The Divine Comedy
The track, Infernal Machines, is available via:
The album, Office Politics, is available via:
7th June, 2019
Divine Comedy Records
EVERY time I think about The Divine Comedy...
I get into this sort of warm headspace full of charming characters and wit. Neil Hannon’s band, in a sense, represents a type of music that doesn’t really exist anymore. Before looking at a great song from The Divine Comedy’s new album, Office Politics, I want to discuss humour and wit in music; characters and building stories away from love; concept albums and how there has always been a bad impression of them; Neil Hannon as a figure we should all look up to and adore; a little on the world around us and why we could do with more of The Divine Comedy – I shall end the review by seeing where Neil Hannon is heading this year. I will start off by talking about music and why, right now, there is not a lot to smile about. That sounds rather dismissive and harsh but I think we can all see that music is pretty serious and does not provide the catharsis we need. I do not want musicians to forget about what is important and stray away from serious subjects but, as we all need something to smile about, music does not really offer that. It is nice to have music that gets to the root of things and can make you think but, if one wants a bit of humour or something lighter, where do they go? That is not to say that Office Politics lacks seriousness and any sort of clout: there is a lot of depth and teeth when required. What I mean is Neil Hannon has always been able to write these songs that make you grin and have this comical edge. Often, he deals with characters that are quite mundane and have the common touch. In this recent interview, he explained how, actually, he does not have the common touch – there is something distinctly him when it comes to songwriting:
“I don’t have the common touch, as everything I do is for me,” he confesses. “I never take the general public into account at all, which is half the reason I’m still here. If people like my stuff, they really like my stuff… [which] is sort of idiosyncratic or idiotic. It does mean that I’ll never be a world-beating person, because I just don’t please enough people.”
It seemed to free him up lyrically, allowing his wild imagination free rein.
“Part of the reason for making this a double album is to keep some of the weirdness,” he says. “Quite often with structured, 12-song albums, you end up weeding out the stuff that is not quite honed and in recent years I’ve been trying to keep more of the oddball stuff, because I think it’s equally useful.”
“Contemporary pop music is in a bit of a state,” he adds. “There is an awful lot of music that seems completely surplus to requirements. There’s the caveat that we said that about 80s pop music as well, and some of that was really good. It was very tribal at the time – ‘Well, the girls like Wham! so we can’t possibly’ – but I really like some Wham! and Duran Duran as well…”
I shall come to the double album and why it is a brave move from Hannon but, I guess, he is one of those writers that loves to let his imagination go and does things his own way. As he states in that interview, the modern Pop scene is not too sharp and there does seem to be a lot of repetition. There are very few writers that have a distinct personality and capture you. Right from the earliest days of The Divine Comedy, Neil Hannon has written these wonderful songs that switch from the mundane and routine to the fantastical. The reason I love his music so much is because, even when he is writing about something quite straight, there is a little wink and bit of cheekiness that can balance things out. I do think that modern music could do with a bit of a shake-up and rethink. The fact that Hannon made that comment regarding expendability leads me to believe there are few modern Pop artists that have their own skin and voice. Not only does Hannon bring in something witty and imaginative into his music but he has a great grasp of characters and real people.
I love the fact that Neil Hannon can write music that has an absurd edge but there is this realness at the heart. A recent single, Norman and Norma, Hannon addressed this couple that grew older together and, just as you think their lives were going to head into tragedy, they were given this reprise; Hannon had this reinactment of the Battle of Hastings and a rather whimsical turn. He can talk about these real-life characters but add that special twist. Maybe I am getting a bit carried away but I do think that Neil Hannon is a rare writer who many should be looking up to. In another interview, Hannon talked about why he uses humour in his songs – but there is more to his music that gags and witticisms:
“Hannon has gained a reputation for inflecting humour into his songs over the course of his career and it's fair to label him one of the wittiest songwriters of his generation; something songs like Something For The Weekend, Becoming More Like Alfie and the joyous National Express will attest to.
When I ask about the comic streak in his songs, he says: “I have that reputation because that’s the kind of song I like to write. I can’t really change that.
“I think my songs have a range, but even the ones that are about rather dark, serious subjects have moronic flippancy. I think that’s just my way to dealing with those subjects,” he continues.
Speaking about his approach, Hannon went on to say: “I don’t there are gags in a lot of songs, but there are maybe witticisms and turns of phrase. They’re all designed to try and point you in the direction of what I’m trying to say. They’re not there just for a laugh".
From the mixed variations and relatable characters on the hit, The National Express, through to the people he dissects on Office Politics, The Divine Comedy’s work has always captured the eye and the mind. So many songwriters discuss themselves or write about people you cannot relate to. Hannon is masterful when it comes to these average-yet-extraordinary people. It means the songs connect more easily and they stay with you longer. I will talk more about his characterisation and skill but, right now, I wanted to look at why Office Politics excites me.
There is still this reliance when it comes to love and personal relationships. Most artists put their own lives onto the page and concentrate on relationships. That is not too bad but I feel, when you hear it so much, you want something a bit different. I look out at music now and there is very little that interests me in terms of subject matter. I do feel it is important to document personal issues and something deeper but, when you want that leap of imagination or something that has original edge, you are a bit stuck for choice. Love is this over-used commodity that tends to get a bit boring after a while. Hannon puts in a few relationship-type songs on Office Politics but there is an emphasis on the workaday lives and focusing on other subjects. Through this concept – which I shall talk about very soon – we get these vivid and tangible characters talking about things you and me think about. One of the problems with an over-reliance on love is the fact that is can be pretty personal and it does not always mean people can relate and understand what is being said; a little separate to the conversation that is happening. With an album like Office Politics, the frustrations, tests and ordinariness of everyday life is uncovered and presented in this very colourful, fascinating and human way. To some degree, we have all interacted with the images on the album and the types of situations played out. I do feel that music lacks a certain reality and relevance at the moment. There are a lot of artists talking about deep and challenging issues but one yearns for something a bit more run-of-the-mill. That might sound strange but I do think songwriters are afraid of revealing the routine and normal because they feel it is, maybe, a bit boring or hard to make interesting at the very least. Neil Hannon shows just how interesting and eye-opening music can be when you actually look at the people around you and put that onto the page. Songwriters used to do it a lot more years ago but we have lost a lot of those acts. I am glad we have Neil Hannon in the world; a man who puts the ‘extra’ in ‘ordinary’.
PHOTO CREDIT: Martyn Goodacre
Office Politics is an album that is built around a concept. A lot of the songs, as you can imagine, are based on office politics, machines and technology; the commute and the stresses we all go through. The double album is not beholden too strictly to the ins and outs of the office day but there is this arc that takes us through the traverses and tribulations we all face; a bit about general politics and other songs that deal with relationships and interesting people. I guess, rather than a strict concept regarding office politics, it is a representation of a working week and the experiences we all go through. Hannon takes us into different office and through different windows. He leads us into stern scenarios and then backs us out with something quite ribald and unexpected. One might look at the words ‘concept album’ and get the wrong impression. I think I have covered this before but many of us think about the concept album as a rather pretentious and long-winded thing. I think this all harks back to the Prog-Rock bands that would bring out these concept albums that were quite ridiculous and interminable. We would listen as there were endless guitar solos and songs about the most insane thing. It is hard to write a great concept album because the music is built around a theme and has to have that focused narrative. It is hard to write a concept and keep the listener’s attention I think. I do think, with short attention spans, maybe people will get a bit bored or want something different. I love concept albums because it tells a story and you get something cinematic and theatrical unfolding. There is this sniffiness because of the older days; where bands would take forever to reach their point and it would be quite ponderous. Through recent years, there have been some great concept albums. From The Streets’ A Grand Don’t Come for Free – about Mike Skinner losing a grand and then it (the money) bring found at the end – through to Green Day’s political album, American Idiot.
PHOTO CREDIT: Alain Bibal
There have not been that many over the past decade but I do feel like The Divine Comedy can inspire others. Journalists will turn their noses up at concept albums but I do feel that, if the balance is right and you strike the right tone, they can be fantastic. In this case, Neil Hannon is looking at the machinations of office politics and the challenges of daily life. Although there are deviations and some left turns here and there, there is this abiding theme and concept. I do think the world is pretty strained and divided at the moment so we all need something that offers a bit of relief and fascination. Modern music has its moments but there is something wonderful about Office Politics that lifts the imagination and makes you smile. Does this mean that other artists will follow The Divine Comedy and write a concept album? I do think that, soon enough, we will see more artists stray from the conventional and write in a slightly different way. There is this sort of saturation point where we have pretty much heard everything about love and, when looking at artists like The Divine Comedy, there is this wonderful alternative. I shall move on to a different theme in a second but I think we all need to put aside our reservations and impressions regarding the concept album. We get a bit hung up on what it will sound like and the sort of thing we will get. Modern artists – such as The Streets and The Divine Comedy – have that common aspect (even though Hannon argues against this) where they can bring the routine and familiar into the light; do so in a very exciting and unique way. I have been listening to recent interviews Neil Hannon has given and, more and more, he strikes me as one of these people we should all be looking up to. That combination of wit and accessibility makes him this very inspiring and wonderful figure.
PHOTO CREDIT: David Conachy
I love listening to Neil Hannon speak because he has this warm and wonderful tone that he projects. You get great anecdotes and insights form a man who can really speak with people. By that, he comes across as very grounded and ordinary. So many artists have this aura of being quite distant and hard to relate to. Maybe it is a perception of who they should be and how they should act but I do feel like a lot of artists are difficult to appreciate and understand. With Neil Hannon, you feel this like-minded soul that is writing about us and for us. His music has this quality where you can appreciate every word and know exactly where he is coming from. Hannon’s humour and way with words is legendary and he strikes me as a songwriter that does not get the credit he fully deserves. There are very few out there like him and, at a time when there are so many lookalikes and artists that follow the pack, we need to use the likes of Hannon as examples of what could be. Lots of people know about The Divine Comedy and what they have produced and it would be great to think that, in a few decades from now, the music is still being played and examined. I do think a lot of the modern day ‘best’ will fade because it does not really stand out. It does not have a lot to say and, largely, we will pass it by. Neil Hannon is a writer who wants to make the music last and you see and hear every ounce of his being in the music. That is a rare quality to find and I think, because of that, The Divine Comedy will endure and influence other artists. I shall stop prattling on now because there is a song, Infernal Machines, that I must get around to. It is a brilliant number and a prime example of the quality that can be found throughout Office Politics.
PHOTO CREDIT: Alain Bibal
Infernal Machines opens with some crackle and far-off noise. It sounds like machinery or rubbish being dispensed. It is hard to identity the exact sound but there is something rumbling in the distance. Just then, we get a bugle playing that seems to summon the upcoming army; a mood change that does hit rather unexpectedly. One thing I was not expecting was a rumble from the drums and some epic riffs. In a way, it is almost like The Divine Comedy sounding a bit like Kasabian! That is no bad thing and, in fact, it takes you completely unprepared. I guess I am used to hearing something more calmed and composed and, when you hear this rawness and Rock, it takes a while to settle. There is no predicting what The Divine Comedy will do and you are always kept on your toes. I guess, considering the song is about machines taking over, you need something a bit gritty and intense. Hannon comes in and talks about machines asking us to do this and that; us being ordered around and being led by technology. Instantly, I was thinking about computers and the work routine; the way we are reliant on machines and their orders. There is a nice groove to the vocals as, backed by the guttural guitar, Hannon lists all the things that machines can do. They are in our schools and shops and can do the things we cannot. They can make our lives better and easier but they also dominate and distract. Listening to the song, you are caught in this hypnotic pull that sort of drags you in to another world. I do love the fact that the sound of Infernal Machines is a mile away from a song like Norman and Norma. In the space of a few songs, Hannon has changed directions radically. It makes for a much more varied listen and it is staggering to see the sheer range and boldness on display. Infernal Machines is this wonderful song that has a rude beat that gets you swaggering - and you are helpless to resist.
PHOTO CREDIT: @simonlittle
As the song goes on, there are yet more and more uses for machinery. Not all of them are good but, as time elapses, we understand just how many different types of technology are used and how we sort of lean on machines. There are machines up and above; machines making love and making toast. One can say that a song like Infernal Machines would have been relevant decades ago considering how omnipresent they have been but, in recent years, they are completely taking over. Technology in general is more rampant than ever and we cannot discount the fact that, for every demand and possibility, there is a machine that can do the job. In a way, Hannon is talking about the technological takeover and how it is impacting our jobs. People are losing their jobs because they are being replaced by machines. We think less and are being spoiled with machines that are doing things that human beings should be doing. There are machines – as the list continues – that know right from wrong and have all these different sounds. Infernal Machines precedes a track called You’ll Never Work in This Town Again and it sort of explores the way people are outsourced and made less essential by technology. I have not really heard The Divine Comedy use guitars and drums in such a way. Infernal Machines is never too intense: instead, it has a funkiness and odd wiggle that has a catchiness and coolness. You listen to the song again and again just because of the composition and its physicality. We get some piano and other sounds but it is the central force that gives the song an appropriate menace and chug. The track changes direction and, after the propulsive and grumbling centre, we get a little bit of piano and deviation. We are told there are machines that will take over the world and machines for boys and girls.
You hear Hannon recite all the different types of machines but there is a deeper meaning. It is not merely an idle list of machines but there are deeper meanings. He talks about gender and jobs being lost; the fixation we have with technology and how companies are exploiting people. As the song comes to its end, the instrumentation rides out and we get some cogs, bubbles and noises that reminds me of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. It is impossible to forget the riff of Internal Machines and the incredible vocal from Hannon. You might need a few listens to take in all the different images and use of machines Hannon brings in. I was not expecting anything like Infernal Machines to come from The Divine Comedy but, with Office Politics, this is them/Hannon broadening their scope. It is a fantastic song and one I was very keen to review. Make sure you check out the whole album because it is a masterful work and, in my view, one of the best albums of this year. Infernal Machines has serious messages but there is a lot of fun to be found. With The Divine Comedy, there is always this cheeky grin and wit that keeps things fresh and light. I do hope we never lose the magic and mystique of Neil Hannon from music.
PHOTO CREDIT: @BBC6Music
Office Politics is receiving rave reviews right now and I think it is one of the best-received albums from The Divine Comedy in quite a while. Maybe it is the nature of the songs and the fact there is this concept that has resonated. We can all relate to what is being said through the album and we it is easy to dive into the songs and appreciate their messages. The Divine Comedy always produce sensational music but I think Neil Hannon has really struck a chord here. There are tour dates coming up and The Divine Comedy will be busy through the rest of the year. There are dates around the U.K. and Europe and it will be exciting seeing the music reach new people. With another big album under the belt, make sure you go and catch them play and see this incredible central figure, Neil Hannon, seduce and amaze. I do think there will be changes in music regarding themes artists explore and what is discussed. I am getting a little bored with hearing the same thing and I think Office Politics should act as a hand guide to others. Every now and then, we need to explore something different and stretch the imagination a bit. Neil Hannon has always done this and it would be good to see more artists follow from him. I am not sure whether there is more material bubbling away but I suspect we will see another album come through in the next couple of years. Right now, Hannon and crew are busy with promotion and preparing for some big tour dates. If you are new to The Divine Comedy, Office Politics is a great place to start but I suggest you trek back and investigate all the albums. I am not sure whether, on a future album, Hannon will do something similar to Office Politics - but you never know with him! He is this masterful and unpredictable songwriter who has a voice we should all cherish. I do not think there is another songwriter out there like him; one who can make us smile and think in quite the same way! Long may he continue to put out music of the highest order because, right now, the world needs him. I will leave things here but I encourage people to check out Office Politics and let it swim in the blood. I chose Infernal Machines for consideration but, in truth, the (double) album is packed with gems. At a time of consternation, uncertainty and fear, we definitely need to embrace the wonderful music of The Divine Comedy. It does not shy away from the realities of the modern world but there is humour, ordinariness and wonder to be found. Step into the world of The Divine Comedy and everything seems more settled and better. If more artists could do what Neil Hannon is doing right now and I think it would be a much more interesting and happy…
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