After years of boisterous, frequent winking at the audience, what to do? In the case of the Divine Comedy, it seemed time to take a step into the world of sincerity. So they did on the band's latest album, Regeneration, a fine piece of work even without the smirk.
While ballads have long been a staple of the Divine Comedy's work, they're better known where they're known at all for the jaunty, sarcastic digs songwriter Neil Hannon takes at, shall we say, the commonplace things in life and the people who enjoy them. Past singles like "The National Express" and "Something for the Weekend" took aim at the common folk and their attempts to transcend their ordinariness. Now, it's Hannon who's working in transcendent fashion, evolving past his smartass tendencies to deliver an album aching with genuine feeling throughout its 11 mellow tracks.
That's not to say the cleverness is gone. Indeed, the first song, "Timestretched," begins with the lines "There's not enough hours in the day to say all that I want to say/ There's not enough days in the week and weeks go by quicker than drunks knock back liquor" (a motif continued later in the song with the observation that "years disappear like the bubbles in my beer"). Wry little bits like this are strewn throughout Regeneration, which references the pope, the archbishop of Canterbury, asthma inhalers, "Carmen," and even Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn."
Hannon demonstrates a certain awareness not unlike, say, the Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt or Mark Eitzel that he's working within a tradition of pop songcraft that long predates his own contributions. Witness this from "The Perfect Lovesong": "Give me your love and I'll give you the perfect lovesong/ With a divine Beatles bassline and a big old Beach Boys sound."
Perhaps the closest the Divine Comedy come to the old anger is found toward the album's end, most notably on "Dumb It Down" and "The Beauty Regime." The former is an atmospheric, angry lament about the (unspecified, but obvious enough) powers that be and the tendency to boil things down to the least common denominator. "Beauty" catalogues cynical sales ploys (including such lines as "Cover up all the pain in your life with our new product range" and "If your life depresses you just live it through your favorite movie star"), but ends with Hannon's optimistic advice: "Don't let them sell you impossible dreams/ Don't be a slave to the beauty regime/ Look again in the mirror and see exactly how perfect you are."
Regeneration finds the Divine Comedy playing to and building upon their strengths: beautiful ballads meld seamlessly, one into the other, making for a mellow listening experience and with each listen, a new line or two emerges. If you know the Divine Comedy's previous work, it's hard to imagine how Regeneration could disappoint; if they're new to you and you're a fan of literate, orchestrated pop music, give it a try.