Second Look: The Divine Comedy – Regeneration

The idea of time capsules is one always prevalent in music. An album can bring about images, smells, feelings long thought lost. Our memories, filtered through the lens of our current selves, reshape the past, rewrite them. Maybe it’s that it’s been 30 years now that Neil Hannon finds it hard to accurately remember large parts of his career as The Divine Comedy. There’s so many twists and turns, so many rumours and myths surrounding the enigmatic musician and his shapeshifting project that one can get easily lost in them. Likewise, the group’s impressive catalogue has undergone various re-assessments, with polar shifts occurring in the critical opinion. Which isn’t really a surprise – again: 30 years!! To quote Hannon himself: “Years disappear like the bubbles in my beer.”

So let’s try and set some records straight. By the turn of the millennium, Neil Hannon was sort of a cult figure in Britpop circles. He had released six albums in a decade (with writers adamantly adjusting the count to five, claiming either Fanfare for the Comic Muse or A Short Album about Love as EPs), sung background on Robbie Williams’ “No Regrets”, and delivered the theme tune for the popular TV comedy Father Ted. He had been asked to write for the Eurovision Song Contest, while the Labour party approached him for a new anthem. His last album at that point – 1998’s Fin de Siècle – entered the UK charts at number 9, with its lead single “National Express” charting as high as number 8. Overall, sales remained lower than those of other Britpop heavy hitters, yet the modest success still led to a Best Of compilation and… a collaboration with Tom Jones?

The mild popularity attracted Parlophone, and Hannon found himself signed to a major label. Now at the height of his career, Hannon let his hair grow out and bought a house, pondering where to go next. What started as a foppish alias for his solo ventures, The Divine Comedy had now matured into a real band. For the first time in his career, for seventh album Regeneration, Hannon made the decision to write a number of acoustic guitar demos and present them to his collaborators, instead of composing the entire song himself.

Sitting in his garden while his house was refurnished, the crooner found inspiration in recent records that presented a combination of alternative rock and spacey ambience – Radiohead’s OK Computer, Beck’s Mutations, Travis’ The Man Who. Hannon wanted to play with the big boys and the angsty, political ‘acid pop’ of the era fit his desire to reinvent himself. It also allowed for him to abandon his usual tone of cheesy irony, which coated his previous records and probably rendered them a little harmless compared to the biting social critique of Pulp or Blur.

Provided with an actual budget by his new major label, Hannon hired Nigel Godrich, whose involvement in the aforementioned ‘acid pop’ albums guaranteed attention and a new level of acoustic experimentation. It also meant that the majority of the recording sessions would be spent without Hannon, with Godrich concentrating on the large, shuffling cast of musicians that made up the band’s executive force ever since 1993’s Liberation. As a consequence, there’s less melodrama to be found on Regeneration. Instead, the individual musicians provide their own melodic interpretations of Hannon’s skeletal ideas, coming up with an array of beautiful ideas and melodies. This is best observed in “Perfect Lovesong”, whose additional harmonies directly reference Hannon’s lyrical homage to The Beatles and The Beach Boys, or the impressive lead single “Love What You Do”, which reaches the heights of Radiohead’s “No Surprises”.

Speaking of Radiohead – Regeneration is clearly The Divine Comedy’s attempt at a definitive rock statement, and many of the songs pay tribute to the time they were made in. “Bad Ambassador” features a guitar lead that sounds unlikely similar to that of Jonny Greenwood’s in “Subterranean Homesick Alien”, and both “Dumb it Down” and “Lost Property” are incredibly close to Thom Yorke’s composition style. Ironically, Hannon’s vocal harmonies and overall songwriting aesthetic aren’t all that different from his previous works – “Mastermind” or “Timestretched” could as well have been written during the era of Promenade or Casanova. And that’s precisely what makes Regeneration such a fascinating – and, in a way, even unique – record. Godrich, the band, and Hannon form a sort of aesthetic trinity, which bridged the aesthetics of Brian Eno’s ambient stylization, Radiohead’s sound experimentation, and Scott Walker’s early dandy classicism.

The album’s closer “The Beauty Regime” is constructed precisely around this creative tension. Starting out with bare drums, guitar and Hannon’s voice, the song instrument by instrument incorporate other instruments like piano and strings, drifts off into other melodies, sees Hannon’s voice rise as he intones “And if your life depresses you / Just live it through / Your favourite movie star.” The instruments rise and build harmonies around each other as Hannon denounces the narratives of self-help books and beauty magazines and finally subside, to leave only Hannon and roughly 30 seconds of ambient field recording noises, somehow organically reconnecting with the beginning of the album’s first track.

Upon close inspection, Regeneration is so impressively composed and stylized that it’s hard to envelop in words. The sonic impact of studio trickery – such as the ping-pong ball at the end of the pretty rough (for Hannon standards) “Note to Self” – is better witnessed directly than read about. Yet it’s precisely this sophisticated aesthetic that became Regeneration’s big hurdle. While garnering praise from critics (a burgeoning indie music blog called Pitchfork gave it a 7.9 upon release), and charting in its home country at number 14, the record was quickly and unfairly written off as an OK Computer pastiche.

The big break didn’t happen, and the songwriter’s backing band broke up. Hannon, who had just announced prior to the release of the record that his Oscar Wilde-like persona was gone for good, would re-embrace that image for the foreseeable future. At latter concerts, he would respond to audience cheers to Regeneration-era material with something akin to “There they are, the three people who bought the record.” While now acknowledging that it’s a very popular entry in his catalogue, he’s also admitted that giving away control during the recording made him dissociate with the end product, and that he felt like the honest anxiety present in the lyrics lacked the subtlety of his earlier, ironic material. Yet listening to the follow up – the career highlight Absent Friends – it’s clear that Hannon took many lessons of this adventure in spacey rock aestheticism to the future.

As a standalone work, Regeneration bridges the sombre folk of Beck’s Sea Change and the cinematic pop of Robbie Williams’ “Come Undone”, and is a key work of the pre-Strokes, pre-9/11 era. Let’s hope its long awaited reissue and subsequent reappraisal sees more than three people listen to it.