Your memory is a powerful thing, but there’s no denying that we often lack the ability to render clear images of the past and that’s where a smell, a sight, a sound come into play to conjure up and crystallize these moments. Absent Friends, the eighth album by Neil Hannon’s The Divine Comedy, is a record whose sense of melodrama and humour is powerful and instant enough to project you back into the innocent times of 2004.
The crushed velvet that adorns the sofa of the album cover folds into the sweeping orchestral arrangements that define this record and carry you through the story-telling with warmth and glee. Absent Friends is like a trip to the theatre without actually having to leave your home; there’s the bombastic opening that slowly builds, but sags as you check your watch for intermission, then suddenly it comes back for a strong finish that leaves you reeling as you exit in a storm of excitement and chatter.
Hannon’s deep tenor characterizes the vocals on this record and he switches between the characters here with ease, jumping from narrator on “Come Home Billy Bird”, to concerned out of touch parent on “Happy Goth” and surprisingly into his own happiness on finale “Charmed Life”. It’s a delicate and simple thanks for all the joy that life has brought him that bounces along like a Pixar montage. There’s surely something for us all to take from his positivity, which feels quaint in these end-times, yet still he’s relatable when he sings, “well sometimes this life is like being afloat on a raging sea in a little row boat.” No kidding.
What makes this album such a classic and instantly familiar all these years later is not just Hannon’s wit and long time collaborator Joby Talbot’s orchestral arrangements, but the way both of them integrate and project humour into misery. “Absent Friends” which toasts to icons of days gone by from Jean Seaberg to Laika (the first dog in space) is simultaneously silly and smart in its references, and all the while percussion rolls away, pulling you through these snapshots of history. The explicit childishness of “Sticks and Stones” is traded for melancholic strings and painful imagery, “You and I go together like the molar and the drill.”
The standout track of course is “Come Home Billy Bird”, which places a tour horror story onto a business traveller rushing home. Its chorus sung by Lauren Laverne (formerly of Kenickie and now of BBC Radio 6 fame) is an instant sing along, and plays out the song as if it’s the most upbeat plea you ever heard with the refrain of “Come home Billy Bird international business traveller.” This song, with its sad opening strings that morph into a ticking clock of guitar as “he hails a cab but the driver sucks / he drives too slow and he talks too much,” is that sound that throws you back to wherever you were when you heard it, when you inevitably fell in love with it.
It would be incredibly easy to talk about almost every track on Absent Friends and though it’s not a perfect album (“The Wreck of The Beautiful” and “Freedom Road” hit some dry patches), it is one that stands the test of time. It’s unique and incredibly accessible to those who may otherwise write off a record which is primarily orchestral storytelling.