on 11 July 2002
If I ever get the chance to stage a Broadway musical based around a James Bond adventure then this album would for the basis for the whole show. I can just picture it;
"Do you expect me to talk?"
"No Mr Bond. I expect you to sing!!!"
Neil Hannon has produced one of my top 5 albums with this gem. I can't think of any albums that could possibly combine dramatic and tender film-like scores, whilst dealing with the subjects of; what a nice country Sweden is, the end of the world, a girl at the train station, addrenalin junkies, gardening and Northern Ireland. There are themes, for heroes and villains, the big opening to the movie and the climatic ending. Songs of dispair, to the final walk into the sunset and the optimistic ending.
Maybe it's just the images that this album conjures up in my mind, or the fact that my friends listen to these tracks in my car and ask incredulously "Was that song about retiring to Sweden?".
I love it.
on 10 January 2003
There are only two tracks on this album that I don't particularly like and one of those was quite a successful single that made it to a respectably high position in the charts. "National Express" may well be a mickey-take, but it just comes across as naff and twee, "pop"py pap. The other that I didn't like was "Sunrise," but that's because I find the tune weak and the lyrics just a little bit too "Right On". Neil Hannon does give it a right bit of wellie vocally, however. For which he really can't be faulted.
The rest are in a truly original style with drive and power. "Thrillseeker" is Suede-eqsue, yet pre-Suede and much better with great twangy, low guitars and lots of energy. "Sweden" is just completely quirky and lends itself to heavy metal style renditions when played live. "Eric The Gardener" is almost in a minimalist style, but an interesting one with lyrics telling the story of some archaeological find of Roman artefacts by a gardener. This may sound a dull description, but it is charmingly done and lightly funny.
Skipping through to "Here Comes The Flood"; this is an operatic/musical show finale. It is orchestral and modern apocalyptic end of the world with a talky bit from Dexter Fletcher (with a dodgy American accent) about the "Race to end all races".
Great stuff. Very varied, well arranged and well performed. I love it. This, plus "A Short Album About Love" are a good introduction to The Divine Comedy.
on 9 April 2005
Fin De Siécle was something of a late break-through for The Divine Comedy, with the hit single National Express building on the sound of previous singles like Something for the Weekend, Becoming More Like Alfie and Everybody Knows (Except You), whilst simultaneously demonstrating Neil Hannon's creative growth as a serious, contemporary songwriter. Previous records had seen Hannon refining his craft, moving away from the psychedelic indie-pop mish-mash of his first album, Liberation, to attempt a series of minor song cycles like A Short Album About Love, Casanova and the modern masterpiece, Promenade. It's only natural then, that Fin de Siécle should take elements from all of these albums and effectively move forward, as Hannon incorporates the 60's rock influence of Liberation, the literary inflections of Promenade, the bombast of Casanova and the orchestral pop of A Short Album, to create a piece of work that should be listed amongst the very best British pop records of all time.
Things get off to a stunning start with opening single Generation Sex, in which Hannon takes sound-bites from Jerry Springer and places them alongside a pulsating Nymanesque melody, which is then anchored by bleak lyrics about tabloid hell, princess Dianna, Clinton sex and animal testing. It's a great introduction to both the style and ideology of the album, with Neil essentially interweaving bitter, socially aware cabaret anthems alongside quiet, reflective, heart wrenching ballads. Despite this underlining social edge, Hannon is also able to subvert the feeling and intent of the song through his dry wit and sophisticated approach to melody, which gives the songs a darkly comic undertone to reduce the bleak message behind a number of the lyrics found herein. This is most apparent on songs such as Thrillseeker, Sweden and Here Comes the Flood, which draw on elements of cabaret and musical-style bombast to essentially sugarcoat the strong moral message hidden in the lyrics. The album also offers us a more varied sound, a darker subject matter and a more complex set of arrangements, which seems to work within a carefully constructed concept to present us with a collection of (I suppose) mini-symphonies, that effectively relate the joys of popular culture, on the cusp of a new millennium.
This style of gorgeous pop-melodies, juxtaposed with highly critical and deeply topical lyrics, is, of course, most apparent on the album's big hit single, the aforementioned National Express. Here, we have one of Hannon's greatest moments, complete with 60's style horn arrangements, backing vocals and an anachronistic guitar solo, not to mention that great lyrical exchange "...but it's hard to get buy, when your arse is the size, of a small country", which perfectly sums up the joys of commuter travel. Speaking of which, the idea of daily travel is continued on the beautiful ballad Commuter Love, which paints a picture of loneliness and hopeless romance against a backdrop of rush-hour confusion and technocratic existentialism, which is almost Kafkaesque in it's absurd, evocative recreation. The lyrics are truly heartbreaking, with Hannon hopelessly crooning "she doesn't know I exist, I'm gonn'a keep it like this" as the strings, electric guitars and echoing percussion unite, to create a Phil 'Spector-ish' style wall of sound.
The same could be said about the equally great run of songs that close the album, with Life on Earth employing a militia drum, operatic vocals and a subtle accordion, alongside the great lyric "so, au-revoir joi, bonjour tristesse... good times come and go, life owes nobody happiness, only pain and sorrow", whilst The Certainty of Chance was another doomy, orchestral, pre-millennial-style single, which really deserved to be a bigger hit. After the loud, over-produced, satirical cabaret number, Here Comes the Flood (which features actor Dexter Fletcher as an American sports caster reeling off the failings of the modern-world), the album slows down to embrace the beautiful ballad Sunrise, a stunning piece of pop-sophistication, which finds Hannon reflecting upon his childhood in the troubled Northern Ireland district of Enniskillen. The bleak political overview of the song is overcome by the delicate arrangement, Hannon's Scott Walker-like delivery and the evocation of the most beautiful sunrise we have ever seen.
For me, Fin De Siécle remains a magnificent record, and is one of the highlights of Hannon's career thus far (along with Liberation, Promenade and Absent Friends). The diversity of the music here is rich, and performed to perfection, whilst the lyrics are some of the best you'll ever hear, with Neil ably expressing a number of deep, bleak emotional concerns in a way that never seems cloying, obvious or despairing. With much of the Divine Comedy's early musical back-catalogue out of print, I would say that this 1998 release is as a good a place to start as any.
on 30 July 2004
It pains me to give an album as rich as this a mere three stars, but you have to understand that I am judging it by The Divine Comedy's own high standards. Complaining that an album isn't as brilliant as Casanova or Promenade is akin to complaining that you feel a bit short while standing next to the World's tallest man. But if you live by the pen, you die by the pen. So on with the good, the bad and the diverse...
Generation Sex and Thrillseeker open in the vein of Weekend and Alfie - catchy, rousing pop nuggets with some nice orchestration and a (painfully short) funky key-solo. Enjoyable but not as essential as their Casanova cousins. As should be obvious by the title of the album and the timing of the release, Hannon has put his E.M. Forster away and gazed through the window to the real world for his satirical musings. The Diana hysteria references and general observation of the greedy, dumbed down, instant fix ethos of the late nineties in these first two songs hit the rusty nail right on its vacuous head. The title of Commuter Love is a hint of Neil's fondness for Kraftwerk, a hint that became explicit with one or two fascinating covers. The song is a charming, delightfully observed, unspoken infatuation, drawing on the loneliness of the long distance commuter. Sweden is quirky, driving, operatic, and a little bit scary (it resembles the score to Evil Dead 3 in places). Basically it is a fun, ultimately throwaway, tribute to a nation favoured by Hannon. Eric the Filler, sorry, Gardener is not without his charms, but he is probably the Comedy's weakest moment to date. The whole track lacks any real substance, and the extended instrumental outro is a soulless exercise in music theory; its only useful purpose to augment the welcome for the catchy National Express. Express serves up more contemporary, traveller-centric observation. It is humorous, well written, ear grabbing - but listen to it next to Charge, or A Drinking Song, or Pollen Count. If these songs set the standard for high-spirited, comical lyrical shenanigans, National Express can only be described as slightly weak. The reference to an arse the "size of a small country" signals a depressing but growing reliance on clichés that begins to crop up in Hannon's output.
Until now we've had some highs and lows, and the good news is that the best is yet to come with a truly memorable suite of four songs. Life on Earth is a delicate creature. As warm and calming as David Attenborough's dulcet tones, it gently implores us to keep our feet on the ground. Certainty of Chance again disappoints lyrically, but is saved by an inspired drum track and a sweet final verse. The sweeping, cinematic score into which Chance dissolves, complete with Neil's morbid ruminations, is a masterstroke that segues perfectly into the atmospheric big band, Lloyd-Webber-esque prediction of man's spiral towards Biblical extinction. After the flood, comes the Sunrise. A deeply personal, bitter but optimistic piece that indicates that society, even after enduring a forty-five minute lyrical kicking, may hold out some hope after all, with the end of the troubled twentieth century and the dawn of the new millennium.
Three stars by Hannon's standards mean this album is well worth owning. Casual pop fan or dedicated Comedyhead, come one come all.