There are five artists working (and relevant) today who are capable of the serio-comic heights reached by the great Scott Walker: Scottish ex-pat and culture critic Nick Currie (aka Momus), Jarvis Cocker, Stephin Merritt, the Auteur's Luke Haines, and Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon. Hannon's ninth proper album under the Divine Comedy moniker, Victory for the Comic Muses offers us (the lucky, lucky listeners) a fine, unabashed paen to absurdist sentimentalism. And to my thinking, in a pop millieu clouded over by fake gravitas and angsty posing, we need our fops now more than ever.
Album opener "To Die a Virgin" sets the tone straight away: tinkling bells, ABBA-esque string stabs, and an insistent piano figure explode into an orchestral arrangement that wouldn't be out of place on one of Harry Nilsson's under-listened mid-1970s records (Oh, and there's a mid-1980s Saturday Night Live Band-styled sax solo, to boot!). The lyrics are classic Hannon, a lightly-told confession of virginal terror and a desperate plea for relief. The album clips along at a cracking pace with tearjerk "Mother Dear," whose banjo and ukelele are met in grand style by understated strings and rollicking percussion.
The record clips along, along, along, a taught limmerick of orchestral flourishes and stylistic experiments (why, "Party Fears Two" could be on Scott Walker III, but "A Lady of a Certain Age" is totally Scott Walker I!). Despite the perfection in balance and arrangement of the preceding tracks, the album doesn't crack open until fourth-to-last track "Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World," whose brilliant lyrics conflate the utterly inscrutable world of Arthur C. Clarke's classic educational program with the utterly inscrutable nature of the narrator's girlfriend. The tune and rhythm are sideshow Jimmy Buffett: relaxed island swagger through the bottom of a pint glass, at a cirus. But to save record-critic face, I will defer to deep album cuts on Nilsson's Sandman or Duit on Mon Dei albums for the closest paralells to this remarkable song's sound.
Closer "Snowball in Negative" sounds eerily like a Danny Elfman song for one of Tim Burton's claymation pictures: gentle strings, whimsical descending-bassline chord progression leading to an accordion-laced chorus, melancholy lyrics and all. The whole affair ends with dramatic strings piercing the ear drums, and the fine denoument of a single piano key hit (one would assume) with passionate satisfaction in a job well done.
It's fair to say that most "indie" listeners will find Hannon's style and sensibility a bit too, well, fey for their liking. In a year that has seen Built to Spill and Mission to Burma release new records, and has heralded the increasing popularity of noise bands like the appropriately named Ape Shit, the tender melodies and cheeky musings of the Hannons of the pop world must seem pretty irrelevant.
But if you'd like, and if you have the time, I encourage you to give up the seriousness and luxuriate in the lush, strange world Hannon and his ilk have created. It's awful nice. And they have tea. Or so I hear.
-- Robert Rabiee
Release Date: June 16, 2006
The Divine Comedy Website