DIVINE RITES

 

NEIL HANNON is a bit of a spoof. But then what can you expect from a guy who has so much gall that he calls his musical alter ego Divine Comedy, after Dante's epic poem of the same name? He's got to have a sense of humour, right? Yet when you tear away his lighthearted theatrical costume, Wonderbra and most lascivious layer of flesh, he is not really that different to the Loaded magazine loving lager louts he satirises in his song Becoming More Like Alfie.

But let's unlatch the secrets of his fondness for that fashion accessory he refers to in another song on his new album, Casanova, when he declares "I'd rather die than be deprived of Wonderbras and thunderthighs". What makes Neil want to delve, in his songs, into the murky depths of sexual confusion that defines many of the early songs of his dearest hero, Scott Walker? After all, isn't the title of his song, Through A Long and Sleepless Night, a direct lift from a track recorded by Walker on his debut solo album?

"Picking that title was partly unconscious though not totally, obviously, as I've listened to that album thousands of times. It was probably more of a spontaneous gesture, from the soul," says Neil. But, sure, there is plenty of sexual confusion. The whole second side of the album is one big ball of sexual confusion!"

The second song on his album, Become More Like Alfie is, Neil claims, an "ironical attack" on the kind of sexism by another name laddishness evident in British working class culture all the way from Michael Caine's Alfie right up to the "every woman I meet wants me" declarations of Liam Gallagher.

"I watched Alfie a long time ago and thought, `what a horrible character', as in the way he was referring to women as `it's a nice little thing', a complete dehumanising of the opposite sex," he explains.

"But when I saw it again recently, I saw a lot of my own tendencies in it - which sparked the song. It is also a dig at the laddishness in Britpop at the moment. A lot of what comes out of the Gallagher twins' mouths, for example, is absolutely obscene. But many critics missed the irony and the fact that I'm criticising that kind of behaviour, in myself as much as in others.

"This album isn't straightforward. The first set of songs shows how much fun sex can be, but then I look at the other side of it all. The album isn't me offering answers in terms of any of this. It's more of a huge question, really."

This, of course, brings us back to Scott Walker's seminal influence on Neil, and maybe more specifically the work of Scott's own original role model, Jacques Brel.

"Walker's influence was definitely there on an orchestral and vocal level," he says. "And in terms of the melancholic airs, maybe more so than the subject matter in general because his thing, on those early albums, was `she's gone and I'm depressed', whereas I don't like to dwell on all that.

"The stuff I do is deadly serious but also extremely amusing; but then this also has to do with me hiding behind an exterior of melodrama and theatricality, which is the only way to go, for a reserved Irishman like myself. Though I'm obviously more Anglo Irish, which also gives the ironical, double edge to the work. But you're right - Brel is a huge influence on this album, overall. He was able to take the gritty nuts and bolts of life and put it all in such a dramatic way, so that it became populist while remaining socio realistic."

Social realism? Yes. Populist? Only to a degree. After all, let's not forget that when Walker covered Brel's Jacky in the late Sixties, the reference to "authentic queers and phoney virgins" led to the song being banned by the BBC. So how does Neil's dad, the Bishop of Clogher, respond to similar lines in Charge, or the song title In and Out of Paris and London?

"When I played the album for him I'd already played it a thousand times and the lyrics had gone past me. But then I suddenly realised how dodgy some were and I blushed a lot, believe me! Though I don't know how much of the innuendo he got in In and Out In Paris and London," says Neil.

THE question was, did his dad blush? Neil has said that his father said very little after the album ended. So is it that he and the Bishop can't confront things at that level, as father and son? And if so, did Neil identify with the religious sexual familial tensions in, say, the work of James Joyce, a writer from whom he has stolen more than a line in the past?

"I'd steal from anyone! But, no, my dad and I can't confront things at that level. Yet we understand that we can't, so there's no tension about it. And as for relating to Joyce, it's very hard for me, being me, to actually say!" he responds, suddenly becoming exceedingly self conscious. So does "being me" mean being the 24 year old son of the Bishop of Clogher?

"Yes. And maybe a psychologist could tell me more about this. It's very hard to find out who you are. You write songs to find out who you are. Though I definitely do agree with the reviewer who said that this album has a lot to do with `affairs of the genitals'".

But it is a joke, in many ways. I mean the idea of me on the cover, with the word `Casanova' under me, has to be a joke, right?"

Nice line, Neil, but maybe not altogether true. On the contrary, isn't it more the case that sex becomes abundantly available once you become a pop star?

"Well, yes, and this whole album comes directly from that ability, to `pull', probably because I now am a pop star," he says, laughing. "And I did fancy having a bash at discovering what, exactly, the effect on one's ego is, when you know these people are only in bed with you for that reason. But I haven't had the chance to `abuse' my position, in this sense, recently, because I've done bugger all gigs lately.

"And as gigs are how you get off with people, it remains to be seen how I'll deal with that, when I go out on tour, soon. But I look forward, with bated breath, to seeing what happens!"