The album was preceded by ‘Guantanamo’, an absolute crock-of-shit ‘political’ song that made your toes curl and your soul itch. Things were not looking good. Then, with minimal fanfare, a French radio station played the first single, ‘Diva Lady’, one night and, thanks to the wonder of ‘listen again’ streams, I got my first exposure to the song that told me it would all be ok after all. It was a piss poor quality stream, but you could still make out an unashamedly ‘fun’ little song which, although not universally popular within the Divine Comedy fraternity, is one of many splendid moments on what marked a reassuring return to form.
‘Absent Friends’, seemingly held up as Neil Hannon’s best album by those who didn’t really love anything he did in his nineties lothario guise, was a limp retreat from the magical indie of ‘Regeneration’, with the suits dusted down again and the orchestras wheeled back in. It had its moments, certainly, but it felt too contrived. Certainly, ‘Victory For The Comic Muse’ could never have that particular criticism levelled at it, assembled as it was from random songs that Neil had lying around, including some written for, and rejected by, others. Recorded on an EMI-appeasing shoe-string over two weeks at the end of 2005, it would turn out to be a confident, almost strutting example of Neil’s wonderful songwriting.
Fans of woodsheds were given an aural hug by opening track, ‘To Die A Virgin’, while those who longed for more of the windswept balladeer were caressed by ‘A Lady Of A Certain Age’. ‘Party Fears Two’ offered a Divine-Comedy-by-numbers reinterpretation of an indie classic which somehow worked and ‘Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World’ ensured that words like ‘smug’ and ‘twee’ could still be trotted out by the non-believers.
But it’s the songs which didn’t receive too much fuss which actually make this album truly great. ‘The Light Of Day’ is regarded by some fans as MOR mulch that deserves a spot on daytime Radio 2 but not a Divine Comedy album. Suffice to say, I think they’re wrong. As delicate in its construction as many of the songs on ‘Promenade’, only smoother round the edges, and absolutely beautifully sung, ‘The Light Of Day’ gets me every time. It chugs at the right time, soars at that right time and goes for broke at the right time. It’s a more mature Divine Comedy, but it is done with supreme skill.
Yes, ‘Snowball In Negative’ is beautiful but the almost shameless Scott Walker love-in ‘The Plough’ is the other standout moment for me. Telling a delicious tale of derring-do over a dramatic musical backdrop, it positively screams ‘Scott 4’ at you. But, as we’re never going to hear that sound from Scott ever again, who can begrudge Neil such a splendid crack at it?