Neil Hannon: Ireland’s most unlikely national treasure


ven if Neil Hannon hadn’t released any albums in the last 20 years, he’d still be one of Ireland’s real cult heroes and national treasures. Hannon’s Divine Comedy may have lost their chart clout of the mid-90s, but at any given moment in Ireland there’ll always be some group rewatching Father Ted, with Hannon’s lilting theme one of the most genuinely joyous additions to Irish pop culture history.

But there’s no danger of reducing Hannon to mere bit-parts. Over the course of 11 albums, Hannon has fronted The Divine Comedy as a singular baroque pop cult artist, with a nod to Scott Walker, Sparks and Pulp. He’s a bigger anti-rock star than any of the grunge icons releasing records at the same time as his early 90s releases, happier to hit pop and rock at oblique angles, with wry literary references rather than the customary angst of the era. As a once-intolerant metal/techno head I went through a period of Divine hate, but I made peace once I got the joke (and started listening to Scott Walker).

The Divine Comedy’s first album, 1990’s Fanfare For the Comic Muse is a bit of an outlier in their canon, with its jangly R.E.M. feel a world away from the orchestral pop that was to follow. Comic Music has been quietly dropped by Hannon, with no songs on the best of A Secret History, and it isn’t available on streaming services.

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There was no difficult second album — or third or fourth, as the Divine Comedy scored nine top 40 hits in the mid-to late 1990s, including National Express, Generation Sex, The Pop Singer’s Fear of the Pollen Count and I’ve Been to a Marvellous Party.

The albums Casanova, A Short Album About Love and Fin de Siecle were the Divine Comedy’s chart high points — an antidote to the numbskull Britpop of the mid-90s, when hundreds of bands were chasing Oasis into a retrograde rabbit hole, at a time when nu-metal was festering in the background as well.

Since then, Hannon has written two chamber operas, a West End musical and a piece for organ at the Royal Albert Hall. He has also released two cricket-themed records with Pugwash as The Duckworth Lewis Method, which he refers to as a chance for them to “just really make a tit of ourselves”.

The album Foreverland in 2016 was the first Divine Comedy release in six years, and it was another pop curio, full of raised eyebrows, literary nods and hooks around every corner. He showcased the album at the National Concert Hall, as well as a three-night run at the London Palladium. And even if his idiosyncrasies are too much for the singles charts, it’s the highest charting Divine Comedy album, at No3 in Ireland and No7 in the UK.

He’s performed before with an orchestra and has had numerous solo live ventures, but Foreverland live is a compromise of sorts, with Hannon saying last year, “It’s more or less a rock band formation with drums, bass, guitars, and accordion of course!”

But expect a grand entrance regardless — Hannon and his band have been dressing in Napoleonic military gear. He never promised subtlety.

  • The Divine Comedy play Dublin’s Olympia Theatre tonight (December 8) and tomorrow

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