Two worlds at odds with one another: The Divine Comedy's ‘Fin de Siècle’

Alexander Larman

Alexander Larman on the album's enduring appeal, 20 years after its release

09 November 2018 19:05

For a brief period at the turn of the millennium, it seemed as if every sticky-floored student bop, energetic wedding or sanctioned gathering of organised fun played The Divine Comedy’s ‘hit single’ (number eight in the charts) ‘National Express’. With its cheerful ‘ba-ba-ba-da’ chorus, swinging Burt Bacharach-esque feel and knowingly silly lyrics, it seemed the most undemanding novelty success. A paean to the notoriously untrendy coach service, its writer, Neil Hannon, was accused of patronising the people who used it, which he denied, claiming that it was no more than social observation. It soon became the band’s defining song, much to Hannon’s later chagrin.

This seems all the more surprising as the album that it came from, 1998’s Fin de Siècle, is an entirely different proposition. I heard it for the first time when I was sixteen. Up until then, I had eschewed rock and pop music, preferring instead to listen to film soundtracks and the jollier end of the classical spectrum. The reviews had compared it to both; that was enough. And as the heavily orchestrated and ineffably witty and wise songs followed, one after another, I felt as Keats must have done when first reading Chapman’s translation of Homer. The album was something that I had wanted all my life without knowing it. As a well-dressed, well-spoken Irishman, who I would later learn owed a great deal to balladeer-turned-experimentalist Scott Walker, and sang songs alluding to Hamlet over swelling orchestration, it seemed like I had arrived home.

I bought the other The Divine Comedy albums the day after, and have continued to be an admirer, although not an uncritical one, of Hannon’s work. He probably wrote better records than Fin de Siècle; I’ve always loved the strings and piano-led gorgeousness of the Michael Nyman-influenced Promenade (1994), and the voluptuous Absent Friends (2004). His last two albums, Foreverland (2016) and Bang Goes The Knighthood (2010) are something of a step down, both musically and lyrically, although their highlights are still sublime. The latter’s opening song, ‘Down In The Street Below’ – Hannon’s autobiographical account of the end of his marriage and his uneasy relationship with low-level fame – might be the best thing he’s ever written. Yet two decades after its release, it is that first album I bought that I keep returning to, even more so because it now says as much about the world in 2018 as it does about 1998.

That year was a curious time for music. The Britpop era had shuddered to a halt, killed off in different ways by both Oasis’s Be Here Now (1997) and Radiohead’s OK Computer (1997). The sudden shift in musical sensibilities can be seen by the release of other great 1998 albums including Pulp’s This Is Hardcore, Massive Attack’s Mezzanine and even Mansun’s Six. Gone were the Union Jacks and small-c conservative celebrations of England of World Cup victories, pie and mash, and ‘birds’, and in their place were fearful reflections on the approaching millennium, and oblique meditations on mortality. If one goes back a couple of decades to find an analogy, those albums represented the sighing, melancholy ‘Let It Be’ to the earlier exuberance of ‘Hey Jude’.

The album was something that I had wanted all my life without knowing it.

The Divine Comedy had their own, near-accidental Britpop success with 1996’s Casanova, which Chris Evans, the kingmaker of the day, had championed. Today, in the #MeToo era, it’s a problematic album. Lyrics that once seemed suave and suggestive – such as ‘So I suggested/She protested/I persisted ‘til she said/Well Ok/And I said ‘wahey’ from ‘In & Out of Paris & London’ – now appear obnoxious and creepy. Yet the best songs on it – like the operatic closing track ‘The Dogs and The Horses’, and the paranoid and jittery ‘Through A Long And Sleepless Night’ (its title a Scott Walker allusion) – suggested a more interesting musical and lyrical direction, which Hannon duly followed in considerable style.

What seems clear about Fin de Siècle today is that it sets two worlds in direct contrast with one another; that of the civilised, metropolitan man-of-the world, and of the grubby, insular ignoramus. The album cover shows a suited and shades-sporting Hannon, standing outside of the architect Otto Wagner’s memorial in Vienna, and the songs are suffused with a deep love of Europe, old and new. Hannon alludes to Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse (1954) on ‘Life On Earth’, quotes a lengthy speech from La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1961) on the outro of ‘The Certainty Of Chance’, and alludes to a character reading ‘novels by French authors with loose morals’ on ‘Commuter Love’. There’s even a song called ‘Sweden’, on which Hannon inaccurately claims the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen as a Swede, and declares, over grandiose backing that would not be out of place in an old Fifties sword-and-sandals epic, that the country is ‘safe and clean and green and modern/Bright and breezy, free and easy’, before proclaiming its inhabitants to be ‘heroes every one.’ (Due musical credit, incidentally, should go to Hannon’s keyboardist, orchestral arranger and occasional co-writer Joby Talbot, who would later go on to write film scores, as well as ballets and opera.)

This is in stark contrast to the picture painted of contemporary Britain, and one in which depressingly little has changed in the past two decades. On the album’s opener, ‘Generation Sex’, Hannon alludes to the then-recent death of Princess Diana, sneers at a nation’s fickleness (‘a mourning nation weeps and wails/but keeps the sales/of evil tabloids healthy’), and returns to the sexualised themes of Casanova. ‘Generation Sex respects the rights of girls/Who want to take their clothes off/As long as we can all watch, that’s OK’, he says, going on to declare, like a late Nineties Larkin, that ‘the poor protect the wealthy in this world.’

To describe Fin de Siècle as prefiguring Brexit is perhaps a step too far, but the lyrics to ‘National Express’, dealing with presumably working-class subjects, are both witty (‘On the National Express, there’s a jolly hostess/Selling crisps and tea/She’ll provide you with drinks and theatrical winks/For a sky-high fee’) and unfortunately condescending. Hannon, having established himself as a European penseur, has little time for someone who makes it ‘hard to get by/When your arse is the size/of a small country’. This is not so far from Leave voters complaining, with some justice, of being looked down on by a smug metropolitan elite, none of whom would be seen dead on the National Express. And Hannon’s provocations are unnecessary; it was not the wisest move to include the lyric ‘tomorrow belongs to me’, with the inevitable associations of the Nazis singing that song in the beer garden in Cabaret (Bob Fosse, 1975). The accompanying music video, complete with visual jokes about suicide, seems similarly misjudged.

What seems clear about Fin de Siècle today is that it sets two worlds in direct contrast with one another.

Yet, if some of Hannon’s social observation feels unfortunately superior, there are many more examples where its prescience is uncanny. Subjects that preoccupy us today are all dealt with, from emotional isolation brought on by technology and work (‘Commuter Love’), to the uneasy combination of prurience and prudishness in national life (‘Generation Sex’), and the effects of climate change (‘Eric The Gardener’). Likewise, he blends the universal and personal with some style, as in the remarkable centrepiece ‘The Certainty Of Chance’, where chaos theory becomes a metaphor for frustrated romance.

The album concludes with a pair of songs that show it at its worst and best. The sub-Broadway show tune ‘Here Comes The Flood’ features actor-turned-director Dexter Fletcher narrating in a phoney American accent, taking laboured pot shots at a range of global issues, including El Nino, the San Andreas fault, AIDS and chemical warfare, before concluding with the sounds of screaming and ray gun effects. As one recovers from this lapse in taste, Hannon redeems himself with the harpsichord-led ‘Sunrise’, in which he sings about his childhood growing up as a Protestant in Troubles-torn Enniskillen. The song is beautiful, and very moving, on its own terms. Yet now, at a time when the politics of division and hatred are so much to the fore in our national and international discourse, there’s an especial poignancy when he asks ‘Who cares where national borders lie?/Who cares whose laws you’re governed by?/Who cares what name you call a town?/ Who’ll care when you’re six feet beneath the ground?’

Listening to the song again to write this piece, I felt an entirely new sense, something I hadn’t picked up on the first time around. Then, I had admired the song for its beauty, its sincerity and the hopefulness of its ending, when Hannon seems to spy ‘A hint of blue in the black sky/A ray of hope, a beam of light/An end to thirty years of night’. At the time, when the Northern Ireland peace process was apparently successful, it seemed as if this ‘rare and beautiful thing’ was at hand. Now, as peace and tolerance seem further away than ever, it is hard not to be deeply moved by lines like ‘Oh what a clever boy/To watch your hometown be destroyed/I knew that I could not stay long/So I kept my head down and carried on.’ They have acquired a new and heart-breaking poignancy.

It is always easy to be wise after the fact. Contemporary reviews of Fin de Siècle were generally positive, but it was absent from most ‘albums of the year’ lists. While several songs from it appear in The Divine Comedy’s live shows to this day, I doubt that even Hannon would make any grandiose claims for it. As he sings on ‘Life On Earth’, ‘Always to thine own self be true/Not to fools like me/Who’ll change their minds/For the sake of rhyming schemes’. Yet at a time when even the most able and assured of contemporary music seems to be devoid of visionaries dealing with the big issues at hand, it is salutary to return to this grand, flawed and contradictory vision, and wish that someone today would have the cojones to write something as daring. ‘Ba-ba-ba-da’ and all.