Victory for the Comic Muse Label: Parlophone
Meet Neil Hannon, who works under the moniker Divine Comedy. He’s a soft-spoken Irish bloke with a booming baritone, and he sets most of his compositions to an orchestra. This man, as you can imagine, will never, ever get a hit single in the US. His songs don’t rock hard enough for alternative radio (though that doesn’t seem to be a problem for Keane), while adult alternative radio and lite rock stations aren’t adventurous enough to play him. But no one will acknowledge that our radio formats are the reason for his lack of success on this side of the pond. Instead, they will simply say that the band’s sound is too British, which is laughable since, as I mentioned before, he’s Irish. Score one bitter, bitter point for Anglophobia.
One wonders if things would have been different had he kept writing the REM-style jangle pop that littered their 1990 debut, Fanfare for the Comic Muse. Well, of course they would have been different, but would they have been different in a good way? Given the manner in which REM completely flamed out right around the time that the reborn Divine Comedy rose to stardom in the UK, perhaps it was good that Hannon didn’t hitch his trailer to REM’s popularity, even if that meant losing the American market. Sure, only a handful of people will look up their latest album, Victory for the Comic Muse (get it, huh? That Hannon, what a kidder). But those who do will be quite pleased, if not quite as pleased as they were after hearing the band’s 2004 near-classic Absent Friends.
The album opens with the instant classic “To Die a Virgin,” arguably Hannon’s sauciest and perkiest song to date. Sung from the view of a horny teenager – with some hilarious dialogue from the WWII-based show “The Camomile Lawn” thrown in for good measure – “Virgin” is Hannon’s best bet yet at a Stateside hit, though if American radio is indeed as chicken as the BBC (Hannon recently told me the first line of dialogue in the song had to be pulled because it mentioned war. The sexual innuendo, however, was perfectly okay), then maybe not. Pity if that’s the case, because the song is a ton of fun. The second best shot the album has is with “Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World,” which may seem an odd title for a jangly pop song about a girl, but it makes perfect sense after Hannon sets it up. “Well, if ITV makes a new series, they ought to come take a look at my girl / I don’t understand her, she doesn’t make any sense to me / I don’t understand her, it’s like she’s speaking in Swahili.” It’s Victory’s second-finest moment.
So why, then, is he releasing the depressing, and long, “A Lady of a Certain Age” as the album’s third single in the UK? Along with pulling a Paul McCartney in the line “in the style to which you had all of your life been accustomed to,” the song spends nearly six minutes in the same gear, saying little more than, “Look at the sad, sad woman.” Um, no, rather not, thanks. “The Plough” covers similar terrain, though its tale, about how a man with good intentions can be easily convinced to commit evil deeds, reads better that it sounds. Musically, it’s akin to the magnificent Absent Friends track “Our Mutual Friend,” and therefore suffers in that song’s shadow.
It’s always a shock to the system when a songwriter finally lets you see them in a more personal way, then puts the wall back up on their next release and shuts you out completely (see: U2, Achtung Baby and Zooropa). Hannon himself has said that Absent Friends was acutely self-aware, and he was clearly trying to do the opposite on Victory for the Comic Muse. And, for better and for worse, he succeeded.