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Out With The Old...,
This review is from: Regeneration (Audio CD)
This album seems to be something of a curate's egg for some fans of Neil Hannon's previous work. Gone are the sweeping orchestral backdrops, big production and sardonic lyrical wit, to be replaced by more sparse arrangements and a decidedly more cynical outlook. It puzzles me that some people view this change of direction as a concession to a more commercial sound required by a major record label (or selling out), or a contrived attempt to emulate the likes of Radiohead (hiring Nigel Godrich as producer), or the token duff album every band produces once in a while.
What nonsense. This album finds Hannon in a more introspective and musicianly frame of mind; contributing guitar on every track this time around and giving the band more of a look-in. Hence the stripped-down, band-orientated sound. Surely if you're a musician, or any creative type for that matter, you are constantly looking for fresh angles from which to create; new perspectives in which to present your work. Hannon could easily have continued his trademark foppish suit-and-tie orchestral whimsy and probably become a huge star, but he has the wisdom to leave it before it becomes boring and predictable and tread a new path.
This is very much evident with album-opener "Timestretched", a muted, downbeat song in stark contrast to the big opening numbers of previous albums. Straight away you know that this is not The Divine Comedy of old. "Bad Ambassador" unleashes a bit more bombast and reassures the listener that Hannon has not abandoned the violins altogether. The only song remotely approaching familiar territory is the lovely "Perfect Love Song", before the entirely unfamiliar crops up in the dark, edgy, guitar-driven "Note To Self".
From here on in, the tone is distinctly cynical - disillusioned, despairing, angry, world-weary, all hung together by a tentative thread of slight optimism - but certainly never contrived. Hannon's bemusement at the ridiculousness of many aspects of modern life appears to be the main theme - he takes swipes at religion, vanity and celebrity culture, amongst other things. Sure, it takes a bit of getting used to if you were expecting Hannon's social observations to follow previous examples ("Generation Sex", for instance), but one gets the feeling that Nigel Godrich's remit was to reign in Hannon's usual predilections. So, where you might normally expect a grandiose orchestral setting for Hannon's melancholy reflections, there is a pared-right-down arrangement with an acoustic guitar being gently strummed in the background. What was once lush and flamboyant becomes bleak and austere.
As the album title suggests, this is the work of a man tired of his old image (and possibly the public perception of his work, perhaps done no favours by "National Express" being the hit it was), and eager to tread pastures new. The lyrics, while perhaps more edgy in places than previous offerings, are no less articulate (or witty) for it, and Hannon's heart is still very much on his sleeve. This is an album strong on tunes and thought-provoking lyrics, and it would be a foolish DC fan indeed who dismisses it just because it sounds different. If you want violins and bassoons and songs about European cinema, there is a wealth of wonderful material in Hannon's back catalogue for you to explore. Hannon has moved on, and continues to do so - since the release of this album he has disbanded the seven-piece incarnation of The Divine Comedy to go it alone. One wonders what this latest change in format will bring. Having seen Hannon showcase some new songs (with a string quartet) at the Royal Festival Hall at last year's Meltdown Festival, I am optimistic.
This album represents the first step in a new direction for The Divine Comedy, and all praise to Neil Hannon for striving to break new ground rather than produce more of the same. Pay no heed to those disgruntled fans spouting all manner of twaddle about Hannon "trying to be an indie kid" and other such drivel, and appreciate a fine album of intelligent, well-crafted and articulate music. Then perhaps delve into his previous work and see what you have been missing.