Who pulls the strings?
Who makes the deals?
Stands five foot three in Cuban heels?
Who gets all the girls
Then wakes up again?
Who will rule the world?
Who will make them scream his name?
A rather small, middle-aged man appears on stage and is greeted by a full hall of mostly middle-aged people. After 2 hours straight of what I can somehow describe as English fine art music I was asked what I thought of the experience, to which I said: “I don’t exactly know yet”.
It took me a few weeks to digest the entire experience and to see what amazing music and theatre I had had the pleasure of witnessing.
To someone who doesn’t know ‘The Divine Comedy’, it is difficult to explain what kind of music this band plays. It is a mixture of bombastic Schlager, folk, blues, rock and pure genius. The man responsible for this is Neil Hannon, who started this group back in 1989 in Northern Ireland and who remains the only constant member of the group. The group has released 11 studio albums and nine of their singles have made the UK Top 40.
Set-ups range from an intimate quintet to a full-blown philharmonic band but to be honest, the musicality remains the same even if the set up changes; the colours, intimacy and somehow morbid sense of humour this music has remain intact. You see, it’s about the lyrics. The stories. As a songwriter I know it can be incredibly difficult to not fall back on traditional patterns and endless hooks. Neil Hannon is one of the only songwriters I know who is able to avoid most of these patterns. As any musician or listener knows, a song needs a certain ‘hook’ to be remembered. The thing is, hooks come in many different shapes and forms, and Neil Hannon knows all of them, and more.
The lyrics of this artist have me baffled. Even a non-lyricist or a non-musician would notice the purity and beauty of them. The man on the stage dressed in a Napoleon-like outfit is a linguistic genius. I truly believe the Divine Comedy frontman would be able to write any kind of genre and any kind of song. He has written songs with everything a modern song needs, and has written lyrics that make me cry of sadness yet also cry with laughter. He has the rare talent to incorporate humour into his songs, and not an obvious humour; sometimes sarcasm, sometimes a morbid sense of self-loathing.
Once I got over the experience that are his lyrics, I was able to admire other aspects of his music. The arrangements are beautifully written and the instrumentation very well thought-out. His stage presence is (unlike his physical presence) enormous. The turns the music takes are – harmonically speaking – genius, and sometimes even crazy.
I could go on and on about him. Instead I want to urge all songwriters to dedicate a few hours of their time to listening to his music. It will well and truly inspire you. For the composers among us: this music takes many different forms and could be used for many different ends, and I think it is ever so enjoyable.
For those of us who are truly dedicated to their instruments: there are so many wicked baselines, drum fills and so on that I am sure you will learn a lot from this group.
Neil Hannon is a genius, and even if you don’t like his music (there’s always that possibility) you will hopefully still be able to be immensely inspired by him.