The Divine Comedy: Bang Goes the Knighthood
At some point around the release of Absent Friends, The Divine Comedy became incredibly Radio 2 friendly. Perhaps this tendency, bound up with safe and unthreatening middle-of-the roadness, was always there in Neil Hannon’s output, but I was made very aware of it with this release. In some senses this is not a problem and is partly a result of shifting demographics. Yet Radio 2 was and continues to be something I tend to rail against (for reasons too lengthy to detail here). As such, with torturous memories of ‘Friday Night is Music Night’ and hellish visions off Melua and Blunt disturbing my psyche, I approached Bang Goes the Knighthood with a real sense of trepidation despite my longstanding love of Hannon’s work.
I can pinpoint exactly when this unease was dispelled – between 3.43 and 4.09 of first track ‘Down in the Street Below’ when Hannon’s voice and accompanying strings coalesce with magnificent spine-tingling melancholy and splendour. From that moment and since I’ve been unconcerned where, why and how The Divine Comedy fit, either into my daily soundtrack or in a wider sense, and simply immersed myself in the sheer pleasure of the album.
Lyrically, Bang goes… sees Hannon replicating his idiosyncratic take on a series of often peculiar situations and characters – can you think of another tune (‘Assume the Perpendicular’) about the pleasures of visiting National Trust properties? Frequently these people and places are seen from a distance as he becomes the flâneur gazing with both sardonic wit and sympathy: a part that is well-rehearsed in his back catalogue (see ‘Songs of Love’ and ‘Tonight We Fly’) and replicated here on the aforementioned opener and ‘Neapolitan Girl’.
Hannon is probably at his strongest when giving us his slightly off-kilter view on the world, particularly when love is the subject. These observations occasionally slide into surrealism, but more often they are refreshingly just off-centre: ‘I like’ is endearingly life affirming and the series of questions that branch off from the central inquiry ‘Have You Ever Been in Love?’ are so beautifully awry that you can’t but smile in agreement. We could wait a thousand years and Blunt and his ilk would never get near Hannon on this form (although, they might on ‘Island Life’ which is one big fat miss. Possibly even a delete track).
The sleazy role play of the title track or the cutesy reminiscences of ‘At the Indie Disco’ all work, but when the topic is scrutinised in a more explicitly moralistic tone Hannon is not always successful. Although there is nothing quite as condescending Regeneration’s ‘Dumb it down’, ‘The Lost Art of Conversation’ is somewhat pompous in its disdain for pop culture and ‘The Complete Banker’ is a little too obvious in its target and could easily play to Daily Mail/Express sentiments. Yet it’s nigh on impossible to disagree with the line “I’m a conscience free malignant cancer on society”.
Still, the song writing is so strong and there’s enough romanticism, smart droll and plain old silliness here (‘Can You Stand Upon One Leg?’) to keep anybody with even a passing interest in TDC more than happy for some time. In fact, given time I’ve got a funny feeling this might be up there as one of his best. And there’s a limited edition with bonus CD that sees Hannon singing French tunes at the Cité de la Musique in Paris. I don’t understand a bloody word of what he’s on about, but it makes for a pleasing additional curio.
Amsterdam (from the bonus CD)
So “Slip on your Barber jacket, jump in my old MG” and buy a further slice of eccentricity here.