Neil Hannon, lead vocalist and mastermind of the Divine Comedy, is the male
version of Celine Dion. A witty, Irish baritone version of Dion, with an
enchanting voice. Only shorter. With
style. Well, actually, he isn't much like Celine Dion at all, but -- if you
were to stand on one leg and squint -- the flowing, orchestral quality of
Divine Comedy's songs could be mistaken for some of Dion's better crooning.
Slap on a Divine Comedy CD and out pours luxurious, seamless
orchestral pop with lyrics that run from surreal to the maybe-a-bit-too-real. Not unlike Celine
Dion's better ballads -- only you can
generally listen to the Divine Comedy without getting queasy.
While the music is unlikely to induce outright nausea, those suffering
from motion sickness would be well-advised to approach Fin De Siecle
with caution. This album is anything but comforting. In fact, it's
something like a nonstop bus ride through life in the '90s. Departing
from the station to a song about Princess Di ("Generation Sex"), said bus
proceeds to the picturesque town of Pre-Millennial Angst ("Here Comes The
Flood"), then makes a quick stop to allow passengers a pint of Guinness --
and fleeting escape -- at the Mortality Pub ("Life on Earth"). Finally,
group-leader Hannon veers across the median and heads straight into the
conflict-torn country of Northern Ireland ("Sunrise").
Fin De Siecle waves goodbye to the sexual frustration and lovelorn
romanticism that dominated the Divine Comedy's past two
albums, Casanova and A Short Album About Love. The band's
trademark sarcasm and humor live on, however, and it hasn't lost its
healthy sense of the ridiculous (in this respect, the Divine Comedy bear
Absurdity rears its head on nearly every track,
but the best/worst culprit by far is the cacophony of "Sweden." Reminiscent
of Saint Saens' "Carnival of the Animals," and no less frightening than
"Danse Macabre," Hannon sings about -- what else? -- Sweden and its
inhabitants: "Tall and strong and blonde and blue-eyed/ Pure and healthy,
very wealthy." Although the song begins with the mundane, it grows more
spookily surrealistic by the minute, culminating with the line: "I'll grow
wings and fly to Sweden." With its huge choir and eerie musical effects,
this song sounds like something from a horror-movie soundtrack.
With toe-tapping, feel-good songs as well as odd, sinister ones, Divine
Comedy prove their versatility. What other band would be precocious enough
to engage a full orchestra for a song about the bus (except maybe Belle and
Sebastian)? And there's this cute line about bus hostesses (did you even
know that bus hostesses exist?): "She'll provide you with drinks and
theatrical winks/ for a sky-high fee ... but it's hard to get by when your
arse is the size/ of a small country."
But Hannon and his henchmen are capable of taking themselves
seriously once in a while, too. The last track is a grand finale if ever
there were one. "Sunrise," a touching, sentimental three-minute beauty of a
ballad, shows off Hannon's songwriting skills at their best. This time the
topic is the conflict in Northern Ireland (where Hannon grew up). "Who
cares what name you call a town?/ Who'll care when you're 6 feet beneath
the ground?" (talk about a bottom line ... ).