The Divine Comedy

A Secret History: Best of the Divine Comedy

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For those who want lyrical bones to chew on, there's no denying Neil Hannon's sly appeal. To dismiss him as "baroque" would be as misleading as pegging him as the missing link between Noel Coward, Anthony Newley, and Scott Walker. But Hannon's highly evolved song constructions, grandiose orchestral pretensions, and baritone crooning seem as much quaint classicism as a bicycle built for two -- even as his deft, complex, ambitious arrangements are contemporary. (He's no Leon Redbone.) In the end, his consummate skills as a writer come across most. You hang on the surprise of every wily word, wrapped around venerable melody. Distilled here to a best-of, Hannon makes one of his strongest cases for his dashing, romantic charm. It's this sweeping romanticism, the thick violins and pianos like spectacular sunsets spurring his yearning singing, that transcends his occasional lapses into naughty schoolboy leering. One listen to Fin de Siècle's triumphant "The Certainty of Chance" or A Short Album's cascading "In Pursuit of Happiness" is to open the blinds in a dark room that emit bursts of blinding light; the sweep of the orchestra playing madly, as if running to catch a train, and Hannon's voice bawling along, carried away, shedding its sporadic smugness. Today's Divine Comedy is a lot sweeter and emotional than Dante's. As a word of caution, the uninitiated might find the opening "National Express" and the so-so "Generation Sex" tough going. But with the early help of Hannon's first English hits "Something for the Weekend" and "Becoming More Like Alfie," one can get hooked into Hannon's passion play without realizing it. Pop can mean something more than momentary, torpid trifle again, if only those stifling blinds can be lifted.

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