The Divine Comedy is Neil Hannon, a 29-year-old Londonderry Irishman whose chutzpah in naming himself after an immortal literary masterpiece written by an Italian poet from the 14th century is nothing compared to his life’s goal, which is to complete—with little more than such ornate stuff as Jimmy Webb-produced Richard Harris albums used to be made of—the job left undone by the entire Romantic movement. Or so one would gather from A Secret History: The Best of the Divine Comedy, as dazzling a pop collection as has ever entered the English charts at No. 3 only to fizzle over here. The 17-track single-disc version available in the U.S. is misleadingly modest. The limited-edition box tells a fuller story, with 40 pages of rare photos and an 18-track second disc of arcana. Its 20.50-pound overseas price tag is evidence of the seriousness with which Europeans take Hannon’s Comedy.
As is the packaging, which resembles a book one might find on the shelves of the landed gentry. Like Hannon’s canon in general, it gives the impression that he’s knickers-deep in the Classics. Not that he’s the first popster to wear his library on his sleeve. The Crash Test Dummies got a song from T.S. Eliot, Sixpence None the Richer a band name from C.S. Lewis, and Sting and Ram Jam album titles from Chaucer and James Joyce, respectively. But if Hannon won’t exactly make you a fisher of rare first editions, he’ll certainly make you wish you had some Cliff’s Notes or a Norton anthology to help you fathom his allusions.
And his music, after all, does beg to be fathomed. The parts may feel anachronistic, but the whole feels fresh. In A Secret History‘s most affecting songs, the mast to which Hannon has lashed himself consists of those sounds that people who confuse Dusty Springfield with Petula Clark hear in their heads when they think of ’60s Europop: smartly swaying rhythms nattily attired in woodwinds, strings, and brass—less a wall of sound than a curtain of beads. If Hannon’s dramatic baritone and his preference for swinging orchestras over rocking guitars stop short of Broadway sentimentality, they stop even shorter of rock opera and performance art. At his most whimsical, he implies that the whole point of loving language and knowing pop culture is to have fun. “I’m the last roll of the die/I’m the old school in the tie/I’m the spirit in the sky,” he sings in “Gin Soaked Boy.” “I’m the catcher in the rye/I’m the twinkle in her eye/I’m Jeff Goldblum in The Fly.”
Another line goes, “I’m the Trojan horse in Troy,” and sometimes Hannon is just that, smuggling a couplet such as “While they search for a mate/My type masturbate” into the otherwise conventional “Songs of Love.” And in “The Pop Singer’s Fear of the Pollen Count” (which mysteriously disappeared from the Eurochart Hot 100 last August immediately after flickering in at No. 58) he seizes his and his baby’s hay fever as a chance to urge her to join him in “making hay.”
Aside from the Grimm tale that lends “The Frog Princess” its subtext and the three Wordsworth poems that lend “Lucy” its lyrics, the songs on the best-of stand on their own, emphasizing Hannon’s breezier personae. The American edition of History is also lightened somewhat by the absence of such diploma-flaunting tracks as “Middle Class Heroes,” “Eric the Gardener,” and “Bath” (which allude to Hamlet), “The Booklovers” (74 one-liners about 74 authors), and “Bernice Bobs Her Hair.” The Donna Tartt novel that lends the collection its title is a red herring; “Something for the Weekend” ‘s protagonist does get mugged in a toolshed, but no one commits murder in a Dionysian frenzy.
It’s Hannon’s old-world preference for self-dramatization over self-expression, for serving an idea over finding an idea to serve him, that may keep him from cashing in stateside. In the land of the free, after all, freedom can only be another word for nothing left to lose if everything else has already been lost. Those who, like Hannon, revel in tradition the better to resist the siren song of the age often appear to practice self-preservation only because nothing preserves the past like a well-preserved self. No line on History sounds more tossed-off than the last one in “Gin Soaked Boy”: “Well, who am I?”
Who is Neil Hannon? At his farthest out, he harbors Scott Walker (an admitted influence), ELO (ditto), and Dr. Frank N. Furter simultaneously. The son of the Anglican bishop of Clogher, he tells Q that what really turns him on is “pictures of naked ladies, romping” and cites “the porn channel not working” as his main hotel gripe. Yet he’s also properly married, and in “Generation Sex” he insists that “we should really all know better” than to “respect the rights of girls/who want to take their clothes off.” A popular musician, he’s called all “popular music . . . drivel.” A Wordsworthian rocker, he claims not to know or like poetry. Yet, despite his all-things-to-all-men contradictions, the world seems with him too little and will as long as his U.S. audience remains the size of a cult.