For the past 30 years, the Divine Comedy has been peddling a brand of literate English romanticism that blends the orchestral pop of the 60s with the lyricism of Noël Coward. Founded by Northern Irish songwriter Neil Hannon at the height of Brit-pop, the group—of which Hannon is the sole constant member—avoided the beery lad rock of the era and created something intelligent, witty, and lasting. With glowering strings, buoyant horns, and lyrics that mix melancholia with mirth, the Divine Comedy created a sound that wasn’t fashionable but timeless.
Hannon, the grandson of an archdeacon and the son of a bishop, had by the age of 25 fashioned two albums—Liberation and Promenade—of startling symphonic grandeur. His third, the racy Casanova, briefly made him a pop star, but every album since has seen him double down on his unique, eccentric sensibility. As one might expect from someone who had the audacity to name his band after one of the Western world’s greatest works of art, Hannon has always displayed a literary bent in his songwriting. Whether it be musicalizing an F. Scott Fitzgerald story in “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” or putting the poetry of William Wordsworth to jangly guitars in “Lucy,” there is an uncommon erudition on display that is always more amiable than pretentious.
Perhaps it’s the humanity of the characters in his songs that allows this balancing act to work. Take “Bang Goes the Knighthood,” for instance, about a politician’s fateful attraction to flagellation, or the Hogarthian pleasures of “National Express,” with its panoply of holidaying British folk crammed into a coach. Then there’s “A Lady of a Certain Age,” a heartrending paean to a fading beauty on the Côte d’Azur, lying about her age to a barman. In “Our Mutual Friend,” possibly Hannon’s greatest song, a drunken hook-up is instilled with all the pathos of the fall of a civilization.
With his immaculate suits and sonorous baritone, Hannon is most closely related to the masters of the French chanson, Jacques Brel and Serge Gainsbourg, who crooned passionately about the mundanity of life. No surprise then that the Divine Comedy are as popular in France as in their homeland. What’s more, Hannon’s ability to move from arch comedy to melodramatic meditations in the blink of an eye has seen him collaborate with the queen of Weimar-style cabaret, Ute Lemper; create a side band devoted entirely to songs about the game of cricket; and most recently provide the music for the upcoming movie musical Wonka, starring Timothée Chalamet as the eponymous chocolate-maker.
To celebrate their 30th anniversary—two years late, due to the pandemic—the Divine Comedy will play 10 of their albums in full over five nights at London’s Barbican Hall, starting August 31, and then again at Paris’s Cité de la Musique, beginning September 19—a rare oasis of eloquence amid the pop deserts. —George Pendle
George Pendle is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL. His book Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons became a television series for CBS All Access. He is also the author of Death: A Life and Happy Failure, among other books