A Secret History: Best Of The Divine Comedy

The Divine Comedy

Tristar, 1999


REVIEW BY: Adam Mico


While I was browsing in a used CD shop, the Divine Comedy appeared, bursting from nowhere in an almost holographic fashion. Scanning the package details, I saw songs like "Too Young to Die" and "Generation Sex." The cover featured a gangly nerd (Neil Hannon) cast in nature and wearing sunglasses. Enlightened by what I scoped, I placed $5.99 on the counter and purchased A Secret History: Best of the Divine Comedy. I had absolutely no knowledge of this band's sound or history when I bought the recording.

The Divine Comedy equals Neil Hannon plus interchangeable parts. Formed in 1989, The Divine Comedy was chosen at random as the moniker of this 'band' created in Northern Ireland. Musically, The Divine Comedy could be classified as cocktail/baroque-styled pop, but I would prefer to refer to it as updated, theatrical, jaded and exceptionally dynamic parlor music. Although somewhat inconsistent, Hannon's lyrics are similar to and on par with Morrissey's. Hannon is a superb vocalist; he sings flawlessly in rich baritone and silky tenor. Combining pomp, affection, glibness and self-parody, his delivery often mutates within a song.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The Divine Comedy is all about irony. When this CD was played, my immediate reaction was laughter. I could not get over the derivative, orchestrated and seemingly kitschy sounds of a century past. Neil's croon is inescapable and parasitic because it's hopelessly catchy and melodic; much like my singing freestyle ballads in the shower. Listening closer, I noticed that his approach is witty dark comedy, cleverly combined with dissimilar and complicated song structures and arrangements. Each track in this collection features distinctive variations of this formula.

After repeated spins, Secret History... inevitably attaches. A sample of Neil's poetry can vary from the twisted humor of macabre ("Your Daddy's Car"), brilliantly worded and offbeat subject matter ("Gin-Soaked Boy" and "Frog Princess"), pure comedy ("Pop Singer's Fear of the Pollen Count") and childhood romance ("The Summerhouse"). An obvious perfectionist, he understands that he could also add a facelift to the antique musical form with various instruments and production props. Bold orchestration ("National Express"), quirky intros ("Something for the Weekend," "Generation Sex"), progression (again "Gin-Soaked Boy") and even one shocking techno number ("I've Been to a Marvelous Party").

Neil Hannon is a genius. Unfortunately, his vision will likely never prop him on a pop pedestal, but it's nevertheless quite remarkable. Secret History: Best of the Divine Comedy is a masterpiece and is the best Irish export outside of Guinness. You'll likely never find such applied experimentation that caresses your eardrums and forces a contagious, advantageous mood alteration.

Rating: A

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