Hall of Fame - Neil Hannon

Stuart Bailie opens The Divine Comedy

The Divine Comedy is essentially Neil Hannon, a witty, intelligent songwriter, the author of many sweeping, orchestral records. His childhood travels include Fivemiletown, Derry, and then Enniskillen, where his father worked as the Bishop Of Clougher.

He became interested in the connection between pop and classical music after hearing The Electric Light Orchestra on the radio. Later, he was an REM fan and his first recorded songs were delivered in this style. Aged 19, he released Fanfare For The Comic Muse (1990), produced by former Undertone John O’ Neill and released on Setanta Records.

The band’s name was taken from the Dante work, an indication of a bookish life that would later namecheck Wordsworth, F Scott Fitzgerald, Seamus Heaney and more. The three piece band released an EP, Europop (1991) and then fragmented.

Neil returned two years later, still using the band’s name but with a much more expansive vision. In the following years, his music would be touched by the lush decadence of Scott Walker, the poetry of Jacques Brel and the precision of composer Michael Nyman. While Liberation (1993) sold modestly, his critical reputation was high, furthered by Promenade (1994). This latter work imagined the life of two characters through the adventures of a day, a device that echoed James Joyce.

Hannon’s ambition was now being realised in the music, aided by his friend, the pianist-arranger Joby Talbot. By now, he was also a cult figure in France, where his wry persona was greatly appreciated.

After composing the theme music for the Father Ted TV series, Neil recorded his breakthrough album, Casanova (1996). Many of his new songs were written in the character of a charming scoundrel, and the mood fitted well with the energy of the Britpop age.

DJ Chris Evans enthused about the single ‘Something For The Weekend’ and it was a top twenty hit in the intense summer of ’96. Two months later he scored again with ‘Becoming More Like Alfie’ a song that equated Neil with the Michael Caine character in the film Alfie. Neil completed his amorous trilogy with ‘Frog Princess’ in November.

An even bolder artist commissioned a live recording with the 30-piece Brunel Ensemble at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. This extravagance delivered a mini-album A Short Album About Love (1997) and a single ‘Everybody Knows (Except You)’.

There was a chilling dimension to Fin de Siecle (1998), as Hannon reflected the anxieties of the new millennium. However, a single, ‘National Express’ was his most successful UK single, peaking at number eight. The closing track, ‘Sunrise’ was an emotional response to the events in Northern Ireland, including the cenotaph bombing in Enniskillen in 1987. The song allowed for a flicker of optimism, a hope that the political events were taking a turn for the better.

Hannon’s final project with Setanta Records was A Secret History: the Best Of The Divine Comedy (1999). By now his talents were also leading to projects with Robbie Williams, Tom Jones, Ute Lemper and the French composer Yann Tiersen. He also covered a Noel Coward song ‘I’ve been To A Marvelous Party’ for an album Twentieth Century Blues (1999).

The Divine Comedy was now signed to Parlophone records, releasing Regeneration (2001), an album produced by Radiohead associate Nigel Godrich. The record broke many moulds, ditching the irony and voicing some bleak issues. Neil also hung his suits away, to the confusion of his audience. By the end of the year, the band, which had been operational since ‘Casanova’ was dissolved.

After some solo dates in America, Neil released a new Divine Comedy record Absent Friends (2004), which summarised many of his most endearing qualities, as revealed on the title track and on the first single, ‘Come Home Billy Bird’. He sang backing vocals on the Band Aid 20 version of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’.

In 2005, Neil announced the formation of Divine Comedy Records, which was working on a reissue programme of Neil’s past releases.