Monday, November 30, 2009

The Decade in Music #4: The Divine Comedy, Absent Friends

So we've had one break-up record. Apologies: here's another one. But the gap between Elliott Smith's Figure 8 and the Divine Comedy's Absent Friends can be measured in light years. If the first is a black mirror, the second weighs far less heavy on the heart.

Before we get to Absent Friends, let's look at Regeneration, the album that finally convinced this Divine sceptic.

In my imagination, I’m swimming against the tide; taking a stand, if I can mix the metaphor, against received opinion. Of course, this is largely fatuous bollocks. Mostly I'm just behind the times. Regeneration is a case in point.

Just about everyone I knew who'd had a good word for Neil Hannon's archrock project now seemed suddenly united in their disapprobation of Regeneration; shocked , hating the way it too eagerly threw off the fine smoking jacket of the preceding records and took up the Hoary Plaid of Rock. The wit and suavity had been ditched, or so they said, in favour of clod-hopping guitars and hairdos that could be politely called umkempt. Worse, they could only hear, in Nigel Godrich’s portentously atmospheric production, a cut-price Radiohead. And what were the songs even about? Previously, Neil Hannon would have sung about, I don't know, the National Express or hay fever or somesuch. Now he seemed to be singing about his feelings. This would never do—oh dear me no. So, Regeneration = Bad.

Which is where I shuffle in. Where long-time fans were choking on the stifling atmospheres, I was breathing in something delicious and quickly realising this was an album to which I could give a piece of my heart. I ended up listening to this album more in 2001 than I did any record except Elbow's Asleep in the Back.

Fast forward to late Australian summer of 2004. The end of a thing: I've just moved out of our water-side flat in Balmain to an apartment overlooking Sydney harbour (plus) that also houses an accountant (negative). A traumatic move by any measure: I'd moved to Australia for love, but that was over, and hear I was moving from west to east with just clothes, some books, and a few CDs for company. Including Absent Friends.

Absent Friends is Neil Hannon's masterpiece. It's a spring of melancholic positivity. Even when it flirts with outright sentimentality, I forgive it completely. If I recall, none of the songs address heartbreak per se. But the songs have a new directness and romantic sweep. "Come Home Billy Bird" brings back the wit, being a comic travelogue closing with a triumphant final line.

Listen to the best song, "Our Mutual Friend”. The music yearns and swells like a particularly swooning Hovis ad, even while the lyrical details stay touchingly ordinary:

On our friend’s settee
She told me that she really liked me
And I said, “Cool. The feeling’s mutual”.
We played old 45s
I said, “It’s like the soundtrack to our lives”
She said, “True, it’s not unusual”

This record was my constant companion during these hesitant weeks. Because what I remember most of this time alone in Potts Point is the feeling of possibility. Listening to this record and gazing out across a strange and beautiful city in late summer light, I was sure of only thing: it would all come good in time.

Buy Regeneration [UK/US]
Buy Absent Friends [UK/US]

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