After a six year break which saw him compose an opera about Tolstoy, 'Sevastopol', for the Royal Opera House and an organ commission for Royal Festival Hall, Neil Hannon is back to the baroque pop majesty of The Divine Comedy. He has returned with their slavishly lavishly produced eleventh studio album, Foreverland, a concept album of sorts, if Hannon is to be trusted! He says it's, “about meeting your soul mate and living happily ever after… and then what comes after happily ever after. Get ready for the most historically inaccurate hit of the summer” – it's a love story, but with huge historical figures, such as Catherine The Great and Napoleon, thrown in for good measure. And it works. Hannon, who has written, arranged and produced the album himself, has thrown everything, including the kitchen sink, into this. There are dense strings, brass and percussion throughout the record, putting the orchestra back into orchestral pop. It's a musical backdrop that's so grandiose it makes sense that the love stories it contains are those of emperors and nations.
The album opens with the string flourishes of 'Napoleon Complex', reminding me a little of Yes's Time And A Word album, before tuned church bells come in and make things sound a little reminiscent of the Futurama title music, accompanied by string lines that would work in a Bond context. Add some off-beat backing vocals, that sound like something Kate Bush might go for, and you've got a veritable smorgasbord of influences vying for your attention, whilst Hannon takes the diminutive general down a peg or two with some witty rejoinders. The nautical title track 'Foreverland' is a bit of a sea-shanty about a ship's crew searching for land. Although there's a generous application of accordion in the mix, which make it sound like it could just as easily be set in a Parisian cafe, reminding me of 'Empty Chairs At Empty Tables' from Les Mis. Here though there's respite from the sadness in the narrative, as the crew spot some tropical birds of paradise and their search draws to a close. The lyric could be about Columbus stretching his crew to their limits to 'discover' the Americas, an event that certainly hits the epic scale of the albums other purported subject matter.
'Catherine The Great' was an excellent choice for lead single, full of baroque harpsichords that seem era-appropriate. The song sounds like Belle & Sebastian with military trumpets and a turn-around that could have been used to reveal a flash sports car on a sliding platform in a 70s TV gameshow. Hannon says his current girlfriend is called Catherine, and she is also great, so it seemed an appropriate piece to write. Next up is 'Funny Peculiar', one of my favourite tracks on the album, a Col Porter-esque duet with Cathy Davey, a lovely little ditty about lovers who fall for each other’s peculiarities.
'The Pact' sounds like a combination of Beirut and Jacques Brel, it's about lovers making their agreement to stick together, but it's full of the terminology of two nation states forming an alliance, with phrases like 'man the barricades together', 'entente cordial', and so on. The second single 'How Can You Leave Me Alone' actually sounds a bit like Blur at points, during the super-produced period of The Great Escape album. Its bluesy refrain is equally something that you wouldn't be surprised to hear amongst Bowie or Paul McCartney's 70s work. The music video depicts Hannon, dressed as various larger-than-life historical figures, a Napoleon-esque general and a Ceaser-esque emperor, getting bored to distraction when he's been left to his own devices in his vast mansion estate.
'I Joined The Foreign Legion (To Forget)' begins with an audience applauding and then a distant piano playing in what sounds like an empty auditorium. There's something particularly Noel Coward about this one, particularly the bridge passage. It's a lovely atmospheric number, which has male backing vocals that really remind me of some of PJ Harvey's recent work, although there's some harmonica playing that might make you think of Harry Nilsson's 'Midnight Cowboy', so, again this is no one-trick pony! 'My Happy Place' is perfect Divine Comedy, with it's contrasting sections, tension and strings in the minor verses give way to banjo, major chords and jollyness in the chorus. It's like The Beatles dropped a chorus from The Book of Mormon into one of their moodier, darker songs, like 'Eleanor Rigby' or 'The Fool On The Hill'. It's musically clever, lyrically witty and, most importantly I guess, simply a really good song.
'Other People' is another high point on the album, sounding like The Magnetic Fields, with a Scott Walker string arrangement, though the vocal has a peculiar quality to it. It turns out this is because Neil recorded the vocal into an answer-phone, as a quick fix for demoing a new idea. When he heard it back he decided it would be fun to just layer strings onto the actual phone recording. It works beautifully, there's a really interesting quality to the voice. It's dry and unadorned, sung into the tinny microphone of a mobile phone, and then, unexpectedly, the song ends abruptly with Hannon saying, “blah, blah, blah” as he comes to the end of the lyrics he had written for the song.
The album closes with the big bouncy love ballad of 'The One Who Loves You', which again utilises banjo to really make that chorus jolly. Here the sentiment seems quite genuine. It's hard finding someone who loves you, finding your soul mate, so you should treasure them when you get there. There's always comedy in The Divine Comedy's music, but at times it's just an irreverent turn of phrase or a clever little chord change that might make you chuckle in recognition. The production is pristine, so clean and clinical that you might find yourself wondering where the 'edge' is, it sounds like nothing else in contemporary rock and pop. Despite the fact this production lends itself more towards the sort of fare you might hear in a Disney film or the soundtrack to some grand stage musical, from time to time you hit some emotional resonance that can't be avoided – I'd say Hannon is becoming more sentimental as he gets on a bit! So yes, we're eleven studio albums in and, although he's taking a bit longer to put them together, Foreverland is certainly worth the wait. It's a very enjoyable listen indeed, as good and at times even better than their best known work from the mid 90s.