TWO GIGS in one calendar week in 2020; this is unprecedented. Both live streams, maybe, but that’s just fine by me in a world which looks to have decided its wearing the garb of a bad Hammer or Amicus dystopia for the whole livelong year, and not just for Hallowe’en. Trick rather than treat, indeed.
All blessings and appropriate steeple-hand emojis then to everyone at the Barbican who’s been involved in any way in getting the marvellous sanity-saver of the Live From the Barbican series up and running. On the Sunday previous those of us lucky enough to witness it were transported to Orkney by Erland Cooper and friends in an odyssey of piano, strings, soprano and electronics; tonight’s second in the series were to witness Ireland’s Neil Hannon, aka The Divine Comedy.
OK, OK, It isn’t quite the full gig experience but hell, I’ll take it. Pleasingly pre-gig nerves from 6.30ish? Check. I’ve missed that anxiety, weirdly. But I still miss the random two or three pubs heading in towards the venue; starting to see familiar t-shirts worn, demi-semi familiar faces; half-nods of acknowledgement to fellow travellers wending their way towards sonic absolution. The first venue pint, finding a perch; a precursory peruse of the merch.
Enough. These times will come again. They better bloody had.
With all the chaos of the ‘rona, this gig serves as replacement for a whole series of scheduled events in which Neil and The Divine Comedy were to play every album from his discography over a series of days. Instead, in truncated celebration and to promote the launch of the full bells and whistles Venus, Cupid, Folly & Time boxset, we have tonight.
First thing to note: Neil looks bloody well. Really bloody well. Has he even aged a day since the height of Britpop? Not even an hour. There must be a portrait in an attic somewhere doing some hellish heavy lifting. He’s dapper in a cream suit with a woven scarf insouciantly across one shoulder, smiley, relaxed; eyes cheekily a-glitter.
He assembles on stage with a full band set-up, accordion, piano, double bass; but not, as might be expected, a string section to give that Ivor Raymonde hugeness and depth to that A Short Album About Love era.
Proceedings open with “Absent Friends” which eases in on accordion, Neil on great form. During the key shift he shouts, excitedly: “Hey! It’s a gig!” He’s obviously having a ball, sipping red wine from a plastic wine glass. “Norman And Norma”, from last year’s Office Politics, proves there’s been no drop in songwriting quality – and don’t you love the way he rhymes Cromer, Majorca, double pneumonia, self-reflexive, tongue in cheek, joking and entirely serious too?
“National Express” gets dropped third, and we’re into a run of the big guns. Different times, as my watching companion commented: can you imagine a pop anthem about the joys of a coach company today? The assembled musicians give it a more pickup bar jazz arrangement than the recorded version, and that works just fine. Neil announces: “I’m going to enjoy myself. Is that alright?”, all wide grins, before slipping into the canter of “Something For The Weekend”, which bounces along with the complex pop brightness of much simpler times.
He dedicates the sultry sway of “Songs Of Love”, that Craggy Island dominator, to “all the people in the music industry” – in which he counts not the musicians, but the promoters, the caterers, everyone down to “the people who used to drive us round … please Mr Johnson, can we have something more?,” he adds with irony, invoking the Dickensian present of our beloved artform. The song itself presents as a lovely shuffling strum that breaks down into smokey cafe jazz.
“Your Daddy’s Car”, the first Divine Comedy track I ever heard way back in ’94 or so from a friend who had picked up on the buzz about them while studying in France, is here transformed into a sophisticated Gallic breeze, to me far better a rendition than the falsetto synth treatment of Liberation. You can see how effortless and clever a tune it is, full of summer and romance and breeziness, and why he picked up early support on the continent from journals such as Les Inrockuptibles. Oddly, I’d observe, that early Divine Comedy sound would probably receive a much warmer debuting reception in these far less guitar-obsessed days.
Ever topical, the universality of much of Neil’s lyrical focus easily transposed across situations he dedicates the off-kilter pop oompah of “To Die A Virgin” to “all the locked down students”, sequestered and unsexed. And there’s a little prescience in the lyrics, anyhow: “With all the bombs and the bird flu we’ll probably be dead soon / Yet here we are in your bedroom,” he sings, with that Jarvisesque wry eye. “Becoming More Like Alfie”? one of the finest pop-sophisticate songs of our era. Nuff said.
“A Lady Of A Certain Age” brings out a real Peter Sarstedt angle; it’s unashamedly Europhile in a climate of snarling, Cyclopean flag-waving. Remember when it was absolutely normal to be from the British Isles, rejoice in the fun and absurdity and great things about that, and think Europe was really cool, too? Neil breaks the fourth wall and confesses, a musician starved of that magical transaction with an audience: “If you don’t mind, I just want to stand here and think about how cool this is.”
Neil’s in top swooning crooner mode for “Charmed Life”. It’s heartfelt, reflexive in being knowingly over the top; in these arrangements, many of his songs sound like they’re ready to cast off the gewgaws of Britpop association and be the well-studied Jacques Brel ballads they always were underneath.
“This has been … this has been … effing brilliant!” is the encomium as Neil necks the last of his red and they canter through “Tonight We Fly”, his pipes fully open, really hitting the stride of a singer who hasn’t … well … sung out for months on end. These past couple of songs he has a really Bowiesque declamatory inflection and power.
And we’re done … well, not quite; “I don’t think we’ll traipse off and on again,” he says as, the applause fading, they serenade us one more time with the fickle-love, ménage-à-trois wryness of “Our Mutual Friend,” reminding us of so much that we’re missing: “We talked about the noise / About how it’s hard to hear your own voice / Above the beat and the sub bass.” Clubs! Pulling! Music: loud! Press rewind, please ….
It’s been a lovely hour of music, reminding us of what a canon The Divine Comedy has, and how well it’s standing the onslaught of bitter time.
It’s also a reminder of what we’ve been, how far we’ve fallen as a culture; of a time when the experience of the everyman, the life and loves, could blast out from every radio in the land, could be entirely confident in itself and look to embrace that which fell outside for everything that that brought, too; of slightly cheesily edged, breezy, lyrically acute, complex pop that was serious about being fun and great.
Ah Neil, you old heartbreaker you. Long may you reign. Please can you guide us back to a saner place?
For more information on upcoming events and tickets for the Live At The Barbican autumn series, click here.