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20YAT #6: The Divine Comedy – A Short Album About Love

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UK album chart peak: #13

Perhaps their name has a priming effect, but it’s always been difficult to take The Divine Comedy entirely seriously. Their juxtaposition of musical theatre orchestral camp with bawdy Carry On asides, seemingly pitched at the exact intersection of Coward and Howerd, often leaves full-length albums as genre exercises, as the band appeared determined for the focus to remain firmly on the witty couplets rather than anywhere more exploratory. That makes for a rather wearing experience, even if the band’s singles are seductive for the very same reasons.

Accordingly, if a full album is too draining and an individual song merely tantalising, then with A Short Album About Love – just seven songs and barely half an hour long – The Divine Comedy found their ideal format: here’s a rich, witty and charming record, retaining all the trademark rakish smiles and orchestral flourishes, that thankfully takes its leave before becoming too cloying.

But brevity isn’t A Short Album’s only virtue: where much of the Divine Comedy’s material found Neil Hannon wryly observing characters’ misdeeds from afar, this one is peppered with a refreshing first-person honesty that offers a three-dimensionality not usually associated with the band, and also pricks the pomposity of the arrangements, sometimes rather beautifully. Indeed, as Hannon sings “I need to be someone’s somebody” for the last time in Someone, the longing vocal fry carries a loneliness to match Scott Walker in his prime, and If…’s final wail, sung forced and slightly detuned, feels pleasingly ravaged against the soapy accompaniment. If I Were You (I’d Be Through With Me), too, is far more affecting than a song full of puns and flirtatious rhymes has any right to be: its suddenly bare ending, although undeniably corny, sees a surprisingly delicate thread of self-doubt emerge from the knowing winks and narcissism.

And while If I Were You provides ample proof of Hannon’s ability, nowhere is it more brilliantly applied than on Everybody Knows (Except You). Starting from a point of trepidation before blossoming into gorgeously cathartic confession, Hannon has never been more persuasive. Where so often he’s so gleefully arch that he almost dares the listener not to engage, on Everybody Knows he brings unexpected levels of warmth, empathy and, perhaps most winningly, rather heart-melting romanticism.

In Select magazine’s review of A Short Album About Love, Ian Harrison suggested that an album as traditionally romantic as this was "unsuited to current mores", noting that "these days, romance may be synonymous with tawdriness and debasement", alluding to Britpop’s ongoing fascination with mucky sheets, kinky sex and seedy bedsits. On that level, A Short Album About Love does rather stick out thematically. The album feels even more peculiar, though, for its presentation: in sounding more like the original cast recording of a West End show than anything remotely fashionable, A Short Album About Love actually ends up sounding unexpectedly ardent. Quite how sincere that aesthetic is becomes difficult to discern – but for a band usually so resistant to being taken seriously, this is quite the poker face.


Also out this week:

Blur – Blur (Food). Chart peak #1 
Pavement – Brighten The Corners (Domino). Chart peak #27 
Erykah Badu – Baduizm (RCA). Chart peak #17