With 30+ years of recording behind him as The Divine Comedy, 2022 sees Neil Hannon release his second greatest hits compilation. And with it comes an extensive Europe, UK and Ireland tour, suitably titled ‘The Very Best of The Divine Comedy’ or, as Hannon himself put it when addressing Edinburgh’s Usher Hall; “We’re just doing the hits. None of that weird, difficult stuff”. They do not fail to deliver.
Absent Friends and At the Indie Disco, open the show. With Absent Friends, a galloping anthem detailing the lives of cultural icons like Oscar Wilde and Steve McQueen, beautifully setting the tone for the evening in a hall that feels completely befitting of a band like The Divine Comedy.
The first half of the set weaves through the back catalogue, from 1996’s Becoming More Like Aflie, to Norman and Norma (from the last studio album Office Politics), to their latest single The Best Mistakes. In a set list that is pushed as being a best of, I suppose the biggest compliment you could pay to The Best Mistakes is that it does not sound remotely out of place alongside the songs that are the high points of The Divine Comedy’s three decade existence.
Musically, The Divine Comedy are as good as you would expect, but the real charm lies in Hannon himself and the way he interacts with the audience and his songs. There is a humour throughout the set, from a set of maracas masquerading as a bouquet of flowers to a bowler hatted stage hand waltzing on stage to change Hannon’s capo position. Hannon has a sort of blithe stage presence about himself. It’s not arrogant nonchalance, it’s almost like he’s completely surprised to have stumbled upon a room of people there to see him.
After a brief mid-set interval they return with two songs which probably best show the different eras of the band. First is Lady of a Certain Age from 2006’s Victory for the Comic Muse. This is The Divine Comedy at one of their most chamber pop points, the usual orchestral backing substituted for an accordion during this run. Then, Songs of Love, the almost Britpop without actually being Britpop number. As familiar as a TV theme tune as it is a beautifully poetic pop song.
At this point it’s probably overplayed to compare Hannon to Scott Walker. So I won’t, even if I do include the previous sentence as a way of getting it in there. But Hannon’s voice is really something else. It is rich and grandiose and, when he wants it to, it fills the hall with a lush and emotive tone that can’t help but take you by the scruff of the neck and make you notice. He does this best during Our Mutual Friend, taking us through a night of drunken not-quite-love to the early morning hangover and loss. Those final few drawn out and textured notes highlighting how good he still sounds.
By the final song of the second set, hit of hits National Express, even up in the gods, people were on their feet. Foregoing worries of vertigo, a woman a row down finally sprung from her seat as if a jack in the box, with a crank only turned by Northern Irish chamber pop.
The two song encore of Perfect Lovesong and Tonight We Fly round out one of the most satisfying performances I’ve seen in a long time.
Review by Callum McCormack