Review Summary: Neil Hannon ditches his bandmates (and the better part of his wit), but maintains the Divine Comedy's patented brand of operatic chamber pop with 2004's Absent Friends.
Reeling from the dissolution of the Divine Comedy in 2001, lead vocalist Neil Hannon reassumed the moniker as a solo artist for his appropriately titled 2004 release, Absent Friends
. To an uninformed listener, not much has changed - the record evinces literate, pseudo-operatic chamber pop that recalls Sinatra as much as it does an Andrew Lloyd Webber production. Even more so, Hannon bridges the gap between Morrissey and Jarvis Cocker. Less airy than previous Divine Comedy releases, Absent Friends
is mature, but alternates the pretenseful satisfaction demonstrated in "Charmed Life" with soaringly bitter efforts like "Our Mutual Friend" and "Sticks & Stones".
Through the Divine Comedy's most successful period in the mid 90s, a time long since past, Neil Hannon's lyrical wit earned reasonable praise. Though few and far between, the barbs present on Absent Friends
are fit to maintain Hannon's reputation. "you and I go together like the molar and the drill
", he muses on "Sticks & Stones". "She wears Dr. Martens and a heavy cross, but on the inside she's a happy goth
", Hannon croons on the oxymoronic "Happy Goth". "Absent Friends" woefully namechecks Steve McQueen and Jean Seberg, and while not expressly comedic, the song does
unforseeably namecheck Woodbine Willie.
However, unlike on past releases, here far too many lyrics bathe in cliches, (such as "I've snatched all my victories from the jaws of defeat
" from "Charmed Life") or are conversational without the rewarding aspect of believability, namely "Our Mutual Friend", which reads like a clumsy diary entry of a one-night stand gone wrong, but is saved by a lush musical backdrop. While the juvenile nature of some of Hannon's lyrics clash with the mature soundscape of the album (take "Come Home Billy Bird"'s "He hails a cab but the driver sucks, he drives too slow and he talks too much
Hannon is an Irishman singing songs, with an English accent, about an American truck driver ("Freedom Road", or a businessman missing a son's high school football game ("Come Home Billy Bird"). The musical presentation is captivating, but the lyrics ring hollow excepting the instances Hannon is being deliberately, or at least believably, autobiographical. Still, Hannon saves face by rhyming "mobile library" with "peripatetically" on "My Imaginary Friend". That takes balls or an expansive rhyme dictionary; regardless it is too absurdly remarkable to bypass mention.
But if Absent Friends
is a disappointment lyrically, it at a minimum equals the music presented on past Divine Comedy efforts. At times whimsical and reflective, cynical and guileless, boastful and muted, the music and Hannon's soaring vocal melodies channel far more emotion than his lyrics seem capable. Take the simplistic tranquility of "Freedom Road", the jaunty bounce of "My Imaginary Friend", the retro dapperness of "Happy Goth" or the ominous thump of "Our Mutual Friend", the album's opus. "Leaving Today" and "Wreck of the Beautiful" border on the morose, while "Laika's Theme" approximates a baroque instrumental. The music is varied, never too dour but never buoyant to the point of vapidity. Hannon sings with a operatic confidence, but somehow relays a tempered vulnerability.
While Hannon does not carry with him the lyrical acumen he established on landmark Divine Comedy releases like Casanova
, musically he makes a seamless transition between his band's past work and his own solo direction. Songs like "Sticks & Stones", "Freedom Road" and "Happy Goth" are equivalent to some of the best work from Hannon's past, and "Our Mutual Friend" holds merit to being the best of the Divine Comedy catalogue.