Second Look: The Divine Comedy – Casanova

Like I imagine many others did, I found The Divine Comedy through the Irish comedy series Father Ted. The Northern Irish band ushered in a new set of fans and a wash of fame by penning the show’s theme tune, as well as providing other incidental music throughout the show’s three series run (including probably the loveliest song about a horse you’ll ever hear). Although many elements of Father Ted haven’t aged well (sexism, racism, and the transphobia of one of the show’s writers, Graham Linehan, for example), it still remains a cultural reference point for myself. I rewatched the show recently, and while I did laugh plenty, I also winced a great deal, amazed that so much offensive detail didn’t irk me at all when I was younger.

But one thing that has thankfully been unwavering through the decades is my love of the music from the show. Father Ted‘s theme sends a ripple of nostalgia down my spine whenever I hear it, placing me back in my family home (in my bedroom specifically, where I watched the show, all too aware I wasn’t old enough to do so). But hearing it also reminds me to be thankful that the show put me onto one of Northern Ireland’s best musical exports: The Divine Comedy. 

As the Father Ted theme song was my entry point, it’s only predictable that I first found the original song where the theme appears, as part of the track “Songs of Love”. A jangly, sweet acoustic number, it re-cast the melody I knew so well and made it seem hopeful and light (even though Hannon sings cynically and jealously of lovers giving each other gooey eyes while he struggles to find words for his love songs). The familiar solo is also played on a harpsichord, gently sweeping in a little regality.

From there I found the album from which “Songs of Love” originates, Casanova. The 1996 record turned out to be – and remains – a great entry point. No doubt the fame from Father Ted helped make the album a commercial success (making it a gold record as well as boasting two Top 20 singles in the UK charts), but the strength of Casanova is earned in its own right – something all the more obvious in hindsight.

It’s a sad fact that The Divine Comedy’s principal songwriter and vocalist Neil Hannon is a name that remains fairly under the radar, especially as he is perhaps one of the most talented songwriters and composers out there, consistently delivering solid album after solid album in the band’s 30-some year existence. Truly a poet of his age, he has a magnificent skill of encapsulating everyday woe, everyday love, and the everyday feelings of every day into witty, deprecating couplets. He can turn an unsuspecting phrase into a magnificent weapon on a whim; the kind that can strike you both immediately and decades later with the same force.

Take the aforementioned “Songs of Love” for example; Hannon pokes fun at young couples prancing about in front of him with absolutely no regard for how miserable he is. Phrases like “Pale, pubescent beasts” are golden, but one line sticks out in particular: “Fortune depends on the tone of your voice.”

Perhaps Hannon is poking fun at himself and the love-song-writing community, but he still takes his advice to heart – something that helps distinguish him from other artists. When Hannon delivers a line, he does so entirely invested in it, regardless of how absurd, silly, or ludicrous it might be. 

Casanova has a plethora of examples: On “Middle-Class Heroes” he lures in the listener as a hack psychic with a sultry voice (“Okay my pretty, just cross my palm with plastic / and I’ll see what I can do”); the ferocious “Through a Long & Sleepless Night” has him snarling and screaming during the album’s heaviest moment in a sort of post-rock/Britpop climax of noise; and on the centerpiece “Charge” he plays opposing forces of a war, seducing each other with horrific platitudes (“Baby baby, gonna set your village on fire”) in both falsetto and a deep, Barry White-like voice.

Oh, and that’s the thing about Casanova also worth knowing: it’s pretty much all about sex. The album is “inspired by the writings of the eighteenth century Venetian gambler, eroticist, and spy” (which Hannon himself details in the penultimate “Theme From Casanova”, using his best BBC voice as he ushers in a contrastingly gentle and ambling instrumental piece). The characters here are base, dick-led assholes, brimming with misogyny and undeserved huge egos: A man aims to lure a woman into a romp without telling her he’s married on “Something For The Weekend”, while on “In & Out of Paris & London” another man excuses assault and harassment, reasoning “this is not a sin – it’s not even original.” For some, the lyrics might not make for easy listening (even though a lot is left to innuendo and imagination), but it also speaks to Hannon’s skill at painting characters with depth and arcs over the course of just a song. And on the plus side, most of the horrible men meet a deserved grizzly end in some way or another.

When Scott Walker died in 2019, I honestly felt despair over losing an artist like I had felt for no other before. His music had come to be a staple for me since I first heard “Farmer in the City” through the biggest stereo speakers I ever recall seeing, feeling the pressure of the intensifying strings pushing against me. As his voice rose in the song, my heart opened and so did my mind; I had never heard music anything like this before. I promptly went out and bought Scott 1 – 4, and over the following years I consumed about everything I could in the Scott Walker universe. His loss was a sadness in me partly because it meant that there will be no more music from Walker, even though he has a rich, rewarding, and ranging catalogue. Like all good things, you love what you have, but you always want that little more.

When I first saw the biography/documentary film 30 Century Man, I recall a moment of surprise when Neil Hannon came on screen talking about how important Scott Walker was to him. “That’s the guy who does the Father Ted theme,” I thought to myself, knowing little else of his musical output at that point. It came as a great joy then to find Hannon’s music then – especially so after Walker’s death. Walker might be gone, but the ways in which Hannon emulates him, captures his nuance and style, is like having someone putting out B-sides to Scott 1-4 across their own career. 

The Walker style is arguably at its most obvious on Casanova – which makes it all the more enjoyable for me to listen to. The rubber brass, marimba, and wide-spanning orchestration on “Middle-Class Heroes” makes it feel like it could fit onto Scott 2 all too perfectly. On the insomniac build of “Through a Long & Sleepless Night”, the way Hannon snarls his words is like he’s actually doing his best Walker impression. (The fact that the song also shares a title with a track from Scott only drives home the deliberate Walker emulation.) When the bass gets slinky and busy during passages on “Charge” and “A Woman of the World” there are echoes of Climate of Hunter to be heard. Final track “The Dogs & the Horses” comes complete with triumphant brass and ornate woodwind as Hannon says goodbye with the air of Oscar Wilde reaching out to the sky to use up his last breath; he’s gentle, but assured of his message throughout as his voice rises and falls with the music.

Thanks to orchestral arranger Joby Talbot, Hannon sounds truly like a timeless icon here, and that that icon is Scott Walker makes the album all the more enjoyable. I listen and content myself knowing that someone out there is still carrying the mantle of Walker’s style.

And ultimately that’s why Casanova is such a rewarding album for me: nostalgia, for both my younger self watching Father Ted, and my present self remembering the musical oeuvre of Scott Walker. There will be others who can relate to that, but it’s by no means a requirement for enjoying Casanova. The breadth of quality is wide here, every moment given due consideration from the band and worth a thesis of critical analysis. “Charge” is full of vaudeville piano breaks over a marching stomp of drums, all before the air raid sirens start bellowing and orchestra starts spiralling over the sound of gunfire; the imperialist/colonial air is there, but Hannon has his tongue wedged firmly in his cheek. (The song’s influence can also be heard clearly in Kaiser Chiefs’ 2014 epic “Cannons.”) The gloomy neo-swing jaunt of “A Woman of the World” (which is a reworked rejected first iteration of the Father Ted theme) casually ambles into cavernous depths as the Hannon explores the origin of feelings of love and hate (“Maybe I love her ’cause I’m jealous of her…Maybe I hate her ’cause I didn’t create her).

Indeed, every track here is full enough to want to break down each detail and lyrical turn: the squelchy synths and the brass riffing on the French national anthem on the darkly humorous “The Frog Princess”; the juxtaposition of the album’s most intense moments against its most whimsical and light ones; the slick 60s swing of “Becoming More Like Alfie”, with its glistening harpsichord and the surprising country twang of it’s vibrant guitar solo; and just the line “I fall in love with someone new practically every day but that’s okay,” which captures the fanatic adoration of both a serial womaniser and anyone who has ever been young and lustful. 

Casanova is Hannon at his best, showing his range, his talent, and his inventive mind as he takes in the world around him. Even almost 25 years after its release it still thrills, beguiles, and dazzles – for both listeners new and old. I may be ready to leave Father Ted behind in the vault of nostalgia in my mind, but Casanova I will keep coming back to – and not just for “Songs of Love”. After spending quality time with the album, all 11 tracks here become songs of love to love, even if they are all actually about sex (or maybe especially because of that fact). Regardless, the sentiment is still the same: Take me.