Neil Hannon (the man who effectively is The Divine Comedy), cut a unique dash through the British music in the mid 90s, as his almost imperceptible rise to near-fame ran parallel to the Brit-pop movement, meant that he sometimes got lumped in with the unwashed masses.
Foppish, louche and possessing a more sophisticated musical mind than his more straight-forward peers, Hannon had built himself a career by stealth. Every studio album was just a little better than the last, with a few more sales and with his minor coup of getting the job of writing the theme music for Father Ted, Hannon’s music had found it’s way into the hearts and minds of music fans who recognised a classy tune when they heard one.
Yet still a proper ‘hit’ single eluded The Divine Comedy. When Fin de Siècle was released in 1998, there were the usual modest sales, but it looked as though they were still as far away from mainstream success as ever. Then came the freak (some would say ‘novelty’) hit that was “National Express” and suddenly The Divine Comedy were enjoying airplay and top-ten singles.
As it happens, though it’s a fine pop-tune, “National Express” is one of the lesser tracks on Fin de Siècle. From the majesty of “Life on Earth” and “The Certainty of Chance” to the admire-from-afar style romance of “Commuter Love”, to the social commentary of “Generation Sex”, Fin de Siècle is a well rounded and mature album, a world away from those that were making guitar singalongs for the hard-of-thinking. Particularly impressive is the faux-Bond Theme that is “Thrillseeker”, which finds Hannon in particularly bombastic vocal form and the strangely compelling “Sweden”. The weak point of the album is the over-stretched “Eric the Gardener”, which could have been a cracking tune, if only it’s duration had been halved.
In many ways, Fin de Siècle is The Divine Comedy’s most diverse and fully-realised album. After this they had a big hit with a compilation, national embarrassment Robbie Williams claimed they were his favourite band for a full week, they lost their way a little and have been spending the last five years trying to regain the heady heights of 1998 and 1999.
The best album for the Divine Comedy novice is still the brilliant A Secret History: Best of the Divine Comedy, but once you’ve had chance to digest and come to love The Divine Comedy for the brilliant act that they were, Fin de Siècle should be your next port of call.