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6 septembre 2007 4 06 /09 /septembre /2007 19:53
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Neil Hannon claims to have written The Divine Comedy's triumphant ninth album, Victory For The Comic Muse, more or less by accident. After touring extensively on the back of 2004's Absent Friends, Hannon found himself, once back home in Dublin with his family, suffering the ennui common to those who've endured an intense period of being forced to listen to the sound of their own voice. In order to prod his muse towards taking an interest in life again, Hannon threw himself into a bewilderingly diverse array of side projects.

Up in his attic, Hannon composed the theme music for The IT Crowd, the new sitcom by Graham Linehan (for whom he had previously written the theme for Father Ted, which later blossomed into The Divine Comedy's Songs Of Love). He wrote a song (Home) for Jane Birkin's album Fictions, collaborated with French band Air on Charlotte Gainsbourg's album, and co-wrote two tracks for Laura Michelle Kelly with Guy Chambers. He wrote songs for film soundtracks whenever anyone was asking for them, and appeared on former collaborator Joby Talbot's soundtrack for "The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy". He also contemplated a Divine Comedy covers album, but eventually thought better of this, after toying with material ranging from the German standard "Lili Marlene" to "The Vapours' Turning Japanese to Depeche Mode's Question Of Time" (I found, he says, I was doing the same thing to each one, and there are only so many songs you can turn into between-the-wars cabaret). He was, however, understandably unwilling to let go of his gorgeous reading of "The Associates' Party Fears Two", which eventually won a spot on Victory.

One day in September 2005, Hannon totted up what he had to hand, and realised he'd absent-mindedly run up a collection of more than 30 songs. Because I was always writing for something or someone else, Hannon says, still sounding somewhat bemused, it released me from my own brain. It kind of opened the floodgates. So I thought I should make an album, to clear the decks. And I thought: do it now, try to be spontaneous for once in your life.

The incarnation of The Divine Comedy that made "Victory For The Comic Muse" ran, at peak, to 28 musicians. Keen to invest the new album with a sense of time and place, Hannon corralled his cast in Londons venerable RAK studios and recorded 18 tracks, mostly live, in just two weeks. Which, reflects Hannon, was insane, but it meant there wasnt time to overthink anything. Often you mess things up when you have too much time. And on this one I can definitely hear more of people enjoying playing music. At least, I had a good time making this record, and that hasn't always been the case.

The title "Victory For The Comic Muse" is lifted from a line of dialogue in E.M. Forster's "A Room With A View", but also has a resonance in the context of The Divine Comedy's history. The Divine Comedy's very first album, released back in 1990, was titled "Fanfare For The Comic Muse". At this larval stage, The Divine Comedy were earnest REM soundalikes in leather jackets, almost hilariously removed from the literate, witty sumptuous orchestral pop that the name would come to represent. Hannon has since all but disowned his debut. Although, he now concedes, I've rather blown that with the title of this new one. That first album is. . . alright. It's just not very good, and not very me as people have come to know me.

While Hannon has recently become more accepting of his debut album's place in his musical development, the record that truly founded The Divine Comedy's reputation was 1993's Liberation, on which an appropriately unbound-sounding Hannon revealed himself as a startling and precocious talent, swiping cues from Chekhov, Wordsworth and Fitzgerald as audaciously and elegantly as he borrowed the influence of Scott Walker, Elvis Costello and Tom Lehrer. The following years "Promenade" confirmed that none of this had been a fluke, and 1996's "Casanova"; an inspired record about love and sex which suggested Leonard Cohen attempting to enjoy himself, earnt The Divine Comedy a merited dousing of pop stardom, with "Something For The Weekend", "Becoming More Like Alfie" and "The Frog Princess" all becoming hits. The lusty and largely upbeat "Casanova" was followed rapidly by its rueful, hungover companion volume, "A Short Album About Love", seven implausibly perfect ballads recorded live with the 30-piece Brunel Ensemble.

1998's "Fin de Siecle", a(nother) tour-de-force, was perhaps overshadowed by the blustering, brassy hit single National Express. The album's quieter corners contained some of Hannon's best work yet, especially "Sunrise", a welcome to the "Good Friday Agreement" which had brought a measure of peace to his native Northern Ireland. The title of "Fin de Siecle" was also significant: the album marked the end, for the time being, of The Divine Comedy as most of its fans understood it. The orchestra was silenced, the sharp suits stashed in a closet (both would, of course, be called upon again not too far down the road), and the move made from the independent label Setanta to Parlophone.

For 2001's equally aptly named Regeneration, a t-shirted and sneaker-shod Divine Comedy worked with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich to deliver an album which, while more subtle than some of its predecessors, was no less droll and riddled with splendid tunes. Perfect Lovesong, which was what it claimed to be, should have been Number One from Valentine's Day until Christmas. 2004's album Absent Friends welcomed back the brass and strings, and included some of Hannon's most personal and most realised songs, including Charmed Life, an affectingly unabashed welcome-to-the-world for his new child. Absent Friends was accompanied by spectacular live shows with an orchestra in tow, including one at the Royal Albert Hall, and one at London Palladium, the latter filmed and released as a DVD.

"VICTORY For The Comic Muse", however, is perhaps a little less about its creator than some of its predecessors. Theres a bit less of me than usual on this album, says Hannon, which is largely a result of how much of it came about through the extra-curricular activities. The last couple had been very navel-gazing. There are more character studies on this. One such is the first single, Diva Lady. This is Hannon at his most caustic, sighing at the vanity of some unnamed but emblematic modern celebrity. That, he explains, is a result of looking over my wife's shoulder at Heat magazine. It has a lot to do with peoples' misplaced, idiotic fascination with the breed.

Another Divine Comedy crowd favourite in the making, "A Lady Of A Certain Age sounds", Hannon concedes, like it might be a sequel to Peter Sarstedts "Where Do You Go To My Lovely?", depicting an idle widow contemplating a gilded youth through a nostalgic cocktail haze. Other songs originally written for other people, including the lovers' regret "The Light Of Day" and the country trundle "Mother Dear", have very much become Divine Comedy songs. The latter in particular is an affectingly upfront homage which, for all that it freights a couple of Hannon's trademark punchlines, may be one of the most honest things he has ever sung.

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