This was the album that introduced me to the wonderfully rich world of The Divine Comedy in 1996, after hearing “The Frog Princess” on the radio. At first I thought it was Vic Reeves!
On hearing the song again it became clear to me that, although lyrically witty, it was far from the novelty record I had initially assumed it to be, and I thereby narrowly avoided the trap many people have fallen into where The Divine Comedy are concerned (although I’m sure they didn’t mistake them for Vic Reeves). Thankfully I was curious enough to find out more, and I’m so glad I did. From that point on, “Casanova” was my Walkman listening choice on the 444 bus journey between Wakefield and Bretton Hall, where I was studying at the time.
I also invested in the back catalogue - “Liberation” and “Promenade” - so I could experience Neil Hannon’s legacy in full, as well as trace the development of his music from the beginning. From that point of view, it’s an interesting journey to “Casanova”.
Apparently Hannon’s record company at the time, Setanta, funded the recording of “Casanova” with the money they had made from the release of “A Girl Like You” by Edwyn Collins, which probably explains the larger orchestral presence on the album than the recording budgets for the previous two albums could accommodate. This in turn would provide Hannon with the means to realise in full the grandiose vision he clearly had in mind.
And he really pulls it off in style. The influences always mentioned in the same breath as Hannon - Scott Walker, Jacques Brel, Noel Coward, perhaps even a touch of ELO - are very present indeed. It’s not a concept album as such, but it does have a constant theme running through it - that of casual sex and its effect on those who indulge but ultimately yearn for something more substantial - inspired by Hannon’s own experiences following his first flushes of pop success. “Becoming More Like Alfie” is the most blatant example, where Hannon likens himself to Michael Caine’s signature film character: “Now I’m resigned/to the kind of life I’d reserved/for other guys less smart than I/you know, the guys who will always end up with the girls,” he croons regretfully.
Hannon’s vibrant lyrical whimsy is hugely articulate, painting colourful pictures throughout of, amongst other things, sexual blackmail and robbery (“Something For The Weekend”), the sexual experience described like a military encounter (the superbly fruity innuendo-laden “Charge”) and sexual angst (“Through A Long And Sleepless Night”). In short, it is a very sexual album indeed.
It sounds rather like a soundtrack to an imaginary musical, and in this context it does contain one or two real show-stoppers, “A Woman Of The World” being the most prominent example, as it contains a wonderful and unexpected swing towards the end. I can almost see the top hat and tails glitzy Hollywood-style dance routine every time I hear it.
This is the album on which Joby Talbot, Hannon’s right hand man, really comes into his own as an arranger. Hannon is wise to defer to Talbot in this area, as the results are spectacular. There are so many examples of his ability to be subtle and restrained or bombastic and grandiloquent in equal measures throughout the album. I’ll not list them here, just buy the album and hear for yourself. I promise you won’t regret it.
This is an album rich in diversity, bathed in a lush orchestral glow. As ever, Hannon’s astounding bass/baritone voice booms with utter clarity. No problems wondering what that lyric was or whether you heard right will present themselves here. This is a superb album, filled with all the style, beauty, romance and decadence you could possibly fit on one disc. It epitomises Hannon’s raffish bounder persona, with which he was toying at the time, before he wisely decided to leave it behind and tread pastures new. For maximum effect, listen to this album in a creaky old oak panelled room in front of a roaring log fire, as you languish in a huge leather armchair with a nice bottle of vintage port and a couple of nubile, willing female companions. I’ve yet to try that…