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Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
Divine Comedy’s mainman Neil Hannon has always impressed me as a near-genius songwriter, always ready with couplets that most of today’s wannabe serious songwriters would die for and a social and cultural awareness of intelligent astuteness. But it was the quirkiness, that Noel Coward spirit and those baroque, over the top strings, that hooked me. With titles and subject ideas like "National Express," "The Pop Singer’s Fear of the Pollen Count," "The Frog Princess" it all just, more often than not, slides over the boundary between clever quirkiness and just sheer weirdness.
Regeneration is just that. A born-again Hannon following the Biblical idea of putting off the old self and putting on a radical, joyous new self. All the talk about Regeneration has centered around the production chair of Nigel Godrich, fresh from his reputation-building work with Radiohead. It would be wrong, through, to see Hannon as just a bench replacement for Thom Yorke (although, vocally, there is that same tension between nihilistic yearning and the tender beauty. Then again, perhaps it’s the music more than Hannon’s voice that tends towards tender beauty!) Little brushes and dabs and artistic musical ingenuity is the order of the day here.
Much of Regeneration is beautiful. From the off, "Timestretched" leads us into acoustic picking that introduces an almost "Eleanor Rigby"-type melody in a lovely laid-back mood that provides Hannon's poetry with its most satisfying backdrop to date. As original as ever and still quirky, humorous and deep, the lyrics here stay well on the safe side of weird, though for the Comedy this is a risky step into more competitive territory. "Bad Ambassador" again throws echoes of mid-period Beatles, and "Perfect Lovesong" is probably the bridge between the first phase of the band which was given a full stop with 1999’s best-of collection . "Lost Property" echoes McCartney’s "Junk" and Tom Waits’ "Soldier’s Things," though no one else could ever list “gym kits and trainers/Asthma Inhalers” with this kind of success.
Elsewhere "Mastermind" is just that, its acoustic strum and minimalism again proving a resounding success in brushing the right feel and mood and creating quite possibly the Fermanagh man’s most lusciously gorgeous song. Regeneration gets closest to Radiohead with its shades and shifts, its stop-start mood and electric guitar swishes and swirls. There are the odd moments when the wordiness of his poetry seems to sit uncomfortably with this more disciplined musical terrain, as in the closer, "The Beauty Regime," but even it rises above its problems, as we began with the most pleasant of sounds.
When it comes to content, Hannon is always on the cutting edge of the dilemmas and questions of the modern world. There is a longing for the meaning of this whole big cosmic drama in which we walk around. "On Note to Self " he is constantly redefining his assumptions, questioning life after death ("Monday, restate my assumptions/Heaven and hell do not exist/Tuesday, restate my assumptions/If you die you do so at your own risk"), whether we need our individuality or the interaction of others to find our place ("Friday, restate my assumptions/The writer writes for himself not for you/Saturday, restate my assumptions/A song is not a song until it’s listened to") and what beauty is and whether truth is more important ("Wednesday, restate my assumptions/Beauty is not the same thing as youth/Thursday, restate my assumptions/Only one thing beautiful that’s the truth") - a constant theme of Hannon’s. "Note to Self" finishes with the album's most volatile and heaviest dose of angst when he throws out all kinds of words needing parental supervision -- “what the **** is happening?” Freedom is well searched for, too (You do not need a law degree/To set your mind and spirit free) as well as some sense of self worth and blessed assurance that he isn’t mad and that there are people out there who listen and “feel the same as me”. There is also awareness that his songs are not any answer in themselves and that he is actually a "Bad Ambassador" in bringing about all that he longs for.
What most intrigues me is the sense of some transcendence to more than one of the songs. Mr. Hannon’s father is a bishop in the Church of Ireland, and I had the pleasure of having lunch with him a few years ago. With our difference in denomination and age we found some kind of common ground in the discussion of all things Divine and Comic. The Bishop told me that Neil was a self-confessed atheist but in the conversations they had on such matters he had tried to assure his pop star son that he sounded much more like “the agnostic that all of us are at some time or another.” If anything, Regeneration proves the Bishop’s perception. There is much probing of all things religious and there is the Church-bothering song "Eye of the Needle" which might be the great sermon his father hasn’t yet preached- “The cars in the Churchyard are shiny and German/Distinctly at odds with the theme of the sermon.” Insightful, true and in need of some listening within the gates of Christendom.
I wonder too if his warning “But don’t lean too long on your crutches or you ’ll fall straight into the clutches of those who see free expression as a threat” is from some scar he picked up in his Church background and has brought with him into the wider world. Some within the Church may be a little bit disturbed by his free expression here, but maybe we need to be disturbed--and if we do, whether inside or outside Christianity, this album has much food for thought and a wonderful musical backdrop to find space to do some thinking.
Neil Hannon has grown up. From the boy in the pop playground who hid his insecurities behind his comic quips to get noticed, he now takes his place in that ever growing band of Irishmen and women who are as good as it gets in the world of modern music.
Steve Stockman 4/14/2001