PERMANENT RECORDS: SOMEONE MADE ME FEEL LIKE SOMEONE REALLY CARES
Permanent Records is a year-long project. Each Friday (or thereabouts), I will post a new entry about one specific album, chosen due to its significance to myself as a fan. Though the list is numbered, a particular record's placement should not be considered a ranking. There will be 52 albums in all.
This endeavor is based on a concept started by Chris Tamarri at Crisis/Boring Change.
47. THE DIVINE COMEDY - A SHORT ALBUM ABOUT LOVE (1997)
Personnel: Neil Hannon, vocals/guitars; Ivor Talbot, guitars; Bryan Mills, bass; Joby Talbot, piano; Stuart "Pinkie" Bates, hammond organ; Muguel Barradas, drums; and Christopher Austin conducting an orchestra of 26
Engineered & Mixed by: Jon Jacobs /Label: Setanta
What do we sing about when we sing about love?
With Valentine's Day just around the corner, it's hard not to think of such a question. Or to be reminded that something like 90% of music is about the topic. Most of this week's top 10 on Billboard touches on love in some way or another, even if it is in a strange "You are my boo" hip-hop variety, where one's boyfriend or girlfriend is more akin to a status symbol. It's pretty much been the topic of a good portion of music since music began. In fact, if someone told me the whole reason we have songs in the first place is because some silly boy became smitten with a girl and started humming to himself out of sheer happiness, I'd believe him.
Thus, when it came time to decide on this week's entry, I decided I wanted to write about the most romantic album I can think of. There are many candidates, but if I had to choose one, I'd probably vote for Spandau Ballet's True as the most out-and-out, damn-the-clichés love record. Obviously, though, I have not chosen to rock the Spandau this week. Rather, I've decided to go with a disc that is far more varied in its amorous pleasures: The Divine Comedy's A Short Album About Love.
A Short Album About Love is one of the more treasured pieces of my collection. I could listen to it a million times over in a day and not grow tired of it. It's one of those I repeatedly share with other people--though only once have I ever given an actual store-bought copy of it to another person, and it just so happened I did so on Valentine's Day. So, now it's sealed there. The ways in which I woo using A Short Album About Love are now limited, as there can be only the one time. And never you mind who that was. That's between me and her.
Though ostensibly a band with regular members, for all intents and purposes the Divine Comedy is the alter-ego of Neil Hannon. A bookish boy, Hannon made two full-length albums of literate orchestral pop with songs titles borrowed from F. Scott Fitzgerald before finding wider success in his native U.K. with 1996's Casanova. As the title suggests, Hannon stepped out of his library, emerging as an oily loverman with a taste for the ladies. The songs still had a wry lilt to them, and the hit singles, billed as numbered "Casanova Companions," played with his new dandyish image, insisting one should "become more like Alfie" and explaining how a single kiss could transform a frog princess not into one's fabled true love...but into a cow. A cow with instruments of destruction under her skirt, no less!
Buoyed by this success, the Divine Comedy set up a multi-night residency at London's Shepherd's Bush Empire. Playing with a full orchestra, Hannon spent the evenings entertaining his fans and the off-time recording the topic at hand.
A Short Album About Love is indeed short. It's only 7 tracks, just under thirty- minutes; however, its power is awe-inspiring.
Once more, Hannon steps out from behind a familiar guise, trading one mask for another. It's not entirely a new one, as it has its roots back in that stuffy ol' library, but the lusty Casanova was turned into a turtle-necked Bacharach. He's got the same swagger and a renewed sense of cool, but he's also a bit sensitive, a tad misunderstood. If we look at the album cover, we can interpret the iconography as being more honesty up front, an eagerness to break out and love for real. The back cover is of Hannon in the rear of a New York taxi, darkly clad, his eyes behind sunglasses, the windows spotted with rain. The front cover is much closer in. The frame of the cab is now cropped out, the sunglasses are gone. Hannon's hand is on the glass, his eyes fixed on something off frame--his longing has overtaken him, he wants to step into the downpour even as he remains shielded inside, moving rather than stopping.
The music here is full of contradictions, and that's why I can actually bring up the dreaded "H" word in the paragraph above. Yes, honesty, the excuse for more bad art than even greed. Be woeful of artists that strive too hard to be honest.
Hannon isn't striving, thankfully, he's just being. The effect of the collective songs is of a shy, poetic boy who wants to feel passionately, but has learned to place his words carefully. His wit, when decoded, unveils the reality of his heart, but should you choose to deny it, he can skip away under the pretext of having just been kidding. Take "If..." for example. The song is one long list. If the object of the narrator's affection is going to be one thing, then the narrator will become the complimentary thing. "If your name was Jack, I'd change mine to Jill for you," is one of the tamer ones; "If you were a horse, I'd clean the crap out of your stable, and never once complain," the most outrageous. Statements like that one are so over-the-top, they border on the ironic, and I have no doubt some people find them so. I never really heard them that way. They reveal a sense of humor, to be sure, but the songs come off as more sincere because Hannon is courageous enough to pull no punches elsewhere on the record. The album's opener reverberates with echoes of a grand tradition. "The Pursuit of Happiness" is unabashed in its goodwill, alive with Hollywood musicals, where emotions were allowed to be one-dimensional. He needs no other truth. This love will make bring him bliss, pure and simple. "Because when you're with me, I'm absolutely and totally quite uncontrollably happy."
The coda of "If..." reinforces that idea. Switching to a canine metaphor, the narrator declares amidst a grand crescendo, "If you were a dog, I'd feed you scraps off of the table, though my wife complains; if you were my dog, I'm sure you'd like it better then, you'd be my loyal four-legged friend, you'd never have to think again, and we would be together 'till the end." For all the moments where Hannon covers himself, the sincerity can't be outweighed.
There are plenty of points where Hannon exposes the symphonic lover as a feint. It's the dandy given voice in a testosterone-fueled world where wearing your heart on your sleeve can get your head kicked in. Even the unabashed "Pursuit of Happiness" fades out on a mild wink, "true happiness lies beyond your fries and happy burgers." The remarkably self-deprecating "If I Were You (I'd Be Through With Me)" uses self-loathing as its seduction. It's a catalogue of faults, the unworthy boy speaking to the lover he idealizes. "If I were you/ I'd look at me/ and fail to see/ the things I see in you." It's the sort of feeling that only someone who has so submersed himself in a relationship can understand, and it's a pose that makes A Short Album About Love's ailing heart ache even more, pumping out sadness in concentrated doses.
The thing is, for a true romantic, love isn't just about the happy things, about the spring it places in your step. It's about doubt, because doubt leads to desire, and desire is at the root of all of this. To be sad is to feel the emotion all the more acutely. Every sensitive lover out there gets it when, in "Timewatching," Hannon sings of sleepless nights and the need for the object of our heart to lift us when we fall, hold us together when we're going to shatter. The specter of doom is all we have to know it's real, because without the threat of mutability, it can't be alive. That's also why sometimes the sweetest love is the unrequited kind. Hence A Short Album About Love's single, "Everybody Knows (Except You)." The song is similar to "In Pursuit of Happiness" in how it explodes with hearts and flowers, and its bop-a-bop-bada's hop along the melody like a string of bubbles for our lover to skip along. Hannon revels in the notion that he is going to burst with this passion, and that everyone can see it but the person who needs to the most. "I told the passersby, I made a small boy cry...Everybody knows that I love you/ Everybody knows that I need you/ Everybody knows that I do/ Except you." The song can barely contain its own energy, which is what it's like to be in love. A boy could go supernova! Love makes us scattered, it sends our thoughts careening all over the place. It's why Baz Luhrmann had to do an insane medley for the scene on top of the elephant in Moulin Rouge: one song could not adequately express everything Christian and Satine are experiencing.
It's also the reason we listen to love songs and watch melodramatic movies like Moulin Rouge, and really, why it's been such a dominant concern for so long. As I noted earlier, love has been around forever. Some people like to shield themselves with the notion that romance is some kind of societal conditioning, that the idea of coupling and being monogamous is unnatural, but I can't imagine anything more natural. If we created terms for it--and then holidays to express those terms--well, I call that evolution. Somewhere along the line someone--that smitten child again?--decided to explain these feelings in ways that proved we were more than animals driven by chemicals and lust. Love songs are a reassurance of this, and when a band like the Divine Comedy creates an entire record devoted to the many ups and downs of human affections, it gives voice to the conflicts we all experience in our own hearts. It gives our personal quadrophrenics a stamp of approval and reassures us that the doubting is okay. This is what we sing about when we sing about love.
Don't get the wrong idea, though. I'm not selling you a record for sadsacks. Even with the dodging and the questioning, A Short Album About Love is riddled through with a determined spirit. The most important aspect of "Everybody Knows" is that he's not going to let his crush remain ignorant. "Yeah, and I'll get through to you/ If it's the last thing that I do!" Hannon declares. This determination is nowhere more evident than the final cut, "I'm All You Need," and its declarative chorus, "Don't look a horse in the mouth/ Don't let a frog get you down/ Dragging you 'round like a dog on a leash/ I'm all you need." For as much as the demons that search our soul may have plagued the singer of "Timewatching," for as much as we hope there is someone who can prop us up in the darkest hours, our fondest hope is that the intensity of our feelings will permit us to do the same in return, and that our love can truly go "on and on."
And, ladies, in case you were wondering...mine can.
NOTABLE B-SIDE: There were three separate discs for the "Everybody Knows" single, and each had three live recordings from the Shepherd's Bush shows. The best is an enchanting cover of American Music Club's "Johnny Mathis' Feet." The song is a meditation on the struggle of an artist to say what he means, with the great crooner invoked as a figure of wisdom who has managed to maintain a purity of voice in the dazzle and glitter of fame. "Why do you say everything as if you were thief/ Like what you stole has no value/ Like what you preach is far from belief?" When Mark Eitzel and his crew first recorded it, it served as self-flagellation, as he pored over his own need to stand out in front, naked, too scared to work from behind a stage persona. Once again, the woefulness of the desperately honest. For the Divine Comedy, it comes off like an explanation of an ethos, a statement of intent, and possibly a defense from a performer who does understand how to remain sincere while also striking a pose.
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Current Soundtrack: The Divine Comedy, "Everybody Knows (Except You)" CDs 1-3
Current Mood: naughty
[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All text (c) 2006 Jamie S. Rich