too much like out-right Noel Coward imitation, but when Neil's at his best he writes songs of exquisitely crafted irony that transcend the limits of the "comedy song", and I'm pleased to report that he's most definitely at his best here.
With such a taste for the theatrical (particularly when coupled with the lush orchestration he's proven time and time again that he excels at) one might expect The Divine Comedy to descend into the heinous depths of musical theatre territory (which is pretty much the worst crime one can accuse anyone of) but somehow it never does. I think the saving grace is that no matter how cheesy the set-up there's always Hannon's acerbic wit, self-depreciation and über middle-classiness just around the corner to keep proceedings on an even keel. And the question of class is central to this record; Hannon is the absolute paragon of the English, middle-class gent - not bad going for an Irishman, really. It's probably why I respond so well to his work, I guess; his preoccupations, aspirations and tastes seem to mirror mine quite closely.
The classic Hannon love songs (of which there are a couple on here) can border on the saccharine-sweet at times, but thankfully that never gets too out of hand in this instance. This is a record of astounding versatility - Hannon's lyrics run the full gamut of human emotion over the course of about forty-five minutes – whilst never coming off the rails or losing it's sense of unity – it's a down-and-out "proper album" through and through.
Out of the thirty-or-so studio albums those three acts have made between them, only I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning comes close to being no-holds-barred, no-filler-guaranteed classic album. ↩︎