Simply Divine

The Divine Comedy, aka Neil Hannon, is about as American in sensibility

as, oh, Oscar Wilde, or to take a more contemporary example, Pulp's Jarvis

Cocker--which is to say it's really not American at all. I'd also use

Scott Walker, Hannon's idol, as an reference, except that Walker, a legend

in Europe, actually is American in origin, but you get the idea.

Somewhere back there in the 1970s, with the rise of "rawk and roll boogie"

music, America got the idea that capital-P Pop music, with its orchestral

sweep and grand ideas, wasn't cool anymore. Class was replaced by crass,

and the results, to put it mildly, have been mixed.

So, here comes Hannon (who, like Wilde, is an Irishman most think is the

quintessential Brit) to the rescue: amidst the current wave of anonymous

"electronica" blips and bleeps supposedly signifying the pagan communal

millennial blah-de-blah future of musik, Hannon returns to the concept of

the individual not as a mere faceless component in an E'd up throng of

rabid ravers (eccch, so sweaty, so distasteful), but instead as an

artistic creation, the singular product of his or her own desires and

fantasies.

It's the Pop sensibility most recently defined, ironically, by an

American--the oft-misunderstood Andy Warhol--but which has its roots in

the art and lives of Europeans from Charles Baudelaire to the

aforementioned Wilde.

Casanova is Hannon's third long-player, and in the U.K. (where it

was released last year) has elevated him to the pop star status he'd

always imagined for himself. A loosely thematic work "inspired by the

writing of the 18th Century gambler, eroticist and spy," as we're told on

the prologue to the instrumental "Theme From Casanova," this is perhaps

the most penetrating (ahem) look at the hetero male psyche since The

Afghan Whigs'

awesome Gentlemen; Hannon's wry approach, however, is a bit more

subtle than the overt machismo of Greg Dulli (which isn't to say

that the Hannon's dastardly dandy and Dulli's gangster persona don't also

have more than a little bit in common).

From the first song to the last, Casanova is the sound of a pop

genius (not a term I use lightly), someone who at the age of seven was

composing avant-garde classical pieces for his own amusement, in full

creative flight. The opening track, "Something For The Weekend," is a

case in point, employing the kind of instantly uplifting, orchestra-driven

melody line that Burt Bacharach used so effectively in the '60s to frame a

lover's tale of deceit and treachery worthy of Chaucer's Canterbury

Tales (let's just say that the song's protagonist lets the little head

do the

thinking for the big one). The sublime mid-tempo lounge-rocker "Becoming

More Like Alfie" (an allusion to Michael Caine's loutish film character of

the same name) finds Hannon in laconic crooner mode, cynically

contemplating capitulation to the testosterone-driven beast which lurks

within his civilized exterior:

Once there was a time when a kind word could be enough /

And once there was a time I could blindfold myself with love /

But not now --now I'm resigned to the kind of life I had reserved for

other guys less smart than I /

Y'know, the kind who will always end up with the girls.

In his chosen role as the the eternal outsider, the existential dandy who

chooses to remain outside of society's numbing conventions even as he

gingerly traverses them, Hannon offers a devastating critique of mindless

conformity in "Middle-Class Heroes" ("I see unspeakable vulgarity /

institutionalized mediocrity / infinite tragedy") and skewers the notion

of True Love in the masterful, baroque pop of the U.K. hit single "The

Frog Princess," in which the protagonist finds to his dismay that "just

one kiss / could turn my frog into a cow," finally imagining her "beneath

a shining guillotine." He eschews all subtlety on the album's most

bizarre, discordant track, "Charge," which employs a sex as combat

metaphor and also features a hilarious imitation of Barry White's basso

profundo come-ons.

In a time of constantly diminishing expectations, cultural fragmentation

and retrenchment, Neil Hannon emerges as a hero who strives against the

odds in the quest for the unified Big Pop Vision, and amazingly, succeeds

in reaching his goal. Those who still value intelligent, well-wrought

lyrics-- delivered with passion but with tinged with just enough knowing

cynicism for our admittedly jaded age--and sophisticated yet accessible

musical arrangements reminiscent of greats from Bacharach to The Beatles,

will love Casanova, an instant classic.