Review Summary: Neil hannons second album as The Divine Comedy takes us through a day in the life of two lovers with a lyrical mastery that will leave you both in awe and reaching for your encyclopedia.
Now, concept albums are rarely a cracking idea, so one should approach a record that seeks to ape the structure of James Joyces' classic (and difficult) Ulysses with caution bordering on terror. (Mind you; he could have tried to do "The Naked Lunch", so we should probably thank the Lord for his mercy). Hannon seeks to take us through a day in the life of a man and woman, who may (actually, probably do) or may not start off as lovers. Musically, he is more confident than on Liberation, which occasionally flavoured/diluted the chamber pop with more conventional synth outings. Here, it's nothing but drum, bass, acoustic guitar, string quartet, piano and reeds (the latter supplied by a man who would massively shape the next few DC albums; Joby Talbot).
The most glaring outside influence on the record is the composer Michael Nyman; an influence so laughably blatant that Hannon sent him a copy with a jokey note requesting that he didn't sue. (Presumably with some success; they ended up collaborating). Nyman's classical chamber music was best known at the time as the soundtrack to several visually ravishing but fundamentally unwatchable Peter Greenaway films, as well as the score to Jane Campion's "The Piano". And it's on that instrument that Nyman's style is most easily identified; minimalism. His compositions are usually highly accessible, containing ideas so "obvious" that it's astonishing they're original at all. (That's meant as a compliment, in case you were wondering). Hannon proceeds to bolt these trappings to his own lyrical flights of fancy; the result is an absolute classic for anyone who's ever imagined themselves wandering around La Sorbonne smoking a Gauloise with their long scarf flapping in the breeze.
So, let's Promenade, shall we?
1) Bath - A crashing wave, a quote from a psalm, then Hannon plays the Nyman card. Very minimalist piano to start, a string quartet is gradually introduced, and reeds. All of this meanders for over two minutes.... and then, in his arch fashion, Hannon sings about a girl taking a bath first thing in the morning. The lyrical stall is set out here too; we're going a place marked "literary". Get that thesaurus ready.
2) Going Downhill Fast - .....while across town, we come to a bloke on a bike in a happy mood. He's backed predominantly by a slightly more urgent, but still minimalist piano, the same string quartet, a tambourine and a discreet acoustic guitar. He's nervous but nicely so; presumably about to meet the lady from "Bath". As in the song, not the place near Bristol. It's all VERY Noel Coward, so it was no surprise to hear Hannon covering "I've Been To A Marvellous Party" a few years later. I like songs where certain phrases stick; such as "the bottom is hard when compared to the top", which always comes to me when faced with a the risk of going "splat" in the mountains.
3) The Booklovers - "This book deals with epiphenomenalism, which has to do with consciousness as a mere accessory of physiological processes whose presence or absence... makes no difference... whatever are you doing?"
Sampled dialogue from Audrey Hepburn in "Funny Face" leads into what may strike some as a desperately pretentious six-minute post-modern joke, as, with slightly Edwardian baroque backing, Neil Hannon reads a list of 73 (I think) authors, with a comment/joke for each. Some of the jokes are supremely clever (Anne Brontë's is "Hellooo" in a very masculine voice), some of them are incredibly childish (Iain Banks has "too orangey for crows" in a voice straight out of the Kia-Ora advert). All is bound together with a quite poignant little chorus cribbed from a Horace poem. Hated by some, loved by me.
4) A Seafood Song - It has to be said; if you like words, you will love this record. Having first referenced "When The Boat Comes In", finally, our boy and girl meet for lunch. This involves a lot of words, and a lot of seafood, and an invigorating chamber backing. First our protagonists each take a verse to toast the world's fishermen, and then proceed to sample a platter of oceanic produce that would have fed Robinson Crusoe and Man Friday for years.
5) Geronimo - Outside, it's raining, and our protagonists beat a hasty retreat to "a place he knows". Quite an urgent piano song, as the frisson between the couple briefly threatens to truncate an album into an EP. But the tale must remain chaste for now, and the ditty is soon over.
6) Don't Look Down - Our couple are now off to the fairground, and in another deeply Nyman-esque tune (minimalist piano, baroque strings, reed flourishes, you know the drill), it's the man who doesn't want to get on the big wheel. Ahh, for the good old days when men were men and pansies were flowers. But like a bloke who goes to see Legally Blonde 2 just to impress the lady he's with, he eventually succumbs. To the big wheel anyway; any fleshier succumbing will have to wait a bit. This is a lyrically splendid song, even by the standards of a generally lyrically splendid album; the first half resolves itself with the great payoff:
"The couple in the car above
I suppose they think
That we're in love
I think they might be right"
The finale is a dazzling piece of wordsmithery, as time stands still at the top of the wheel, and the man feels the need to have a conversation with god. Out pours a startling atheist diatribe, all the most brazen when it's written by the son of a Protestant bishop.
7) When The Lights Go Out All Over Europe - Despite employing the usual instrumentation, this is one of the more "conventional" songs on the record. Our couple are now at the cinema, and luckily for him, she's not the sort who makes a man go and watch Legally Blonde 2. So, in my opinion he should start making an effort. An ode to French films, incredibly pretty, written more from a standpoint of "I really liked A Bout De Souffle" than "blimey; the first five minutes of Betty Blue were alright!", and illuminated with samples from the genre.
8) The Summerhouse - I'll come clean right now; I decided to review this album just because I wanted to emphasise the colossal genius of this song. Don't get me wrong; the rest is quite special too, but this one? Out of the ground. Our pairing have adjourned somewhere else, and are reminiscing. We discover that they must have known each other since they were children, as it is childhood to which they hark back. And with a deeply elegiac mood and stately pace, Hannon proceeds (whisper it) to reduce this listener almost to tears. Don't you DARE tell anyone. Especially when he goes "it's kinda weird to be back here again", it's shot full of as much meaning and personal resonance as you care to give it. It's also quite fabulously sung and features the sort of cor anglais solo that melts everything it touches, like a far more desirable form of weapons-grade plutonium. But then I am a sucker for a nice cor anglais solo.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n7xnfcpYRnE (a live rendition. Turn the bloody cor anglais up!)
9) Neptune's Daughter - Our protagonists have now had dinner, and she is playing Schubert in the drawing room. I bet she's never even heard of Legally Blonde 2, never mind seen it. Blimey, if there's an orderly queue, I'm there. Anyway, once again we are concerned with the sea, and she wanders outside, trips down the beach and into the water. This is accompanied by the most classical of backdrops on the record, suboceanic piano and string quartet, and if Hannon was trying to ape a Schubert piano quintet, he's done a decent job; that's the kind of smart-arsery I most heartily approve of. It swells into a crescendo as the man wades into the sea and carries her back to shore; Maybe a bit Mills and Boon rather than E M Forster.
10) A Drinking Song - We return to the house, and our couple have now moved from the food to the drink, and a lot of it too. A companion piece to "A Seafood Song" in lyrical terms, musically this is very much a sea shanty with Michael Nyman invading the middle eight. Absurdly infectious, and the sort of drinking song only an Irishman could write; soused in literary references (Chaucer, Wilfred Owen etc.) and never once hinting at lager.
"We're drinking to life, we're drinking to death
We're drinking 'til none of our
Livers are left.
We're wending our way down to the spirit store
We'll drink till we just
Can't drink anymore"
11) Ten Seconds To Midnight - Both a lovely slow piano poem and an homage to Peter Greenaway's "Drowning By Numbers" (you don't get this sort of thing on a Kylie album, do you?), this song serves as an overview of the day, of a life, and indeed of all human existence. And there you were thinking it was just a two minute piano doodle. But its main purpose is to set you up for.....
12) Tonight We Fly - A Nyman-inflected gallop of a song, and a lot of people's favourite in the Hannon Canon. They have a point; it's supremely addictive, beautifully sung and instrumented, and gloriously touching. Finally, our couple fly over the world, one presumes metaphorically, looking down on everyone and everything, pondering where they've been and what they've learned. One hopes this is a metaphor for the final consummation of their relationship (if it was required), because if not there's been a LOT of foreplay in the last 11 songs.....
And finally, we're back with Horace.
"Happy the man, and happy he alone,
he who can call today his own:
he who, secure within, can say,
Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today."
But what of "Promenade"? Well, 13 years on, it still flows superbly, but is savvy enough to still include obvious highlights. The sound is still reasonably unique, so it certainly hasn't dated; not in the conventional sense of the word, anyway. It remains almost laughable that it's the work of a 23 year old; you look at the photo of the besuited and sunglassed Hannon outside the Pyramide du Louvre on the front and it's easy to imagine that he was born looking like that. I was given a copy by a friend from University, and it simply blew me away; the sort of thing you hear once and think "where the hell has THIS been all my life?". So it's definitely a record that can easily be fallen in love with. Likewise, if you're the sort who doesn't like the possibility of "too clever for its clogs", you might not be so happy (indeed, I once used this to soundtrack a car journey with a bluff Yorkshireman; his verdict? "It's like a crap version of the Rocky Horror Show"). But I'm in the "better to be wilfully clever than deliberately stupid" camp, and I suggest you join me.
Maybe if we all shout loud enough, he might actually give in and play "My Lovely Horse" live.
Summary: Atheist son of a clergyman nudges against musical heaven.
This Review is taken from http://www.dooyoo.co.uk/music-records/promenade-divine-comedy/1224724/