Review Summary: The Radiohead album that nobody asked for.
I think it's fair to say that the 1997 Radiohead album OK Computer altered the course of music. In the UK, it signalled the end of Britpop and gave rise to a new generation of bands such as Coldplay and Travis. Apparently, the release of that seminal LP also hit The Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon pretty hard too. Upon concluding the first spin, I can imagine him jumping up and down like a chimpanzee that has just discovered fire, shouting "I want to do THAT!!" at anyone who would listen.
Thus with 2001's Regeneration LP, Neil Hannon ditched his suits and started wearing unassuming street wear, acquired visible bandmates, grew out his hair, changed his band's musical style from orchestral chamber pop to art rock, affected a drawling Thom York-esque singing style, filled himself with existential dread and hired Nigel Godrich to produce.
So yeah, it's kind of hard not to cringe and feel a little embarrassed for Hannon when listening to this record. Being influenced by other artists is part-and-parcel of being a musician, as is occasionally wearing said influences on your sleeve. But what we have here is a band with an already established style and who had already achieved breakout success, suddenly deciding that they want to sound exactly like somebody else's band. It all feels extremely odd.
The emulation offered on Regeneration is slavish to say the least. The album's soundscape, lyrical tone and production style are all lifted strait from Radiohead's playbook. It's a theft that comes off as dumbfoundingly obvious and wholesale. But to Hannon's credit, however, a lot of these songs are actually quite good. Tracks like 'Note To Self', 'Timestretched' and 'Love What You Do' all shimmy along their paths of existential crisis with tuneful aplomb. They swell at satisfying points and maintain a suitably suffocating atmosphere. But then the whole Radiohead thing comes back around. Just when you start enjoying a track and think you're ready to move past it, another blatantly plagiaristic moment arrives that makes you want to groan and roll your eyes. It really does pull you out of the record and feels super contrived and calculated.
Mercifully, the very best tracks are good enough to make you still want to buy in. 'Bad Ambassador' works by bringing back the Casanova twinkle to Neil Hannon's eye. Stepping into the familiar territory of a foppish gentleman gone rogue, daft lyrics like "I'm going to abseil down my ivory tower / And buy myself a jaguar" or "I want to play with the big boys / I want to ride with the tough guys / On the back of a Japanese motorbike" remind you of what brought the band to the table in the first place.
The album's highlight, though, is 'Eye Of The Needle'. Over a creaking build up of guitar and mournful trumpets, Hannon delivers his views on religion and faith. The lyrics are decent enough ("The cars in the churchyard are shiny and German / Distinctly at odds with the theme of the sermon") but what really sells it is the beautiful pastoral keyboard outro that recalls Peter Gabriel era Genesis. You can almost smell the great elms of the English countryside, such is the pungency of the track's atmosphere.
Unfortunately, there are also some strait up duds to round things off. 'Perfect Lovesong' talks up a good game, with lyrics like "Give me your love / And I'll give you the perfect lovesong / With a divine Beatles bassline / And big old Beach Boys sound / I'll match you pound for pound" upping the ante with egotistical flair. And then, of course, it turns out to be a bit crap. Not so much 'Perfect Lovesong' as 'Annoyingly Twee Lovesong'. The fact that it also feels like it's been ripped from an entirely different record really doesn't help things either.
The closing track 'The Beauty Regime' is also pretty poor. A slow strummed dirge with unintersting lyrics, it ends the record in the worst way possible. That's a real shame, as The Divine Comedy have a good track record of saving something special to close out their albums. Think 'Sunrise' from Fin De Siecle or 'Lucy' from Liberation. By contrast, this LP goes out with a listless whimper.
Regeneration was ultimately a stylistic blip that alienated the band's core fanbase and embarrassed it's creators. It's telling that Neil Hannon broke up this version of The Divine Comedy shortly after the record's release. When he resumed working as The Divine Comedy a few years later, he returned to the band's original sound as essentially a solo artist. The fact that fans rejoiced over the change probably says all you need to know about this black sheep of an album.