on 3 July 2004
(This text refers to the double-box-set, 2 CD singles-version of The Frog Princess, released in November 1996, by Setanta records).
With seven tracks, three of which represent the very best of the Divine Comedy, one wonders why this great mini-collection limped out as a single when it really should have been promoted as a bona-fide E.P...? These days, a single usually comprises of the song in question, backed by a few remixes and the odd b-side... so, not only is this great value for money if you can get your hands on a copy, but it's also a real relic, coming from a time when a single was seen as an ambassador for the album and not as a fly-by-night cash in on some recent trend or phase *cough* Pop Idol *cough* Euro 2004!
The Frog Princess came from The Divine Comedy's breakthrough album Casanova, which saw principal member Neil Hannon finally establish some sort of touring band (comprising, at this stage, of pianist and saxophonist Joby Talbot, bassist Bryan Mills, guitarist Jools Pais and conductor Max Lane) whilst also enlisting, for the first time, a 30-odd piece orchestra, to realise his vision of a record that both continued what he'd set out to do with his first two classics Liberation & Promenade, as well as wearing out his already defined obsessions with Scott Walker, Jacques Brel and Noel Coward. The album also represented the first time that Neil willingly aloud singles to be pulled from a record, resulting in tracks like Becoming More Like Alfie and Something For the Weekend getting a lot of air play from people like Chris Evans, and even saw Hannon briefly elevated to the same ranks of Britpop artists like Blur and Pulp.
So, whereas the first two singles demonstrated The Divine Comedy's new direction, with Casanova taking on bombastic swaggering cabaret aspirations and a sound that alluded to concept rock, The Frog Princess was instead, a throwback to the gentle, gorgeous ballads that featured on those first two landmarks. It's all the better for it if you ask me, highlighting Hannon's intricacies and sterling wit as a lyricist, whilst his vocals are far superior to the troika of crooners noted above; with Neil managing to subvert the meaning of the song through the range of emotion that pours forth from his delivery. The song is, unsurprisingly, about the encounter between a fictitious French socialite and the titular Casanova who labours under the allusion that he doesn't need love from the girl, and instead, is willing to continue with a relationship based solely on sex. Hannon uses the framework of the song to tell the story from both character's respective perspectives, shifting the chorus between each of them, whilst anchoring a different meaning to the words each time they appear. By the final reprise of the chorus, Hannon makes it clear that the Casanova does in fact want something else, with Neil crooning with abandon, "you don't really love me and I don't really mind, 'cause I don't love anybody... that stuff is just a waste of time", but, unlike the choruses that came before, he's quick to pose the question "you don't really love me... now do you?", making the ironic underpinning of the song perfectly clear.
The piece is certainly one of Hannon's very-best compositions; lyrically intelligent a buzzing with a great musical background which features whistling solos between the bridge and a tuba playing the French national anthem throughout. It is, without question, enough to justify the purchase of this short collection alone, but by god there's more... Both Motorway to Damascus and Woman of the World stem from this same era (Woman of the World is the follow-on track from Frog Princess on Casanova) and both feature a great 60's sound (whilst also proving Hannon to be one of the greatest lyricists to emerge during the last decade). Meanwhile, Something Before the Weekend is a nice throwaway, and a demo version of Casanova's opening cut, whilst Neptune's Daughter (another demo) stems from Hannon's career peak, 1994's Promenade (possibly the best album in the world!), but still... there's more.
This collection is of real interest as it features two of Neil's very favourite songs ever recorded, with Lucy from 1993's debut-proper Liberation and Tonight We Fly from the abovementioned Promenade showing us a Divine Comedy that is worlds away from the swaggering pantomime of hits like Something for the Weekend and the National Express, and reflect a time when Hannon created joyous music that took the listener to a world in which innocence and romanticism triumphed over the pressures and adversities of the modern world. Lucy is by far the most audacious thing on this collection and represented the high-point of the record it came from, with Hannon layering an intoxicating guitar melody that brings to mind such disparate inspirations as the Cocteau Twins, the Durutti Column and the sound that Radiohead would later pioneer with their break for mass-appeal The Bends... so far so-so, you might think, until you realise that the lyrics are by William Wordsworth!
Tonight We Fly on the other-hand is a great way to close the collection, just as it was a great way to close the album from which it came... with Neil taking his Michael Nyman fixation to new heights, as a string-quartet plays over a furious piano melody whilst Hannon takes flight with the one he loves, "over the mountains, the beach and the seas, over the friends that we've known and those that we now know and those that we've yet to meet...". It is possibly the most heartfelt moment from any piece of music from the early-to-mid-nineties, a time when ecstasy, and later, tabloid-thugary, would take centre stage over wit and imagination. What a shame.