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Down to Earth

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Divine Comedy

Absent Friends

(Nettwerk America)

Does anyone have more than the vaguest idea what the lyrics in a typical Radiohead song mean? Care to explicate a few Guided by Voices couplets? Forget discerning a message in the vocals to a My Bloody Valentine tune--under those gusts of squalling guitar, can you even tell what the words are?

Rock bands get away with murder: plenty of us love the music these artists make, and even sing along, without really knowing what they're saying. But when I put on a record by a singer-songwriter, I find that I demand more from the lyrics. It's not that I don't appreciate it when a troubadour comes up with a surprising chord progression, a clever arrangement, or a haunting melody, but I won't get attached to his work if I can't relate to what he's singing about at a personal level.

This came into focus for me when I reviewed the back catalog of Irish singer-songwriter Neil Hannon--who records under the name the Divine Comedy--in light of his two most recent albums, 2001's Regeneration and the brand-new Absent Friends. (The Divine Comedy is nominally a band, but Hannon has been the only constant member of its sprawling, shifting lineup.) With those records his music, which had always struck me as aloof, became far more approachable and inviting.

I started listening to the Divine Comedy after reading ecstatic reviews of 1993's Liberation in the British music press. Grunge was still going strong in the States and abroad, but Hannon flew grandly in the face of fashion: witty, eccentric, and effusively literate, Liberation was stripped of rock trappings, influenced instead by the English music hall and by suave songwriters like Noel Coward and Jacques Brel.

Hannon continued in this vein for the remainder of the decade, delivering wry commentaries and a bon vivant's confessions in his classic crooner's baritone, accompanied by cascading strings, jaunty piano, and mincing woodwinds. On "The Booklovers," from 1994's Promenade, he simply recited a long list of great writers' names, then segued into a smoothly melodic chorus: "Happy the man / And happy he alone / Who in all honesty / Can call today his own." On the tango-accented, light-operatic "Seafood Song" (from the same album) Hannon thanked fishermen around the world for providing him with his favorite foods. And "A Woman of the World," from 1996's Casanova, told the tale of one man's enchantment with a woman of tarnished reputation, culminating with the lines: "We're making eye contact / Oh those hypnotic eyes attract / Such philanthropic flies--that's that / You cannot stop it, so why the devil do you try?"

Despite the exquisite craftsmanship and maverick intelligence of these early records, however, the songs seemed devoid of real feeling--the music was brilliant but short on heart, good-natured yet simultaneously distant. That all changed with Regeneration. Hannon dropped the persona of the rakish, glib man-about-town and delivered a collection of profoundly personal songs that favored lean, simple pop-rock arrangements. Hannon's meditations on mortality, conformity, and the dumbing down of society had a newfound directness and empathy--there was a humaneness in the music rarely apparent before.

In the couple years leading up to Regeneration's release, Hannon had turned 30, married, and become an expectant father. I can only speculate about the effect these changes might've had on his music, but it's hardly going out on a limb to say that new parents tend to think less about themselves. Maybe after Hannon chose to start a family, he found that writing songs about the libertine lifestyle had lost some of its luster.

Absent Friends, released May 4 in America, has been tagged as a return to Hannon's earlier style, but that's only half true: it's elaborately orchestrated and its tone is often light, but the album's songs are full of the same understated compassion and melodic immediacy that marked Regeneration.

There are only two narratives on Absent Friends that are clearly from Hannon's point of view, but they're both addressed to his infant daughter--and both are highlights of the disc. On "Leaving Today," a gorgeous ballad a la Scott Walker, Hannon sings about how much harder it's become to go away on tour. The song's symphonic sweep wouldn't be out of place on any of his 90s records, but its candor and poignancy certainly would:

Release me let me go

I love you more than you could know

All I can do is promise to come home to you

I tiptoe from the bed

And put my head around the nursery door

To say good-bye

It breaks my heart every single time.

The bulk of Absent Friends consists of musical character sketches. These have been a staple in Hannon's work over the years, but in the past he often mocked the foibles and aspirations of the wastrels and coquettes who populated his songs. Now he seems to want us to feel sympathy and compassion for his characters: he skillfully renders the thoughts and feelings of a wide range of oddballs, all of whom are desperately struggling to find a little happiness.

On "Freedom Road" Hannon tells the story of a man who's fulfilled a lifelong dream to become a trucker, using an arrangement that opens with an understated acoustic guitar figure and swells into a grand chamber-pop crescendo. Over a shimmering string passage, the trucker confesses a secret:

Well I've seen the power of the lightning storm

I've seen the endless ears of corn

I've seen the lakes at the break of day

And that shit takes my breath away

But if I were to even start

To tell them how it melts my heart

Nevermore would my truck-stop friends

Look me in the eye again.

Hannon not only allows us to imagine ourselves as this lonely man's confidant but also asks us to feel what he feels: we've all kept something we found moving or beautiful close to our chests for fear of looking ridiculous in the eyes of our peers.

The charmingly offbeat "Happy Goth," set to a blend of bossa nova and brassy 60s pop, is a portrait of a girl who's truly content as a loner (even though she's worrying everyone around her); "My Imaginary Friend" is an unaffected Beatlesque acoustic pop tune about a kid who fills the void left by his overworked parents by inventing a companion.

But for me the high point of Absent Friends is "Come Home Billy Bird." The tune is lushly arranged (orchestra, harpsichord, acoustic guitar, background singers) but not cluttered, and its breezy groove and willowy melody are irresistible. "Billy Bird" is a hungover international businessman having a hellish trip home thanks to a string of airline hassles. Hannon depicts him as a hapless drone for most of the song, but then redeems him at the end:

He runs on past the carousel

Screaming 'Damn my luggage all to hell

I can buy a new shirt and tie any day'

He rides from the airport into town

To the high school football ground

Where his son has just begun his big football game.

Billy Bird is the kind of nine-to-five schlump that artsy young bohos typically view with contempt--on his earlier records, Hannon probably would've looked down on him too. But now that Hannon's a family man, he's clearly prepared to empathize with the nine-to-five set in a way he couldn't before. On both Regeneration and Absent Friends he spends less time showing off his caustic wit and musical virtuosity and more time creating believable characters who grapple with the same problems most of us do: eking out a little happiness from life, maintaining individuality in a cookie-cutter society, remembering that there are other people in the world who matter too.

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