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Promenade is "The" Divine Comedy album. A fan favourite, it's probably the most loved of Neil's albums. The Divine Comedy albums usually have a theme pulling the songs together but in this case it is more of a concept album, following the exploits of a young couple in love. There is also a recurring theme of water throughout Promenade, which fits in nicely with the dark blue hue on the album's front cover. Okay, poncey stuff over (well, not really) let's have a look at the album track by track.
Bath. This starts off rather subdued and quiet (despite the sound of crashing waves), sounding very much like Michael Nyman (apparently Neil gave him a copy of the album saying 'please don't sue') and then bizarrely the melody changes completely and you hear 'rub a dub dub/it's time for a scrub' Neil often surprises the listener by taking the melody and/or lyrics in surprising places and Bath continues to surprise and delight, "Will she be drowned?/Found with her hair tied behind/Shoulders back/And head inclined/To the sound of music/Playing above/Bathing her in love/But darkness and fear/Will disappear like the soap/When she opens her eyes." It's difficult not to quote the whole song! The references to Ophelia allude to another song later in the album (Neptune's daughter) but I'll go into that later, you lucky thing.
Going Downhill Fast. From our heroine to out hero now. This song is most likely inspired by Henry Charles Beeching's poem 'Going down Hill on a Bicycle' and it isn't the only literary influence on the album. It immediately makes you think of summer and another theme turns up in this song - seizing the day. It's an unashamedly happy song and I defy anyone to listen to this and not have a big goofy smile on their face.
The Booklovers. Finally the lovers meet...to discuss books. This is one of those songs that detractors use to prove Neil's pomposity. Well, so what? What's wrong with a bit of pomposity now and again? It's basically a chronological list of authors with funny little asides to each author - lots of literary jokes here. Personally it's the one I might skip if I was feeling a little mean. It's not the clever-clever nature of it I'm not keen on, but it can get a little repetitive for me.
A Seafood Song. Ahh, the obligatory silly DC song! "And then she says, "Now with our glasses both raised in this toast/ Let's sing for those in peril on the sea/Who labour tirelessly/In their tiny boats/ Off John O' Groats/ Their socks soaked for me" It's essentially a list song, and fairly lightweight stuff but it's a lot of fun and personally I'm rather fond of it!
Geronimo. A Seafood Song was our young couple eating in a restaurant and as they get outside, discover it's raining. This is a real highlight of the album for me. The piano acts as the rain, with crashing cymbals as the splashing puddles. Neil is great at creating vivid imagery and that's evident here: 'The coal fire is throwing/Strange shapes upon the hearthrug,/And crying out to be knelt down beside.' And I must give a shout out to 'With an arm around her waist/He leads her to a place
He knowssssssssssssssssssssssssoaked through, but happy...' Bliss!
Don't Look Down. This starts off as a lovely song about the couple on a Ferris wheel, 'She tells me it's alright/To open up my eyes/She holds onto my hand/And the clouds race by' but then it becomes something else entirely...and that's what makes this a true classic. 'And without warning when we're almost at the top/The wheel that turns us all comes to a sudden stop/The wind that's blown us dies a quick and painless death/
The air gets clammy and we hold each other's breath/We get the feeling that we're not alone in this/And then a God who really ought not to exist/
Sticks out a great big hand And grabs me by the wrist...' It's almost impossible to stop quoting the whole thing, apologies for the looooong quotes! So the young man ends up getting into an argument with a god he doesn't believe in...on the top of a Ferris wheel. It sounds like an episode of Bottom but it is a real highlight of the album. Here Neil vents his feelings on religion; 'And to be frank I find that life has more appeal
Without a driver who's asleep behind the wheel' I can't imagine Neil's dad, a bishop would be too chuffed with this particular song but it's intelligent, astute and well crafted and a total surprise.
When The Lights Go Out All Over Europe. Another fan favourite, this. And it's very easy to see why. Essentially an ode to French cinema, this is a beautiful elegant song that makes clever references to various French films. 'When the lights go out/All over Europe/I forget about old MGM/ 'Cos Paramount was never Universal/And Warners went out/Way back when those lights go out/All over Europe/I forget about old Hollywood,
/'Cos Doris Day could never make me cheer up/Quite the way those French girls always could.' Nothing I could write will ever do this song justice...it really is gorgeous.
The Summerhouse. Reminiscing about summers long since past. 'Do you remember/Sunday lunch on the lawn/Daring escapes at midnight/And costumeless bathes at dawn' Yet another song packed full of beautiful imagery, it's hard not to be moved and miss your own childhood when listening to this.
Neptune's Daughter. Quite an odd song, this and very dark. It hints at our heroine taking a tip in the sea and nearly drowning before being saved by our hero - the reference to Ophelia in 'Bath' suggests that this is an attempted suicide, 'And laughing like a little girl/She enters an enchanted world/Where seaweed girls with silver tails/Play games upon the backs of whales;/They want her to come home with them/They grab her legs and drag her down again, Down again...' It's a very dark song, probably the darkest on the album yet it fits in perfectly. The song that follows couldn't be any more different if it tried, yet bizarrely that seems to fit too.
A Drinking Song. There's a reference to 'those who have drowned' at the start of the song which ties in with Neptune's Daughter and yet the song opens with a belch, so seems like another novelty song but A drinking song has more going for it than that. 'We'll drink beyond the boundaries of sense/We'll drink 'til we start to see/Lovely pink elephants/Inside our heads/Inside our beds/Inside the threads/Of our pyjama legs' It's another triumphant song, despite the narrator being utterly tiddled, 'For what point has this life/If you can't realise Your dreams?'
Ten Seconds to Midnight. Another subdued song counting down to midnight and the new year. Not one of my favourites, I'm not sure I can pinpoint why. It's possibly because it follows such a raucous song. But it's nice enough, just a little underwhelming to me.
Tonight We Fly. Wow. My all time favourite song. I heard this years ago on a friend's myspace page and could not stop playing it. It's the song that got me into The Divine Comedy. A lot of DC fans list it as their favourite, and since Neil plays it at every live show I think it's fair to say he's a fan too. It starts with these incredible rolling drums that never fail to make my heart race. (Eww that was quite poncey again, sorry). If a song can be epic, this can. Another triumphant song celebrating love and life it's impossible not to fall in love with Tonight We Fly. It's another list song, the lyrics are very simple but its simplicity is what makes it so powerful. 'And when we die/Oh, will we be that disappointed/Or sad/If heaven doesn't exist/What will we have missed/This life is the best we've ever had' It's a real show stopper. Listen to it now!
So there you have it. A rather long and possibly tedious look at my all time favourite album.
Once upon a time (or "1989", as it's more commonly known), the diminutive son of a clergyman from Northern Ireland went to London to make his fortune. But his somewhat bog-standard indie guitar band, The Divine Comedy ("I wanted to be Mark Gardener out of Ride very badly indeed") didn't make anyone's fortune with their mini-album "Fanfare For The Comic Muse", so he had a rethink. Without his former bandmates, and with a new-found obsession with polyphonic harmony, chamber music and literary references, Neil Hannon's reborn Divine Comedy were a very different kettle of marine life. The old DC might have sounded deeply derivative, but the new one most certainly didn't, even if one wag did suggest it resembled "the Pet Shop Boys if they'd formed in 1916".
In 1993 Hannon released "Liberation", a record tackling such diverse and (cough) contemporary subject matter as the stories of Anton Chekov and F Scott Fitzgerald, the poems of Wordsworth (setting all of them to music), Wim Wenders, children's TV favourite Mr Benn, and Merchant-Ivory. Staggeringly baroque and practically inventing the modern concept of "chamber pop", it flopped resoundingly everywhere except France, where it garnered enough money for Hannon to record a follow-up; "Promenade".
Now, concept albums are rarely a cracking idea, so one should approach a record that seeks to ape the structure of James Joyces' classic (and difficult) Ulysses with caution bordering on terror. (Mind you; he could have tried to do "The Naked Lunch", so we should probably thank the Lord for his mercy). Hannon seeks to take us through a day in the life of a man and woman, who may (actually, probably do) or may not start off as lovers. Musically, he is more confident than on Liberation, which occasionally flavoured/diluted the chamber pop with more conventional synth outings. Here, it's nothing but drum, bass, acoustic guitar, string quartet, piano and reeds (the latter supplied by a man who would massively shape the next few DC albums; Joby Talbot).
The most glaring outside influence on the record is the composer Michael Nyman; an influence so laughably blatant that Hannon sent him a copy with a jokey note requesting that he didn't sue. (Presumably with some success; they ended up collaborating). Nyman's classical chamber music was best known at the time as the soundtrack to several visually ravishing but fundamentally unwatchable Peter Greenaway films, as well as the score to Jane Campion's "The Piano". And it's on that instrument that Nyman's style is most easily identified; minimalism. His compositions are usually highly accessible, containing ideas so "obvious" that it's astonishing they're original at all. (That's meant as a compliment, in case you were wondering). Hannon proceeds to bolt these trappings to his own lyrical flights of fancy; the result is an absolute classic for anyone who's ever imagined themselves wandering around La Sorbonne smoking a Gauloise with their long scarf flapping in the breeze.
So, let's Promenade, shall we?
1) Bath - A crashing wave, a quote from a psalm, then Hannon plays the Nyman card. Very minimalist piano to start, a string quartet is gradually introduced, and reeds. All of this meanders for over two minutes.... and then, in his arch fashion, Hannon sings about a girl taking a bath first thing in the morning. The lyrical stall is set out here too; we're going a place marked "literary". Get that thesaurus ready.
2) Going Downhill Fast - .....while across town, we come to a bloke on a bike in a happy mood. He's backed predominantly by a slightly more urgent, but still minimalist piano, the same string quartet, a tambourine and a discreet acoustic guitar. He's nervous but nicely so; presumably about to meet the lady from "Bath". As in the song, not the place near Bristol. It's all VERY Noel Coward, so it was no surprise to hear Hannon covering "I've Been To A Marvellous Party" a few years later. I like songs where certain phrases stick; such as "the bottom is hard when compared to the top", which always comes to me when faced with a the risk of going "splat" in the mountains.
3) The Booklovers - "This book deals with epiphenomenalism, which has to do with consciousness as a mere accessory of physiological processes whose presence or absence... makes no difference... whatever are you doing?"
Sampled dialogue from Audrey Hepburn in "Funny Face" leads into what may strike some as a desperately pretentious six-minute post-modern joke, as, with slightly Edwardian baroque backing, Neil Hannon reads a list of 73 (I think) authors, with a comment/joke for each. Some of the jokes are supremely clever (Anne Brontë's is "Hellooo" in a very masculine voice), some of them are incredibly childish (Iain Banks has "too orangey for crows" in a voice straight out of the Kia-Ora advert). All is bound together with a quite poignant little chorus cribbed from a Horace poem. Hated by some, loved by me.
4) A Seafood Song - It has to be said; if you like words, you will love this record. Having first referenced "When The Boat Comes In", finally, our boy and girl meet for lunch. This involves a lot of words, and a lot of seafood, and an invigorating chamber backing. First our protagonists each take a verse to toast the world's fishermen, and then proceed to sample a platter of oceanic produce that would have fed Robinson Crusoe and Man Friday for years.
5) Geronimo - Outside, it's raining, and our protagonists beat a hasty retreat to "a place he knows". Quite an urgent piano song, as the frisson between the couple briefly threatens to truncate an album into an EP. But the tale must remain chaste for now, and the ditty is soon over.
6) Don't Look Down - Our couple are now off to the fairground, and in another deeply Nyman-esque tune (minimalist piano, baroque strings, reed flourishes, you know the drill), it's the man who doesn't want to get on the big wheel. Ahh, for the good old days when men were men and pansies were flowers. But like a bloke who goes to see Legally Blonde 2 just to impress the lady he's with, he eventually succumbs. To the big wheel anyway; any fleshier succumbing will have to wait a bit. This is a lyrically splendid song, even by the standards of a generally lyrically splendid album; the first half resolves itself with the great payoff:
"The couple in the car above
I suppose they think
That we're in love
I think they might be right"
The finale is a dazzling piece of wordsmithery, as time stands still at the top of the wheel, and the man feels the need to have a conversation with god. Out pours a startling atheist diatribe, all the most brazen when it's written by the son of a Protestant bishop.
7) When The Lights Go Out All Over Europe - Despite employing the usual instrumentation, this is one of the more "conventional" songs on the record. Our couple are now at the cinema, and luckily for him, she's not the sort who makes a man go and watch Legally Blonde 2. So, in my opinion he should start making an effort. An ode to French films, incredibly pretty, written more from a standpoint of "I really liked A Bout De Souffle" than "blimey; the first five minutes of Betty Blue were alright!", and illuminated with samples from the genre.
8) The Summerhouse - I'll come clean right now; I decided to review this album just because I wanted to emphasise the colossal genius of this song. Don't get me wrong; the rest is quite special too, but this one? Out of the ground. Our pairing have adjourned somewhere else, and are reminiscing. We discover that they must have known each other since they were children, as it is childhood to which they hark back. And with a deeply elegiac mood and stately pace, Hannon proceeds (whisper it) to reduce this listener almost to tears. Don't you DARE tell anyone. Especially when he goes "it's kinda weird to be back here again", it's shot full of as much meaning and personal resonance as you care to give it. It's also quite fabulously sung and features the sort of cor anglais solo that melts everything it touches, like a far more desirable form of weapons-grade plutonium. But then I am a sucker for a nice cor anglais solo.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n7xnfcpYRnE (a live rendition. Turn the bloody cor anglais up!)
9) Neptune's Daughter - Our protagonists have now had dinner, and she is playing Schubert in the drawing room. I bet she's never even heard of Legally Blonde 2, never mind seen it. Blimey, if there's an orderly queue, I'm there. Anyway, once again we are concerned with the sea, and she wanders outside, trips down the beach and into the water. This is accompanied by the most classical of backdrops on the record, suboceanic piano and string quartet, and if Hannon was trying to ape a Schubert piano quintet, he's done a decent job; that's the kind of smart-arsery I most heartily approve of. It swells into a crescendo as the man wades into the sea and carries her back to shore; Maybe a bit Mills and Boon rather than E M Forster.
10) A Drinking Song - We return to the house, and our couple have now moved from the food to the drink, and a lot of it too. A companion piece to "A Seafood Song" in lyrical terms, musically this is very much a sea shanty with Michael Nyman invading the middle eight. Absurdly infectious, and the sort of drinking song only an Irishman could write; soused in literary references (Chaucer, Wilfred Owen etc.) and never once hinting at lager.
"We're drinking to life, we're drinking to death
We're drinking 'til none of our
Livers are left.
We're wending our way down to the spirit store
We'll drink till we just
Can't drink anymore"
11) Ten Seconds To Midnight - Both a lovely slow piano poem and an homage to Peter Greenaway's "Drowning By Numbers" (you don't get this sort of thing on a Kylie album, do you?), this song serves as an overview of the day, of a life, and indeed of all human existence. And there you were thinking it was just a two minute piano doodle. But its main purpose is to set you up for.....
12) Tonight We Fly - A Nyman-inflected gallop of a song, and a lot of people's favourite in the Hannon Canon. They have a point; it's supremely addictive, beautifully sung and instrumented, and gloriously touching. Finally, our couple fly over the world, one presumes metaphorically, looking down on everyone and everything, pondering where they've been and what they've learned. One hopes this is a metaphor for the final consummation of their relationship (if it was required), because if not there's been a LOT of foreplay in the last 11 songs.....
And finally, we're back with Horace.
"Happy the man, and happy he alone,
he who can call today his own:
he who, secure within, can say,
Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today."
(My copy features "The Promenade Companion", a 4 track CD featuring 3 songs from "Liberation" and one from "Promenade" recorded live in the studio as a trio, with Hannon's guitar and vocals backed by cello and violin. It's very sweet, but not worth paying through the nose for should you happen upon it).
"Promenade" was highly critically acclaimed, rather successful in France (to an extent that can be gauged by Hannon's later hit "The Frog Princess") but still somewhat off the radar. But outside agencies were about to give the DC a shot at the big time; one of the raving critics, Graham Linehan (at the time reviewing music for Hot Press in Ireland), gave Hannon a job writing the music for his upcoming sitcom "Father Ted". And flush with cash from the astonishing success of Edwyn Collins' "A Girl Like You", Hannon's label Setanta gave him a budget to match his ambition. The result was "Casanova", a much more orchestral work. Chris Evans jumped on the leadoff single "Something For The Weekend" like it was a future Dr Who assistant, and suddenly Neil Hannon was everywhere.
He followed it up with "A Short Album About Love" (note; yet another reference, this time to the films of Krzysztof Kieślowski), possibly the ultimate expression of his orchestral ambitions, and a triumph for Hannon and Joby Talbot; recorded live at Shepherd's Bush Empire, it is (to this listener) the second finest thing the DC ever did. Then came the pre-millennial tension of "Fin de Siecle"; a far darker work (despite the presence of "National Express", the sort of song that fans hate their favourite artists to be famous for). Hannon then unwisely attempted to turn his live band into the studio version of Travis (a more literate Travis, obviously, but still Travis) having unwisely made friends with Robbie Williams; 2001's "Regeneration" killed most of his momentum. He retreated to more familiar orchestral territory with 2004's return-to-form "Absent Friends", and confirmed his artistic (if not commercial) re-emergence with 2006's excellent "Victory For The Comic Muse". He's now writing a musical; he's not Ben Elton, so let's be hopeful, eh?
But what of "Promenade"? Well, 13 years on, it still flows superbly, but is savvy enough to still include obvious highlights. The sound is still reasonably unique, so it certainly hasn't dated; not in the conventional sense of the word, anyway. It remains almost laughable that it's the work of a 23 year old; you look at the photo of the besuited and sunglassed Hannon outside the Pyramide du Louvre on the front and it's easy to imagine that he was born looking like that. I was given a copy by a friend from University, and it simply blew me away; the sort of thing you hear once and think "where the hell has THIS been all my life?". So it's definitely a record that can easily be fallen in love with. Likewise, if you're the sort who doesn't like the possibility of "too clever for its clogs", you might not be so happy (indeed, I once used this to soundtrack a car journey with a bluff Yorkshireman; his verdict? "It's like a crap version of the Rocky Horror Show"). But I'm in the "better to be wilfully clever than deliberately stupid" camp, and I suggest you join me.
Maybe if we all shout loud enough, he might actually give in and play "My Lovely Horse" live.
Ever listened to a record that takes you somewhere far away? Not just gets you reminiscing of somewhere you went, but takes you back to a place you can only imagine, a forgotten era when everything seemed simple? A song so enrichening to body and soul that you come away with a warm feeling inside at the end of it all? Enough amateur dramatics. The point I'm trying to get over is that Promenade, the second album by erstwhile Ulsterman Neil Hannon and his vehicle is a must-have record. From the opening refrain of 'Bath' complete with resplendent cor anglais, to the galloping-drum led masterpiece that is 'Tonight We Fly', this album sparkles with throwbacks to another era. 'When The Lights Go Out All Over Europe' is a homage to the joys of French cinema, while 'The Booklovers' is a tongue-in-cheek list of famous writers - this is an album which harks back to a golden era. Hardly surprising, seeing as the loose concept of the album is a day in the life of a couple at the seaside. Such classicism can be seen in the instrumentation. Sparse compared to some of their later work, the string quartet is ever present yet exudes a positively life-affirming glow. Yet if the arrangements are somewhat subdued at times, the lyrics certainly aren't. There's little point quoting them here, because they all work so well as a full-bodied piece of literature. This truly is a scrumptious album - buy it!
Neil Hannon poses at the entrance to the Louvre on the cover of PROMENADE, an indicator that he was now fully embracing the unashamedly artistic and literary pretensions hinted at on LIBERATION. Indeed 'The Booklovers' is simply a recitation of authors' names put to music, and the album is littered with cultural references all the way through to its final line. But don't think that it is a snobbish or inaccessible record - it is quite the opposite. Sales of this album were quite modest, despite critical acclaim, which is bewildering when it is such a brilliant and fascinating collection of pop songs. It continues where LIBERATION left off with echoes of The Kinks and Scott Walker, but by now Michael Nyman and Noel Coward had been thrown in for good measure. 'Bath' starts out as minimalism then about thirty different instruments start playing, while 'A Seafood Song' is a joyous paean to, well, seafood. 'The Summerhouse' is a bittersweet remembrance of lost love, and 'A Drinking Song' ("We're drinking to life / We're drinking to death...") a magnificently exuberant exploration of spiralling decadence. Many devotees of the band would acclaim 'Don't Look Down' as their finest ever song. Musically complex, it is at first an apparently innocuous love song that finally becomes a theistic debate with God himself ("And to be frank, I find that life has more appeal / ...without a driver who's asleep behind the wheel.") The album's final track, 'Tonight We Fly' is a string-led fantasy proclaiming the wonder of the world, and could hardly be more uplifting. The Divine Comedy went on to achieve real commercial success with their later work, yet they have never quite equalled this virtually flawless album. PROMENADE should find a place in almost any record collection.
This is the Divine Comedy's second album, and was released when the Divine Comedy was effectively Neil Hannon with a string quartet. These early albums show of his talented far better than the lavishly produced albums that he has since released. He plays a whole range of guitars and keyboard instruments, as well as singing and arranging strings and a few woodwind lines. Although this album is supposed to be a concept album about two lovers spending a day at the seaside, the link can sometimes be a bit tenuous, either that or they are a distinctly weird couple, the sequence of events going; having a bath to get ready, nervously going to meet her, reading some books together, eating fish, running home in the rain, going to a fairground, going to the cinema, remembering their childhood, she goes for a swim, they get drunk, then it's nearly the end of the evening, and finally they fly away. It's obviously quite a long evening! However ignoring the slightly feeble attempt at a concept, it is a very good album, containing some excellent tracks. The sound is like nothing else in modern music; quite often you could mistake it for classical music with the sound being based around piano and string quartet, or even harpsichord and string quartet. Thanks to Neil Hannon's skill at arrangement, he can always carry this through effectively and so the album sounds very accomplished, melodic and intricate, and he also presents a wide variety of dynamics from the gentle '10 seconds to midnight', to the up-tempo 'Drinking Song'. The best tracks are probably the memorable 'Going downhill fast', which if it was released now would probably go top 10, the baroque sounding 'Neptune's daughter' and the very English sounding 'Tonight we fly'. Although the slightly more experimental stuff doesn't always quite match this quality, there isn't really a weak track here, which is remarkable for a o
ne-man band, and an album which does not have a credit for production.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
2 Going Downhill Fast
4 Seafood Song
6 Don't Look Down
7 When the Lights Go Out All Over Europe
9 Neptunes Daughter
10 Drinking Song
11 Ten Seconds to Midnight
12 Tonight We Fly