on 28 March 2004
The Divine Comedy's 2001 album 'Regeneration' was a great piece of work, showing that Neil Hannon can turn his hand to any style of music he wants to. However, some of it lacked the sparkle, the magic, that The Divine Comedy had become known for.
With 'Absent Friends' the sparkle and the magic are back with devastatingly effective results. From the rousing title track to the heartfelt 'Charmed Life', this is probably Hannon's most balanced and beautiful body of work to date (and for that honour it's up against some tough competition). The 'downbeat-yet-uplifting' tracks (something which only Neil Hannon seems able to write) of 'Leaving Today', 'The Wreck of the Beautiful' and 'Freedom Road' are nicely juxtaposed with the more immediate, fast-paced tracks such as 'Come Home Billy Bird', 'The Happy Goth' and the childlike and playful 'My Imaginary Friend'. The mixture works well, leaving the first-time listener never quite sure what's going to arrive next. From dramatic orchestral sounds to tender, intimate moments, this album is never anything less than the height of aural pleasure.
It's not often something that's been awaited for such a long period of time lives up to expectations. With 'Absent Friends' The Divine Comedy has surpassed them, and this is highly recommended as the best album in many a year.
Mr Hannon just gets better with age, like Wine or cheese!
1. Absent Friends - Wonderful curtain raiser. Poignant and touching but enough going on to get your feet going. Had me welling up at the first listen. Kudos for the 80's theme tune popping up too! (10)
2. Sticks & Stones - Simple but scathing muse on the mysteries of attraction. Lyrically very smart. (8)
3. Leaving Today - Love the lyrics but find the music a bit of a dirge to be honest. (7)
4. Come Home Billy Bird - Fantastic song and a worthy single. Humourous, anecdotal lyrics with a real emotional kick at the end. Lovely to hear Lauren Laveren (of Kenickie/XFM fame) adding backing vocals. (10)
5. My Imaginary Friend - Starts like a novelty record but ends with real pathos. Surprisingly touching and one of my wifes faves. (8)
6. The Wreck of the Beautiful - Weakest song on the album as it is simply not memorable. Nothing really wrong with it but.... (6)
7. Our Mutual Friend -In my humbe opinion, the best song written thus far this decade. (10)
8. Happy Goth - Another sounds-like-a-joke-song-but-isn't track. Will ring true for a lot of people. Nice Star Wars reference too. (9)
9. Freedom Road - Div Com go country! not as horrendous as it sounds. This is a world weary spot on performance. (9)
10. Laikas Theme - brief insturmental. Does nothing wrong (6)
11. A Charmed life - 'My Way' for the modern age. (10)
on 4 February 2004
Neil Hannon's back, and it sounds fantastic.
Looks like he's listened to a lot of Scott Walker (the title track, 'Sticks & Stones', 'Leaving Today' are heavily influenced but Hannon manages to make them sound fresh ).
Though mixed by Nigel Godrich, "Absent Friends" just sounds miles away from "Regeneration".
A sort of return to the "Liberation"/"Promenade" era, with orchestral arrangements back at full force. (with the assistance of ex Divine Comedy member Joby Talbot)
Hannon's voice really stands out in this collection of stories, mostly written on the road when Neil toured the USA with Ben Folds in 2002. (that's when he had showcased the songs "Wreck Of The Beautiful", "Happy Goth", "Our Mutual Friend", "Charmed Life" or "Come Home Billy Bird" (first single of the album to be released on March 22nd).
All in all a beautiful, rich and clever album.
on 28 February 2004
The Divine Comedy have been one of the British music scene's most interesting, if never influential, bands, combining lavish orchestral arrangements with witty and intellectual lyrics. However, since the frontman Neil Hannon's marriage in 1999, he has moved away from the arch wit of 'National Express' and 'Something for the Weekend' in favour of a more heartfelt and sincere sound. The first evidence of this was the Nigel Godrich-produced 'Regeneration', which had some interesting musical and lyrical ideas but was largely spoilt by Hannon adopting Radiohead as an influence (listen to Kid A and Regeneration back to back, it's an education), and, most damagingly of all, eschewing the sweeping arrangements that epitomise the Divine Comedy.
Here, Hannon and his long-term collaborator Joby Talbot have returned to the orchestral, lush sound of Fin de Siecle and Casanova, where song after song sounds like a hybrid of Broadway musical, Scott Walker epic, Michael Nyman-esque soundtrack and, in the case of the splendid title track, even 60s-esque western. Fans of earlier Divine Comedy albums are almost certain not to be disappointed by this; stand-out tracks include the mighty 'Freedom Road', loosely based on Hannon's experiences touring America, the doom-laden epic 'Our Mutual Friend', which is about an especially cruel case of infidelity, and 'Sticks and Stones', which features Amelie's Yann Tiersen on guest accordion.
However, it is the lyrics that raise this several notches above most of the competition. Over and over again, Hannon has proved that he has a gift for the witty allusion, and Oscar Wilde, Steve McQueen, Charles Dickens, Shakespeare and Tennyson all appear in some guise or another. Yet the sole redeeming feature of Regeneration for many was that Hannon had moved away from archness into the more heartfelt and sincere, which is continued here in such obviously autobiographical tales as his account of leaving his family to go on tour in 'Leaving Today', with its heartbreaking couplet 'I could stay if you asked me/ So for God's sake don't ask me', and his reflection on his current situation in 'Charmed Life', to say nothing of such charming vignettes as 'Come Home, Billy Bird', detailing the adventures of a businessman trying to get home, and 'The Happy Goth', with its self-explanatory title.
In fact, out of 11 tracks, the only ones which seem to be less immediate than the others are 'The Wreck of the Beautiful', which lacks an interesting tune, and 'Laika's Theme', which shows the heavy influence of Nigel Godrich (here on mixing duties only). But this is still a welcome return to form for Hannon in all respects, and an extremely exciting purchase come the end of March.
on 10 April 2004
God, this is glorious. No, really. I warn you that this will be an unashamed rave. Hopefully a pithily formulated and incisive, spot-on-nail-on-the-head kind of review. But a rave nevertheless.
It seems to be a musical truism that, the richer bands get, the richer their orchestration in direct parallel. As the money rolls in, so the budget increases and in direct proportion to this, the bums on seats in the recording studio. But whereas some bands leave you with that kind of « I discovered them first when they were hip and unknown » nostalgia for the sparse, almost homely arrangements of their early days, The Divine Comedy have reached a new circle of richer, more complex orchestral sounds. And it simply glows.
I suppose Neil Hannon was always orchestrally minded with unashamedly classical leanings. However, in the early days of albums such as « Promenade », the feel was very much one of a chamber orchestra. Elegantly used, but reduced means. « Absent friends » has been written, produced and performed by Mr Hannon, but uses what sounds on many tracks (the wonders of studio technology?) like a fully-blown symphony orchestra. Horn solos swoon around his vocals and oboes gently sigh in the background. The arrangements, by Joby Talbot, very much in evidence on « Casanova », are lush and lovely. Fortunately, Neil Hannon's « bass baritone » is never swamped by this richness of sound, but carries the melodies and their message just above the layers of gorgeous orchestration.
For message there is. As with all Divine Comedy albums, certain songs depict a person, a kind of mini « vignette», in which a whole life and set of values are sketched out in the space of 3 minutes with the observational accuracy of a Saki or an Oscar Wilde. On this album, we are treated to a portrait of « The Happy Goth » , an international business traveller in « Come Home Billy Bird » and a lonesome truck driver with a poet in his soul in « Freedom Road ».
Other songs capture an event, or a specific moment of emotion. Neil Hannon has got married, had a daughter, and moved back to Dublin. Scenes from his family life pervade songs such as « Leaving today » and « Charmed life », written for his new baby daughter. These songs represent some of the more mellow, reflective and mature writing on this album; clearly the work of a man who has settled down, found happiness and lost none of his artistic inspiration for that. Who said great art comes from suffering? Balderdash. J.S. Bach was a happily married man with umpteen kids...
Highlights are « Leaving today » featuring Hannon's voice against a graceful, yet restrained string and horn accompaniment. A heartbreaking evocation of the pain he feels each time he leaves his wife and new daughter to go off on his travels. « Our mutual friend » is also a great moment : a beautiful string orchestra arrangement against which Hannon sings a wry account of how he lost the love of his life (or so he thought) as well as a good friend in a moment of comatose alcoholic unconsciousness...
Yes, I echo the other reviewers : he's back. And for anyone who doesn't yet know the music of The Divine Comedy, but who loves intelligent, wry and insightfully written songs with gorgeous layers of orchestral sound, then this is for you. Give it a whirl.
on 16 March 2004
After the 2001 attempts to create a Radiohead with strings left Neil Hannon, creator and driving force of the Divine Comedy feeling a little underwhelmed he decided to once again go it alone and self-produce this latest album just like he did back in the mid nineties with Liberation and Promenade.
This album is heart-breaking but it's warm something that just cannot be said of it's predecessor. Songs about both absent and immaginary friends are uplifting whilst the stand out tracks are the forthcoming single Come Home Billy Bird and The Happy Goth, a wonderful and catchy tune about a girl, dressed in black, all alone with worried parents but actually loves her little world.
The album leaves it's best tracks to Our Mutual Friend and Charmed Life, the albums finale. The former deals with a tale of lost love and is backed by superb orchestration that will leave you breathless. Charmed Life on the other hand looks to the future of Hannon's recently born baby girl and is a wonderful inspired song.
Absent Friends on the whole is both personal and detached but it glows from start to finish. Beware Neil Hannon is BACK
This is such a fantastic album, some songs are good and some are beyond fantastic!
"A Charmed life" is a song my wife loves, and it's one of my favourites too. I have two young daughters and whenever I hear the lyrics "...and not long after that along came you" it takes me back to the moments they were born. A beautiful song and one I treasure.
To continue the fatherhood theme, "Come Home Billy Bird" is light hearted song about a dad who is trying in desperation to get home in time to watch his son's big football game. The song tells the story from waking up with a beast of a hangover, to managing to get the plane (and the problems involved), to finally getting to the match just in time.
I was never a Goth, but the words behind "Happy Goth" ring true for anyone who sometimes felt a bit `different' at times as a child - and I think everyone does to an extent. The chorus is pleasantly jaunty!
"Freedom Road" feels quite folky, which is a good thing (I do like a bit of folk now and then!) and as you'd expect, the poetry is perfect.
My favourite track (or at least joint-favourite with "Charmed Life") is "Our Mutual Friend" - a song which brought a tear to my eye the first time I heard it. This is such a beautiful song about great pain. How Hannon manages to inject the emotion into his words/music so well I'll never know, but then again, that is one of his unique strengths.
A tremendous album with some tracks quite pop, most instrumentally complex, some tracks uplifting, and some bring you to tears.
on 12 June 2004
I must say I'm only very familiar with "Regeneration" -his prior album-before the domestic release of this wonderful album, and I'm joyously impressed where Hannon has traveled from one album to the other. Whereas "Regeneration" was rather dramatic and bleak in its melodies and arrangements -and yet worth owning in its own right- , "Absent Friends" has managed enough of a romantic and ironic tone, at the same time, to invite listeners more successfully in.
The decision to let go of the band -whether economically driven, as reported, or not- seems to have freed Neil Hannon to pursue his musical vision to a fuller, unimpeded extent than its prior album did.
As far as I'm concerned, where Brit progressive rock was dictating the mood of "Regeneration," "Absent Friends," at times, evokes the spirit of Stephen Sondheim. I know ... this may sound wild or strange to you but listen to "Imaginary Friend" -where the melody turns to unexpected pleasurable places, without ever sounding premeditated- or "Happy Goth" which as much of an oxymoron as this title may sound, is very much that.
Actually, I could name practically every tune in the album as a personal choice, I'm that pleased and inspired by it.
Although, I believe Hannon is not done with his changes, I do think that he's hit a particular stride as a composer already which has converted me on a faithful follower of whatever he may do next.
Here's an intelligent, articulate songwriter in touch with the essence of his style, and yet there's enough of what he's gotten him fans in the past in this CD, to satisfy old and new customers. Truly delightful without compromising its depth.
on 5 October 2004
I had never heard of Divine Comedy until I heard I saw the performance on Jonathan Ross back in July 2004. I was spellbound. He sung "Mutual Friend" from this album and I hadn't heard anything so fantastic in years. The following day I was flicking through the car radio channels and blow me I recognised the dulcit tones of Neil Hannon once more - it was Jonathan Ross again (I never listen to Radio 2) and clearly JR was featuring this album, as another track was soon played. Mesmerised, I had to buy it - thank the Lord for Amazon. 'Cos I couldn't find it anywhere else !
The album has such fantastic melodies and orchestral support. Yes the words are unique but it just adds to the fun. Two weeks after the encounter above, I was on holiday in the middle of nowhere in Portugal and the local Supermarket had "Come home Billy Baird" playing on its looped music. This was all too much for someone who's just seen the light to Divine comedy.
One final observation; his voice strikes me as a cross between Matt Monroe (the great 50/60's crooner), Marc Almond (Soft Cell) and Brian Ferry.
on 29 September 2004
Usually I find that DC albums take a while to grow on me, but off the back of getting into the rather difficult 'Regeneration' album this was a massive relief. You can genuinely relax into enjoying this album from the off. Although there are a couple of slightly less interresting tracks(Freedom Road and Laika's theme) the rest are so good it'll make you smug that you bought it. The stand out track is 'The Happy Goth', i couldn't help but beam with joy whilst walking down the highstreet hearing it for the first time and I reckon there's something eerie about 'The Wreck of the Beautiful' that really gets to you. Hannon and the DIvine Comedy are, as has been said countless times before, by far the most talented musical force in their genre (if DC can be put in one) and should be lapped up while it lasts. Forget the rest DC's the best. People you know what to do...the gamble is well worth it.