The Divine Comedy: The Wit and Wisdom of Neil Hannon

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If you’ve reached this hub hoping to find an intelligent and analytical dissertation of the soul’s journey through hell, purgatory and heaven, I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong place…but stick around, why don’t you, as you’ll probably have far more fun here.

I’ve admitted as much in another hub, I’m a born-again, evangelical admirer of indie pop group The Divine Comedy, otherwise known as Mr. Neil Hannon, the uber-talented son of a Northern Irish bishop. Not only does Hannon understand music, and the ingredients needed to make a great song, he’s also a terrific lyricist, capable of interweaving themes and stories that are touching and poignant one minute, laugh out-loud funny the next.

In this hub it’s the lyrics I want to concentrate on. There is something special, literary and intelligent in pretty much everything this man does, but with over ten albums to choose from, I’ve had to be selective.

THE WIT:

Commuter Love – Fin de Siecle (1998)

In this song our hero is in-love with a stranger he sees on the train every morning. Soulful and moody, it still manages to make me laugh:

She’s not like the others
With their papers and their headphones on
She reads novels by French authors with loose morals
She can do no wrong

To Die a Virgin – Victory for the Comic Muse (2006)

This song starts out with a wartime quote (from the TV series The Camomile Lawn) by a girl who’s reluctant to lose her virginity. Her boyfriend, however, as sung by Hannon, is quite keen to lose his:

The other day I discovered
A magazine of my brother’s
I read it under the covers
It got me all hot and bothered.
Now every time that I see you
Your uniform becomes see-through
You don’t know how much I need you
The “Handy Andys” I’ve been through
I don’t want to die a virgin

Come Home Billy Bird – Absent Friends (2004)

This one’s about ‘international business traveller’ Billy Bird, who’s overslept and is determined to get home for a special event (I won’t spoil it). Needless to say, everything goes wrong:

William wakes with his clothes on

The morning call has been and gone

And he might not make his flight, but he will try

Bit by bit it comes back to him

A bunch of Belgian business men

And a strange drinking game, oh God why?

Lady of a Certain Age – Victory for the Comic Muse (2006)

This is the song that started my love-affair with The Divine Comedy, about a woman who’s fallen on hard times, having once lived a glamorous life on the Cote d’Azur. Even though it’s quite poignant, it still makes me laugh:

Your son’s in stocks and bonds and lives back in Surrey
Flies down once in a while and leaves in a hurry
Your daughter never finished her finishing school
Married a strange young man of whom you don’t approve
Your husband’s hollow heart gave out one Christmas Day
He left the villa to his mistress in Marseilles

The Complete Banker – Bang Goes the Knighthood (2010)

In this song, Mr Hannon is angry about the collapse of the banking system, but still manages to see the funny side:

Can anyone lend me ten billion quid?
Why do you look so glum? Was it something I did?
So I caused a second great depression, what can I say
I guess I got a bit carried away
If I say I’m sorry will you give me the money?

By the end, his anger gets the better of him – and who could disagree?

Well that’s just me
The complete banker in a black Bentley
Margaret Thatcher riding next to me
Oh how I hanker for the good old days
When I was free
I’m the complete banker
I’m a conscience-free malignant cancer on society
And one day you’ll let your guard down
And I’ll come round again

If this isn't yet the anthem of the 'Occupy' anti-capitalist protests currently taking place around the world, it jolly well should be.

…AND THE WISDOM:

Sunrise – Fin de Siecle (1998)

A song about ‘the troubles’ in Northern Ireland, where Hannon grew up. These sections are particularly moving:

Who cares where national borders lie?
Who cares whose laws you’re governed by?
Who cares what name you call a town?
Who’ll care when you’re six feet beneath the ground?

From the corner of my eye
A hint of blue in the black sky
A ray of hope, a beam of light
An end to thirty years of night
The church-bells ring, the children sing
“What is this strange and beautiful thing?”
It’s the sunrise

Gin-Soaked Boy – A Secret History (1999)

This was the previously unreleased single on the ‘Best of’ album. It’s a riddle that lasts four verses and never loses its charm or interest. I’ve no idea what the solution is, but Mr. Hannon’s well-known to enjoy a glass of gin or two during a concert.

I’m the tiger’s empty cage
I’m the mystery’s final page
I’m the stranger’s lonely glance
I’m the hero’s only chance
I’m the undiscovered land
I’m the single grain of sand
I’m the Christmas morning toy
I’m the gin in the gin-soaked boy

Don’t Look Down – Promenade (1994)

In the middle of this song – about a couple riding on a ferris wheel, the wheel breaks down and our hero, in a near-death panic, has a rant at God:

I want to take my pleasures where and how I will,
Be they disgraceful or distasteful or distilled
And to be frank I find that life has more appeal
Without a driver who’s asleep behind the wheel

After which, God decides that:

‘…he has taken quite enough
Of all this atheistic tosh I’m spouting off’

What other pop star could write about ‘atheistic tosh’ being ‘spouted off’ and get away with it? This whole album is daring, bold and far more breathtaking than a ferris wheel ride.

Middle-Class Heroes – Casanova (1996)

This song has such a catchy, jaunty beat yet its lyrics are dark and mocking of self-obsessed middle-classes failing their children. In the middle, there’s another terrific rant:

I see unspeakable vulgarity
institutionalised mediocrity
infinite tragedy
Rise up little souls - join the doomed army
Fight the good fight - wage the unwinnable war
Elegance against ignorance
Difference against indifference
Wit against shit

Tonight We Fly – Promenade (1994)

The last song on this extraordinary album features our hero flying:

Over the houses
The streets and the trees
Over the dogs down below
They’ll bark at our shadows
As we float by on the breeze

The whole song is beautifully structured and elegant, but the final verse just couldn’t be bettered:

And when we die
Oh, will we be
That disappointed
Or sad
If heaven doesn’t exist
What will we have missed
This life is the best we’ve ever had

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