There have been few compilations as well timed as A Secret History: The Best of The Divine Comedy. Released just as Neil Hannon was enjoying the apex of his commercial success, it saw the band briefly established as one of the most popular groups in the UK, ensuring mega-sales for a compilation that was effectively a final farewell to their time at Setanta before they signed to the better financed Parlophone label. As a result, those who bought it for the recent hit singles were introduced to a whole load of material that was released before “National Express” propelled them into the top ten of the singles chart, prompting many to go in search of albums like Casanova, A Short Album About Love, and the often elusive Promenade and Liberation. In terms of regenerating interest in a back-catalogue, A Secret History was a huge success.
Which is great, but what about the music?
While slowly but surely climbing upwards towards success through the 1990s, Neil Hannon was always too smart and self aware to jump on the Britpop bandwagon. While his less ambitious peers were frantically trying to reanimate every tired 60s rock cliche, Hannon was happy to pen witty and literate Noel Coward indebted tunes, work with proper orchestras and by studiously avoiding anything celtic or even folk, managed to sound unique among Irish pop and rock acts. While The Divine Comedy never really made the impact on the singles charts that they deserved to, they still clocked up half a dozen top 20 singles, steadily building up a loyal fanbase throughout the decade, with their albums becoming modest sellers much loved by the band’s fans.
While it was the gimmicky and oddly unrepresentative “National Express” which provided the band with their first bona fide hit, A Secret History consists of just about every key Divine Comedy track up to that point, ranging from brilliant heart-rending ballads like “Everybody Knows (Except You)” and “The Certainty of Chance”, making room for the hilarious drum’n’bass cover of Noël Coward’s “I’ve Been To A Marvellous Party” and the sweeping grandeur of “Too Young To Die”. My personal favourite though is the towering “Frog Princess”, one of Hannon’s finest songs, and one of the most breathtaking dissections of a failed relationship ever. Also worthy of note is the sweet “Songs Of Love” – which was basically Hannon’s theme from the 90s comedy series Father Ted with lyrics.
It’s actually to Father Ted that I must turn to for my one grumble about A Secret History. As one of Hannon’s greatest and most celebrated compositions, the omission of “My Lovely Horse” is inexcusable. (Perhaps they didn’t like the sax solo?)
A Secret History: The Best of The Divine Comedy caught the band at exactly the right moment. Subsequent albums saw Hannon downplay his humour, and something was lost for a little while, with the fickle public outside of The Divine Comedy’s core fanbase losing interest. Of course, Hannon and his collaborators and bandmates have regained the lost ground, and then some, over the last decade and a half, but if you just need that one album that explains exactly why they were so brilliant in their years signed to Setanta, then A Secret History is your starting place.