An appreciation of The Divine Comedy band

By John Ruberry

Listening to music is a serendipitous adventure. And it was on one of those journeys I uncovered another great band that you’ve probably never heard of, The Divine Comedy. Last year before the post was swallowed up by a memory hole at Da Tech Guy, I profiled another undeservedly unknown band, the Rainmakers. Only I first encountered the Rainmakers on a local radio station years ago.

I discovered The Divine Comedy when I downloaded the “Inspired by the Kinks” compilation on Apple iTunes. A great collection, yes, and easily the standout cut for me was “The National Express,” a satirical look at a ride on the eponymous company’s bus line.

Unknown? As this is an American blog with, I believe, a predominately American readership, that’s true. But The Divine Comedy has scored hits in Europe, particularly in Great Britain and Ireland, which is understandable as the band’s only constant member is Neil Hannon, who is from Northern Ireland.

As great as “The National Express” is, there’s just one small issue in my opinion. I’m a huge Kinks fan, but unless you count that British band’s last big hit, “Come Dancing,” it doesn’t sound like any other Kinks tune.

Listen for yourself!

The Divine Comedy’s first album, since cancelled by Hannon, was the R.E.M. inspired Fanfare for the Comic Muse, which was released in 1990. The only place it seems to be available is on YouTube. If you somehow find a copy of it at a rummage sale or used record store, grab it if it’s priced cheap, as it is probably a collector’s item.

The band then “regenerated” three years later into a chamber pop, or if you prefer Britpop band, for Liberation. Actually I prefer the moniker baroque pop. Regardless of the name, what kind of music am I talking about? Think along the lines of “Penny Lane” by the Beatles, “Senses Working Overtime” or “Easter Theatre” by XTC, or “Never My Love” by The Association, the glimmering song that was used with such beautiful yet chilling effect in the final episode of the most recent season of Outlander. Oh, throw in a bit of Cole Porter too. Back to Liberation: My favorite song from that collection is “The Pop Singer’s Fear of the Pollen Count,” which is cleary inspired by the Beach Boys. Yes, I suffer from allergies too so I can commiserate.

Hannon, who writes nearly all of the band’s songs, is a clever lyricist who brings wit and even snarkiness to many of his songs. The Divine Comedy’s melodies are striking and the musicianship is superb.

Here’s a snippet from “Catherine the Great.”

With her military might
She could defeat anyone that she liked
And she looked so bloody good on a horse
They couldn’t wait
For her to invade
Catherine the Great.

Yes, there is a sly reference here to the historical gossip that the Empress of Russia died from a mishap during carnal relations with a stallion.

“The Frog Princess” incorporates strains of “La Marseillaise” into it.

One more Divine Comedy favorite of mine is “Gin Soaked Boy” from the 1999 compilation A Secret History…The Best of the Divine Comedy, which might be good place for you to see if The Divine Comedy is for you. Or you can begin as I did on Apple Music with their “Essentials” and “Next Steps” collections.

Of the band’s dozen studio albums Fin de Siècle, which contains “The National Express,” is my favorite. If you prefer to see what the Divine Comedy is up to now, its latest album is Office Politics. The track I enjoy the most on this collection is “Philip and Steve’s Furniture Removal Company.” It’s about a proposed sitcom and its theme song, both devised by Hannon, in which minimalist classical composers, Philip Glass and Steve Reich, operate a furniture removal business in the 1960s in New York.

Silly? Of course. Brilliant? Definitely.

Oh yes, I said “regenerated” earlier. Regeneration is the title of the Divine Comedy’s 2001 album. Perhaps not coincidentally Hannon contributed a couple of solo tracks, “Song for Ten” and “Love Don’t Roam” to Doctor Who: Original Television Soundtrack from 2006.

In addition to Apple Music works by The Divine Comedy are also available on Amazon.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

Leave a Reply