Review Summary: A masterpiece of pre-millennial, angsty chamber pop.
1998 saw Neil Hannon at the peak of his fame. The success of the Casanova LP, collaborations with Robbie Williams and his witty interactions with the British press had made him into a notable popstar. The release of the comedic sing-along anthem 'The National Express' had even given the band their first top ten UK single. Sadly, it was to be the only top ten single of The Divine Comedy's career.
The pressure was also on to deliver a worthy successor to the breakout smash that was Casanova. Generally speaking, people wanted more of the same foppish comedy that had made that record so much fun. Unfortunately, the subsequent album Fin De Siecle rarely played for laughs, supplanting them instead with a loose concept of pre-millennial angst. This confused a lot of the casual Britpop fans and hastened the band's decent down the ever fickle popularity ladder.
That's a real shame because Fin De Siecle is an excellent record. Keeping the huge orchestral flourishes featured on their previous release, A Short Album About Love, most of the songs feel properly epic and bombastic. This bombast is at it's best and funniest during the mid album 'Sweden'. Neil Hannon recounts a laundry list of reasons why he would like to retire in Sweden as the orchestra thunders around him, playing something akin to a desperate hell march. The simple subject matter of the lyrics and the overblown backing are completely at odds with each other, which makes it absolutely hilarious. The orchestra is used to great effect elsewhere too, with the singles 'Generation Sex' and 'The Certainty Of Chance' both featuring impressive closing instrumental sections.
Another non-orchestral highlight comes in the form of the truly beautiful ballad 'Commuter Love'. Over a slowly intesifying guitar buildup, Hannon tells of his secret obsession with a girl who rides on the same train to work as he does. As his fantasy for them reaches it's cressendo ("We could be prince and princess in my dreams") so does the music, suddenly erupting in an achingly emotional guitar solo. During a triumphant final chorus Hannon bellows the conclusion to his tale of secret passion; "She doesn't know I exist / I'm going to keep it like this / Not going to take any risks this time". It's a truly brilliant track and one of the band's greatest ballads.
However, the best song on the LP is the album's heart wrenching closer 'Sunrise'. Over a sublime harpsicord and guitar backing, Neil takes you on a tour of his experience growing up in the politically troubled Northern Ireland. lyrics like "I was born in Londonderry / I was born in Derry City too / Oh what a special child / To see such things and still to smile" and "I grew up in Enniskillen / I grew up Innis Ceithleann too / Oh what a clever boy / To see your hometown be destroyed" really hit hard as the beautiful backing music gains momentum. The saddest moment comes as Hannon forlornly comments on his own childhood innocence; "I knew that there was something wrong / But I kept my head down and carried on". It makes for an absolutely stunning closing track.
There isn't much to say in the way of negative criticism about Fin De Siecle. 'Life On Earth' comes the closest to being filler, with it's Parisian café vibes feeling pleasant yet inconsequential in the grander scheme of things. Also, the extended instrumental outro on the rather eccentric 'Eric The Gardner' doesn't really go anywhere. But that's about it.
Ultimately, Fin De Siecle is a superb addition to The Divine Comedy's discography. it captures the band at their peak of popularity and classical bombast. The record is filled with memorable lyrics, sweeping compositions, catchy choruses and has a cohesive artistic concept behind it. If intelligent chamber pop is your cup of tea, you really can't afford to miss out on this fantastic record.