All you really need to know about Neil Hannon can be found in his song “Something for the Weekend.” Packed with sexual innuendo, desire, mystery, betrayal and a wry sense of humor, it’s got all of life’s pathetic little tragedies wrapped up tight, as if it were the soundtrack to one man’s recurring nightmare. But, hey, if you’re going to have a soundtrack to your nightmare, it ought to begin with a nubile giggle, a knowing ” Hel-lo … I say …,” marching drums, ringing chimes and a glorious “Ahhhhhhh-woooo!” And then, of course, it should end with lines like these: “He went down to the woodshed/ They came down hard on his head/ Gagged and bound and left for dead/ When he woke she was gone with his car and all of his money.”
Neil Hannon sings love songs for the loveless, and he does it very well. To that end, his “group”-which some days is just him on guitar or piano, and other days is him with a full-blown orchestra-goes by the name the Divine Comedy. At long last, the Divine Comedy’s Casanova (Setanta/Red Ink) has been released in the United States after more than a year of distribution delays. (It was originally released in Britain in 1996.) Following closely on Casanova ‘s heels, aptly, is this year’s import-only A Short Album About Love (Setanta). Mr. Hannon likes to make theme albums.
” Casanova is sex and Short Album is love, obviously,” he said, sucking a margarita through a straw at the Odessa Bar on Avenue A back in April, a night before he played to a full house at Fez. “I thought I’d do those subjects ’cause I couldn’t think of anything else.”
He’s only 27, the son of a Protestant bishop raised in Northern Ireland, so taking on the guise of the legendary Venetian lover and spy Giacomo Casanova is more than a bit of a lark. But Mr. Hannon isn’t joking when he says he couldn’t think of anything else. After a year or so of shameless womanizing-brought on, it seems, by years of a total absence of same-he appropriated the moniker to compose a theme album about his experiences being a cad, a fop, a hero and, above all, an incurable romantic. Hence the album’s romp, from the opening shot of a relationship gone bad (“Something for the Weekend”) to the anthem of the self-aware boor (“Becoming More Like Alfie”) to the acidic ballad for the one that got away (“The Frog Princess”) to Casanova’s tale of woe (“Through a Long and Sleepless Night”). It’s no wonder he ends Casanova with a song called “The Dogs and the Horses,” a paean to the only animals capable of dopey, unconditional love. “The most meaningful relationships I’ve ever had were with these animals,” he said, half-jokingly.
To drive home his thoughts on love and sex, Mr. Hannon deploys not only his incisive, lyrical wit, but a brand of lush, fully orchestrated songwriting that harks back to the work of Burt Bacharach and Nelson Riddle. Throw in the vibrancy of French popster Jacques Brel and the overwrought delivery of 60’s torch singer Scott Walker, and you’ve got a pop persona of garish proportions. If it weren’t for the fact that he leavens his character’s outsized ego on Casanova with dark, self-deprecating humor and sardonic social commentary, he’d be perfectly dismissable-much like the beer-spewing bands fueling Britain’s latest batch of “yob rock” that he somehow managed to get lumped in with by the British music press.
Mr. Hannon finds the lad mentality-a throwback to the slatternly pub rock of “All the Young Dudes”-era Mott the Hoople-more than a bit baffling. “It was sort of a general movement in the national psyche that feminism seemed to have had its last gasp,” he said. “Suddenly, you were allowed to be as un-P.C. as you wanted. Where did all that come from? … I was actually trying to comment on this whole thing. I was also commenting on my own foibles.” His point? It’s all about “not being vulgar-which is 100 percent what British modern life is about: vulgarity.” As he puts it in the bombastic spoken-word interlude in the song “Middle-Class Heroes”: “Elegance against ignorance/ Difference against indifference/ Wit against shit.”
There was a lot of the former and none of the latter when the Divine Comedy played at Fez in April. With his co-arranger Joby Talbot sitting in on piano, Mr. Hannon gamely played the part of the pop songwriter stripped down to the bare essentials. Guitar in hand, one eyebrow perpetually arched, he sat center stage in an iridescent gray three-piece suit, strumming his way through a raft of his four-minute masterpieces.
Filling the quiet moments in between with self-assured stage patter (“Uh, hello. You takin’ photos of my crotch? That’ll be in Cosmopolitan , I assure you”), his hourlong show reached its drama-queen climax a little early with the song “If …” off of A Short Album About Love . A big, big torch song in the manner of Edith Piaf (or Elvis Costello, in his nasty cabaret mood), “If …” is a litany of passionate pledges that get more sweetly absurd with every verse: “If you were attacked, I would kill for you/ If your name was Jack, I’d change mine to Jill for you … If you were a horse, I’d clean the crap out of your stable, and never once complain.”
Mr. Hannon tripped off the stage that night with a pint in one hand and a bemused “Thank you-I love you all” for his audience. Spoken like a true Casanova. But as pop personas go, he’s a refreshing change from the sullen coolness of the current crop of rock demigods: a songwriter who can string words of more than two syllables together, set them to beautiful melodies and bask in the glare with his pants down and his humor intact. “Maybe you can be cool and be artistically valid,” he mused that night in the Odessa Bar, “but it takes a lot of work.” As Dante might have said, love is hell.