New Music Monday – The Divine Comedy ‘Bang Goes The Knighthood’

Wonderful records breed loyalty. If you’ve done enough to lure in the faithful then they’ll likely be there for you in the future, eagerly lapping up any of your aural oozings. Such dutiful application will ensure that releases will get a few more chances than most to gel, will be scoured for the positives and will be received in tones of rapture rarely befitting the actual songs themselves. Think Weller’s ‘Heliocentric’ and ‘Illumination’, ‘Know Your Enemy’ by the Manics, R.E.M.’s ‘Around The Sun’ or even the finest example of reverence over reality, the reviews which greeted ‘Be Here Now’ upon its release. Once you know a band so well that they feel like they’re yours, how easy is it to remain objective? Is it necessary to make excuses for the lesser works of fabled acts? To boil it all down: is it possible for an artist who’s ten albums into their career to shake off esteemed baggage and simply be enjoyed at face value?

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Yes. Or, as Neil Hannon would have it rather too frequently on this record, ‘yeah’! ‘Bang Goes The Knighthood’ is a rollercoaster for the emotions; a journey of the high seas of adjusted expectations. My early listens were riddled with apprehension and disappointment. I wasn’t sure what I wanted this record to sound like, but it wasn’t this. Some of the less than eloquent lyrics leapt out at me initially, despite my normal tendency to be someone who is lured in by the music first, and by the time ‘Can You Stand Upon One Leg’ – genuinely one of the very worst things Hannon has ever released – was underway I was starting to worry. In a culture full of snap judgements, aided and abetted by technology that allows, nay requires, instant feedback from you for pretty much every aspect of your life, I wanted to be able to pinpoint this album. Was it a success? How many songs were true greats? How did it fare alongside his back catalogue?

Repeated listens served to ease my furrowed brow, seduce my anxious ears and relax my knotted sense of loyalty. This is not a great Divine Comedy album. I know it’s a little early to be tossing out a dismissive statement like that, but it is perhaps the most effective way to set about putting this album into context for the small but merry band of Hannon fans. Alongside the aforementioned, disturbingly dire aberration that serves as the record’s penultimate track, a couple of these songs feel a bit too much like a grown adult on a bouncy castle. Sure, it’s fun, but is there any need? ‘The Complete Banker’, replete with depressingly clear rhyming slang implications, features workmanlike lyrics about the global banking crisis over a stomping chug of a tune and should really have been relegated to b-side status at best. ‘The Lost Art Of Conversation’ is a throwaway list song, evoking initial smirks from the bizarre choice of chat chums and taking sneeringly stereotypical pot-shots at the limited intelligence of footballers. Neil tells us that when it comes to “Frank Lampard, it’s going to take some concentration.” You see, it would be difficult because he’s not very bright. So he wouldn’t say much. Oh, it’s funny because it’s true. And, it’s weak because it’s lazy. Another track that I’d probably have warmed to shorn of the context of a whole album and simply proffered up as 79p throwaway bonus track in the land of the legal download, but when alongside ‘Assume The Perpendicular’ and ‘Down In The Street Below’ it stands out like someone shitting themselves in a graduation photo. It was supposed to be so special…

As you may have gathered from that last rather indelicately expressed point, there are still some great Divine Comedy track on ‘Bang Goes The Knighthood’ and I’ll confess that – ‘Can You Stand Upon One Leg’ aside – I am slightly exaggerating my disappointment. Largely, the album makes for a perfectly enjoyable listen and, once you’ve got to know the tracks a little better, there’s plenty to like. I would argue that there are three great tracks, along with six further decent tunes. The highs, when they come, are very high. ‘Assume The Perpendicular’ is the missing link between Hannon’s day job and his hobby of writing novelty songs about cricket. It has a certain Duckworth Lewis like swagger to it, a cracking set of lyrics and a brain-shaggingly catchy chorus. There’s no evidence of the epic sweep of old, no sign of the heartfelt musings of recent albums but it sits very nicely indeed alongside a summer smash like ‘The Pop Singer’s Fear Of The Pollen Count’.

That’s not to say that sweeping strings, epic storytelling and emotive, soaring Hannon vocals have been entirely decommissioned. There are three sightings on ‘Bang Goes The Knighthood’, with varying degrees of success. ‘Have You Ever Been In Love’, strangely shorn of its necessary punctuation, is a disarmingly simplistic love song which wouldn’t sound out of place with Michael Bublé’s velvet tones atop it. Despite this, and while I suspect it might not entirely convince the hardcore, I’ve been rather charmed by it. In spite of its shortcomings, its simplistic emotional transparency is oddly endearing. Far more severe is ‘When A Man Cries’, a sombre piece which sits somewhere between ‘The Plough’ and ‘’The Wreck Of The Beautiful’ in terms of impact. Either way, it’s further proof that he has an album of downbeat Scott Walker-esque melodrama in him somewhere.

I suspect that the album’s title track would also like to keep such company but has no such luck. It just doesn’t really do much at all, gliding in and out without leaving a mark. I suspect if it had a little more presence I might warm to it but it’s so very slight that I have almost nothing to say about it. Anyway, I mentioned three soaring charmers and the third is by far the best. Opening the album, and setting the bar almost impossibly high, is ‘Down In The Street Below’, an exquisitely extravagant, musically ambitious and lyrically captivating high drama for which Hannon has previously been known. It lurches, it eases, it charges and it swoons in all the right places. It’s a likely favourite for many and it would certainly be my tune of choice but for the song which treads the fine line between pop genius and nausea-inducing cheese: ‘I Like’. If there’s one point of view espoused in this review likely to provoke a response, it’s my wholehearted endorsement of this sun kissed, chart friendly demonstration of the meticulous art of songwriting. The lyrics are, at times, comically abysmal – “I like you ‘cos you’re sexy. I like the sexy things you dress in” – but on this occasion I’m willing to file them in the ‘I Am The Walrus’ folder rather than the puke-green wallet marked Des-ree’s ‘Life’ and other slights on mankind.This genuinely has the potential to overtake ‘National Express’ as that Divine Comedy song. It could storm Radio 2 and take over the tastefully minded middle classes in a moment. It is one of the catchiest things he has ever released and I have whole days where I cannot get it out of my head. Whatever reservations the lyrics may instil in you, they will be banished by its sheer force of will. It’s a song that wants you to punch the air, clap your hands and simply enjoy yourself.

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It would be remiss of me to not consider the album’s remaining three songs: ‘Island Life’, ‘At The Indie Disco’ and ‘Neapolitan Girl’. The first in this list sounds to me like a plinky-plonky piano piece reminiscent of ‘Charmed Life’ from ‘Absent Friends’, ably assisted by the rather lovely voice of Cathy Davey. It’s a pleasant track but it seems ill-suited to bridging the gap between ‘The Lost Art Of Conversation’ and ‘When A Man Cries’. Had it taken the spot belonging to ‘The Complete Banker’ in the opening salvo I suspect it would seem rather more instant. As it is, it likely deserves the tag of ‘grower’ and I wouldn’t be surprised if six months on from now I’m making a minor fuss about how good it is. Likewise, ‘Neapolitan Girl’ is a smirksome shuffle, evoking memories of the very best of Neil’s quirky, novelty b-sides. It gallops along winningly, with the wind in its hair and a bright tie in its collar. It’s great fun and works well as light to the malevolent shade of ‘The Complete Banker’. Finally, first single ‘At The Indie Disco’ contains a delightful key change, replete with euphoric strings, around the two minute mark and the splendid line, “she makes my heart beat the same way, as at the start of ‘Blue Monday’.” Ever since video of an early performance of this track appeared on YouTube, it made me a little uneasy about the new album. As it was, there was some justification for this, even if the song in question is entirely redeemed by the aforementioned magical shift in its latter stages.

Neil Hannon still writes better indie-pop songs than most. He still possesses an enjoyable wry way with a lyric and he still knows how best to deploy the charging acoustic guitar sound that has been a staple of his music for the best part of two decades now. Vocally, he remains a force to be reckoned with and, when he’s at his best, he can still scale the heights of old. With occasional though judicious use of the skip button, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed living with this record for the last month and can gladly reassure the Divine Comedy fans reading this that there’s plenty to be pleased about.

And so, to return to my original questions. It’s not easy to remain objective and I suspect that I’d be less forgiving of some of these lyrics if they were dressed in different clothes but that doesn’t mean there’s any need to make excuses for such things. ‘Bang Goes The Knighthood’ is a fair way down the rankings for the best Divine Comedy album, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good record. As for the baggage that might be raising expectations and dragging down enthusiasm, it’s impossible to forget that I’ve heard ‘A Short Album About Love’ and ‘Casanova’. I can’t pretend that songs like ‘The Summerhouse’ and ‘Commuter Love’ haven’t melted my heart. I can’t pat down the goosebumps raised by ‘The Light Of Day’ or even ‘Too Young To Die’. This record rarely prompts such intense emotional rushes and, for that at least, I’m a little sad. But that Neil is still recording glorious pop music, still unleashing records containing at least a few songs you’d put on a best of and still capable of the kind of musical alchemy found on ‘I Like’ and ‘Down In The Street Below’ is reason enough to celebrate this release.

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