Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

The Divine Comedy - Liberation

The Divine Comedy

Released 1993 on Setanta Records
Reviewed by Robin Tripp, 07/03/2007ce

1. Festive Road
2. Death of a Supernaturalist
3. Bernice Bobs Her Hair
4. I Was Born Yesterday
5. Your Daddy's Car
6. Europop
7. Timewatching
8. The Pop Singer's Fear of the Pollen Count
9. Queen of the South
10. Victoria Falls
11. Three Sisters
12. Europe by Train
13. Lucy

Neil Hannon - Vocals, guitars, bass guitar, piano, keyboards, harpsichord, and organ.
Darren Allison - Drums and percussion.
Lucy Castle - Viola and violin.
Monica Scott - Cello.
Quentin Hutchinson - French horn.

All songs written by Neil Hannon, except Lucy, which features additional lyrics by William Wordsworth.

During the first half of the 1990's, Neil Hannon (under his pseudonym The Divine Comedy) seemed to epitomise the kind of artist that survived solely in their own carefully constructed pop universe (in his case, a universe populated by retro-television characters, destitute ballerinas, spiteful sisters, and the kind of love that only really existed in novels from the nineteenth century). In keeping with this mentality, his first two albums - the brash and giddy Liberation (1993) and it's ornate, orchestral follow up Promenade (1994) - both drew heavily on a multitude of musical and lyrical reference points that seemed entirely divorced from everything else that was happening in mainstream music at that particular time; with Hannon and his various collaborators seemingly traversing the decades to give us a veritable musical melting pot, where 60's psychedelia meets 70's prog (and all shrouded in a further blanket of jangling, late 80's indie), while his lyrics were filled with archaic quotations, literary references and scenes lifted from old films.

As with the more focused and conceptual Promenade, the songs on Liberation were written while Hannon was sequestered in his parent's attic, with the singer/songwriter having moved back home to Northern Ireland after the initial phase of The Divine Comedy as a three-piece indie-rock group stalled following the release of their first album, Fanfare for the Comic Muse (an album subsequently disowned by the artist). This back story gives way to the charming image of the young Hannon spending his days reading dusty old paperbacks, watching French New Wave films and listening to Michael Nyman, which seems entirely plausible when you listen to those first two Divine Comedy albums back to back.

Like I said before, the music here seems cut off from everything else happening at the dawn of '93, with no traces of acid-house, grunge or Madchester getting in the way of the subtle shoegazer sampling guitar work or the gloomy orchestrations. There's also subtle nods to The Beatles and the studio-period of The Kinks (reference points that would be very much back in vogue a few years later when Britpop went into the ascent), though here seeming a lot less laboured than when Oasis and Blur were attempting it in 1995. As a result of such stylistic tinkering you could always argue that the album doesn't quite hang together as well as later endeavours, such as the carefully arranged and sequenced song-cycle of Promenade, or indeed, 1996's big-breakthrough Casanova, but regardless, it does work well as an album in the traditional sense - i.e. something that is meticulously sequenced so that you can listen to it from beginning to end - and is probably of interest (in a vaguely historical sense) as being one of the first wave Britpop albums (see also New Wave by The Auteurs, Giant Steps by The Boo Radleys, Modern Life is Rubbish by Blur and the self-titled debut from Suede).

As with the eventual Promenade, Liberation opens with a short and sweet little song built around solo piano, with mild flourishes of harpsichord and violin. This establishes the mood, tone and atmosphere of the album as a whole, with the music of Festive Road laying down a template for later songs such as Your Daddy's Car, Timewatching and Queen of the South, while the lyrics - which here reference classic children's cartoon Mr. Ben - set up the kind of innocent nostalgia, melancholic remiss and giddy sense of humour that would become a feature of The Divine Comedy's more successful work over the next six or seven years. It also leads us effortlessly into the next track, the suitably baroque Death of a Supernaturalist, which opens with an audio sample from the Merchant-Ivory adaptation of A Room with a View (prefiguring the use of similar samples on tracks like Becoming More Like Alfie, Generation Sex and To Die a Virgin) before giving way to lush string arrangements, an anxious harpsichord and Hannon's peerless vocals.

Unlike many other bands that would eventually come to light during the second half of '93 and into '94, what always gave The Divine Comedy their edge, so to speak, (besides the wordy lyrics and inventive arrangements) were the vocals of Neil Hannon. Here he begins to settles into the baritone croon that would become a fixture of his later work; though occasionally dropping into a sinister, conspiratorial whisper, which recalls early Leonard Cohen (if he'd been recast as a dandy-like fop). Hannon has always cited Scott Walker, Jacques Brel and Billy McKenzie as influences in terms of his voice, and this is most apparent here, especially on tracks like Death of a Supernaturalist, the aching ballad Timewatching (a song that would later be given the big-budget widescreen treatment when re-recorded for 1997's A Short Album About Love) and on the opening, operatic intro to Three Sisters (a seriously schizophrenic song that morphs from an orchestral ballad, into a stuttering electro-led piece, right the way through to something that seems to simultaneously reference Bollywood, via Satanic Majesties era Stones, and Patti Smith's Dancing Barefoot).

It's all fairly progressive and nowhere near the AOR "cabaret Britpop" tag that many have criticised Hannon for in the past; with the music here coming across as intelligent, complex and filled with depth, intellect and emotion. Really, this is the sound of someone throwing all notions of commercialism and chart-success to the winds and producing something that is more in tune with their own unique vision; offering songs about literary characters and evocative landscapes culled from the poetry of William Wordsworth, as opposed to the self-celebration that other artists would offer throughout the rest of the 90's.

The lyrics, as ever, are amazing throughout; with each song taking the shape of a miniature narrative with characters, scenarios and a remarkable use of wordplay. Bernice Bobs Her Hair, for example, is an early highlight; building on the F. Scott Fitzgerald short-story of the same name and elaborating on it... creating something that seems to be telling three of four stories simultaneously, without ever distracting from the instrumentation, melody, or overall pop structure. It's certainly indulgent (or even self-indulgent), but then again, who cares when the results are something as mesmerising as I Was Born Yesterday, or as achingly beautiful as that perennial favourite, Your Daddy's Car?

For many, this remains the centre-piece of the album... the song that would establish the style and subject matter of Promenade, with the notion of young love willing to self-destruct, rather than give in to the tedium of the real world. Essentially, the song is a wonderful piece of perfect pop; building around a 50's style holiday camp melody that employs piano, glockenspiel and all manner of anachronistic little flourishes, as Hannon croons about two young lovers and the giddy adventures they've had. The lyrics probably aren't as wordy, literary or complex as certain other tracks on the album, but they are heartfelt in their emotion, with Hannon gleefully singing "we took your daddy's car / and drove it to the see / we fooled around for hours / and then when we got tired and it got dark / we found a place to park / and we watched the sun set fire / to the sea", as if he's one of the characters in question. It's that gorgeous notion of real love that probably doesn't exist, but we all wish it did... with Hannon complementing the verses with that aching chorus refrain; "can you feel the sadness in our love / well it's the only kind we're worthy of / and can you feel the madness in our hearts / as the key turns and the engine starts?".

The second half of the record shows Hannon in a more experimental mood, beginning with Europop, which is an entirely electronic piece that draws influence from the likes of The Pet Shop Boys, Soft Cell and The Human League and continuing through to The Pop Singer's Fear of the Pollen Count (an obvious attempt at a pop single that would be re-recorded and eventually released six years later for the Secret History "best of..." collection). From here, we move through the aforementioned, Eastern-tinged goodliness of Three Sisters (a song that manages to concurrently endear itself to Chekhov, Bergman and the mature phase of Woody Allen), the tense and terse Victoria Falls (which builds atmosphere through the dense layering of vocals and electronic percussion), the bitter lyrical lament of Queen Of The South (with that great lyric; "you are April you are May / oh what a stupid thing to say / just forgive me and forget / that I ever opened my mouth") and finally onto the evocative instrumental piece Europe By Train, which has Hannon flaunting his love of Kraftwerk (in a way we wouldn't see again until Fin de Siècle's epic keyboard-led track Eric the Gardener) while simultaneously bridging the gap between Three Sisters and closing track Lucy in a way that brings to mind the best 70's-era progressive rock.

Lucy brings us to an end on a reflective and melancholic note, taking lyrical fragments from the poetry of William Wordsworth and setting them against a layered whirl of shoegazer style guitar effects, a mournful cello and that gorgeous French horn that erupts, blissfully, from the middle eight (as the song seems to die down, leaving only the sounds of nature and a herd of bleating sheep). It's the perfect way to end the album, with Hannon continuing that idea of introspective longing and the beauty of nature, which is ably summed up in that gorgeous line; "a violet by a mossy stone / half hidden from the eye / fair as a star when only one / was shinning in the sky". As with it's follow up Promenade, Liberation remains one of the standout albums of the 1990's; a work of great skill, depth and imagination from a talented young songwriter who many would prefer to write off as a one-hit novelty. Like much of The Divine Comedy's pre-Parlophone released material, Liberation is now exceedingly hard to come by. A real shame, as this is the kind of album that should really find re-appraisal, but probably never will.

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