Absent Friends CD
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With Absent Friends the Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon finally establishes himself as one of the finest songwriters of a generation. Over successive albums he's slowly been moving in that direction--from curious pop novelty with an avid interest in camp kitsch to the sly storyteller of 2001's brilliant Regeneration. But Absent Friends is something else. He's still revelling in his supremely eccentric perspective--namely that of a 60s dandy who likes a drink--but now he's using it for dramatic not comedic effect. Quirky ditties "Come Home Billy Bird" and "My Imaginary Friend", respectively about a businessman trying to get home for his son's football match and invisible childhood playmates, manage to be both sweet and poignant. At the other end of the emotional scale, "The Wreck of the Beautiful", "Leaving Today" and "Our Mutual Friend" ponder love, loss and betrayal with a panache and dry wit that make the melancholy all the more staggering. And with sinister sweeping orchestras and eerie lounge--all Michael Caine in a sharp suit--echoing throughout, Absent Friends is a vintage masterpiece in every sense of the word. --Dan Gennoe
After three long years in the musical wilderness, the UK's favourite fop idol is back. Divine Comedy frontman Neil Hannon may have managed to lose his band along the way, but fortunately his touch for writing poignant pop songs has not deserted him.
After calling it a day in 2001, Hannon moved to Dublin, had a kid, cut his hair and decided to give it another shot, albeit without the rest of his merry men - Absent Friends, if you like.
The vocals remain as warm as a pair of trusty old slippers and the lyrics as sharp as a needle, although by the end of this record you'll feel the need for a stiff gin and tonic to give you a lift.
The title track could be the theme from High Chaparral that got left on the cutting room floor and features namechecks to Oscar Wilde, Steve McQueen and Willie Woodbine (whoever he is).
"Sticks And Stones", with its tense, stabbing strings is another song straight out of the movies - while "Charmed Life" is an epic string ballad that could have been written for Sinatra.
Essentially, Absent Friends is the soundtrack of a man who's never been happier, yet is keen to remember the bad times to put things in perspective. New single "Come Home Billy Bird" - with gorgeous backing vocals from Lauren Laverne - is the tale of an over-worked businessman who overcomes a series of obstacles to make his boy's first football match.
"The Wreck Of The Beautiful" follows the haunting last rites of a once-great battleship and "Our Mutual Friend" recalls the pal who introduced Hannon to a woman, then took her for himself. The cad. Light relief comes in the shape of "My Imaginary Friend" - Bowie's "Laughing Gnome" dragged into the 21st century - but the laughs are generally few and far between.
Anyone expecting a return ticket for the National Express is going to be disappointed. Persevere, though, and you'll find it's the smoothest ride you've had in ages. --Chris Charles
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Top customer reviews
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.
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.
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)
The links (likes and influences) between Hannon and (early period) Scott Walker are very apparent here, whether it be via the orchestral arrangement on the vibrant title song opener (in which both humans – Jean Seberg, Steve McQueen, Oscar Wilde – and animals – space-dog Laika – are name-checked) or the uncanny vocal similarity on a song like Leaving Today. Elsewhere, the pop appeal of the likes of Come Home Billy Bird (an outpouring from the perspective of a stressed international businessman) and the nicely ironic The Happy Goth is irresistible, whilst the lyrical irony of Sticks And Stones – suggesting that (music critics’) words can hurt as much as actions – is worthy of Morrissey. Equally, though, the more laid-back, melancholic tunes – such as The Wreck Of The Beautiful and Freedom Road – increasingly resonate, whilst album closer, Charmed Life, emerges from the preceding heartache to provide a reflectively optimistic conclusion. But, for me, the album’s undoubted pièce de résistance is (for me) the sweeping epic, Our Mutual Friend, a sublimely melodic and dynamic song of unrequited love, mixing the everyday (pubs, nightclubs, 45s) with the more profound and whose orchestral arrangement is reminiscent of the other major Hannon influencer (here and elsewhere), Michael Nyman.
Thus, Hannon’s music here calls to mind, at various points, many references – Walker, Nyman, Belle & Sebastian, Black Box Recorder (guest Lauren Laverne sounding like Sarah Nixey on Come Home Billy Bird), John Cale (Paris 1919 era), stage musical productions and more – but, in the end, it is undeniably Hannon and a great example of a timeless pop classic.
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