With Absent Friends, Neil Hannon returns to the glorious whimsical form of his crooning pop masterpieces. While Regeneration seemed mired in murkiness and awkwardly styled angry tunes, and some wondered if Hannon would recover from sacking his bandmates, Absent Friends sees Hannon blending the finest themes of his previous albums into a gorgeous, mature tapestry of musical adventures. Longtime associate Jobi Talbot lends his usual magic and Regeneration producer Nigel Godrich stays on as mixer, allowing Hannon to expertly man the production boards himself. Album closer "Charmed Life," which marries twinkling pianos with airy orchestration and a thoroughly jolly sense of self-discovery, is perhaps most indicative of Hannon's rediscovered optimism. The song perfectly blends the light, literary style of Promenade and Liberation, but with the added crunch and bombast of Hannon's West End-leaning Casanova and Fin de Siècle. "Sticks & Stones" also traverses Casanova territory, while "Come Home Billy Bird," "Absent Friends," and "The Happy Goth" all feel like souped-up versions of Promenade and Liberation tunes. "Come Home Billy Bird" seems like the mature artist's version of "Bernice Bobs Her Hair." Where Hannon sang of schoolgirl pettiness on the latter, he moves onto the problems business travel causes family life on the former. Thus, Hannon has found a way to mix semi-autobiographical subject matter with the witty pop melodies that are his bread and butter. As always, it's Hannon's superb wit and impeccable sense of timing that allow him to mingle delicate and simultaneously revelatory turns of phrase for maximum emotional and musical effect. Who else could pull off a touching yet hilarious song like "The Happy Goth," where Hannon sings of lonely yet happy young lady "who wears Doc Martens and a heavy cross"? It is perhaps "Our Mutual Friend" that really drives home the confidence and sublime nature of Hannon's songwriting and execution at this stage of his career. Hannon had mined the orchestral strings and minimalism of composer and associate Michael Nyman in the past, but "Our Mutual Friend" is his finest stab at merging Nyman-like strings and rhythm with devastating, dramatic vocals. Singing of infidelity and the damage it causes, Hannon sounds absolutely floored. In an interview with Kitty Empire talking of his aspirations going into the album's recording, Hannon claimed he simply wanted to create a beautiful album, one that "sounds gorgeous on [his] stereo, with a roaring fire and a glass of sherry and a Labrador at [his] feet." With the thrilling and poignant Absent Friends, he has more than succeeded. It ranks high among his finest albums.
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AllMusic Review by Tim DiGravina