The Divine Comedy - Biography
Who is this blond-haired man who makes lush and literary baroque pop music and has a curious obsession with appearing on his album covers wearing sunglasses? He is the Divine Comedy, aka Neil Hannon, and though he is considerably lesser known than British bands like Pulp and Blur, he has carved a niche for himself as a storyteller and songwriter who can craft a hook just as well as the aforementioned bands. He is something of a well-kept secret, having enjoyed comfortable popularity overseas since the 90's, and being relatively unknown in the US.
There were once other members of the Divine Comedy. In fact, they were a trio whose music more resembled REM than Scott Walker, one of Hannon's idols. Formed in 1989 in Londonderry, Ireland, where Hannon was born 19 years before, the band consisted of Hannon on guitar and vocals, John McCullagh on bass and Kevin Traynor on drums. It was a bold move naming their band after one of the greatest works in the history of literature and perhaps even more pretentious was the name of the group's first EP, 1990's Fanfare for the Comic Muse. Hannon is, if nothing else, an appreciator of words and literature, and showed these interests early on in his lyrics. That spring, the band played a handful of shows in support of the EP and even opened for My Bloody Valentine. If this early incarnation of the Divine Comedy sounded anything like the albums Hannon would later make on his own, this was a bizarre combination.
The group soon recorded another EP, Timewatch. The EP was not released until the fall of 1991, at which point a new member had been brought in, John Allen, who would be the group's new lead singer. The four-piece moved to London together and started opening for Suede frequently at club shows. Former Orange Juice front-man Edwyn Collins produced the band's subsequent Europop EP and it was released in 1992, the last recording from the original line-up. The group had begun to fizzle, and when they finally broke up, Hannon moved back to his parents' house in Londonderry, where he could focus on writing songs without the pressure of having to please his band mates. In 1993, he scored a deal with Setanta Records, a Camberwell, London-based company developing a reputation for helping unknown Irish musicians get major label deals. Hannon, teaming up with produce/drummer Darren Allison, recorded The Divine Comedy's first album proper, Liberation (Setanta), and released it in 1993 to glowing reviews.
A second and similar album, Promenade (Setanta) came out in 1994 and the UK reviews were just as good as those for Liberation. At the end of the year, British publications like NME, Q, and Melody Maker cited the album as one of the best of 1994. After the album came out, Blur, Oasis and Pulp were taking indie Brit-pop to the top of the charts and the Divine Comedy, though never a front-runner of the British music scene, sold more albums because of those bands. In 1996, Hannon released Casanova (Setanta), again sharing total control with Allison and again supported by an orchestra. The reviews were better than those of his prior two albums, and it steadily gained momentum through the popularity of the song, “Something For the Weekend,” which Chris Evans played regularly on his radio show. Evans soon invited the Divine Comedy to play on his TFI Friday television show, which was the first TV appearance for Hannon. “Something For the Weekend” entered the charts at 14 when it was released as a single one month after the TV spot. Hannon was beginning to gain some fame, and there were articles being published about him in various magazines. Some of his greatest publicity occurred when he got the cover story for an issue of Melody Maker. “Becoming More Like Alfie” only reached 27 on the charts, but it still served to widen his audience. That November, “The Frog Princess” proved more successful, peaking at number 15.
The Divine Comedy then went on tour with a 30-piece orchestra, a trip that ended with a show at London Shepherd's Bush Empire. To capitalize on the newfound success, the group rushed out a mini-album called A Short Album About Love (1997 Setanta) and that's exactly what it was; a seven-song opus of lush compositions that celebrated not only love (it was released to coincide with Valentine's Day) but Hannon's love of Scott Walker's music. Hannon received another string of positive feedback from critics and sales had become better than ever. In 1998, the group released Fin de Siecle (French for “End of the Century”) another successful outing that ended up being their last release on Setanta. Hannon ended his contract, and the label released the best of compilation, A Secret History, in 1999. The singer didn't seem so concerned with the future of the Divine Comedy, and he appeared singing on Tom Jones' Reload as well as Ute Lemper's Punishing Kiss. By 2000, though, he had inked a deal with Parlophone and entered the studio with famed Radiohead producer, Nigel Godrich. The pair produced Regeneration (2001 Parlophone) and wowed fans and critics, as it was an ambitious leap forward from an artist whom many had thought to be now incapable of writing relevant material. It was the last album made by Hannon with his regular band, however, as he decided to go solo. With only an acoustic guitar in his hands, he began playing club gigs and later acted as an opener on a number of American dates in 2002 for another one-time band leader who had now opted for a solo career, Ben Folds.
Hannon moved to Dublin after this and became a father. In 2004, he released Absent Friends (Parlophone) to even more critical acclaim than Regeneration. It was self-produced, and reunited him with Joby Talbot and Nigel Godrich, who was on-hand as the engineer. In 2006, Hannon released the Divine Comedy's ninth album, Victory for the Comic Muse (Parlophone), which involved 28 other musicians and was finished in two weeks' time. There has been little talk of a new Divine Comedy release since then, but Hannon is immersed in a number of external projects, including writing songs for other artists. Most recently, he co-wrote the song “Somewhere Between Waking and Sleeping” with Air, and the song appears on their 2007 album, Pocket Symphony, featuring Hannon's vocals.