Mid-afternoon, and the bar of the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin, is tumbleweed-quiet. Between sips of Guinness, Neil Hannon is lamenting the dearth of quality television shows on which artists of a certain age/stripe can promote their records. "I count myself lucky to get on Today with Des and Mel," he says, "and later this afternoon, I'm doing The Late Late Show at RTE. Basically, you have to give it your rock'n'roll best for an audience of grannies. It's all rather dispiriting."
Nice though that image of a rockin' Hannon blasting blue-rinsers is, in truth, he has never really rocked. If he has rolled, moreover, this wan crooner has done so with genteel panache. As linchpin of The Divine Comedy, he is best known for making arch, lyrically sophisticated records exploring everything from religious hypocrisy to the unique sociological experience that is the National Express coach ride. And while tattooed others might opt for electric-guitar chaos, this suited, piercing-free and otherwise unadorned musician has tended to favour the brass and string arrangements of one-time Young Composer of the Year Joby Talbot.
The interim between 2001's Regeneration album and the new Divine Comedy CD, Absent Friends, has seen much upheaval for Hannon. He tells me that he left London for Dublin two years ago, with his wife Orla, "to avoid fathering a cockney baby". But given that the couple lived in Muswell Hill and their daughter, Willow, was born before they left the Big Smoke, it seems safe to assume that he's joking. What is clear, though, is that the idea of raising Willow in dirty, fast-track London gave Hannon and his wife pause for thought. "I was brought up in provincial Ireland," he explains, "and when we moved to Enniskillen from Londonderry when I was 11, I think the slow pace of life there gave me time to develop my personality. Obviously, Dublin is a big city, but compared to London it's a village. I like the idea that Willow will grow up in a community."
Musical changes have accompanied the recent geographical one, with Hannon opting to pare back The Divine Comedy to just himself. "So, you've dismembered your band?" a Polish journalist recently asked him, but the new album's title and Hannon's account of the break-up speak of a less bloody parting. "There was no crying - at least, not in front of each other," he has said. "And we're all still in contact and wishing each other well." Asked why he decided to pilot The Divine Comedy solo, Hannon says that he felt it would be a good way to reboot his creativity. And listening to Absent Friends, he was clearly right.
Parenthood and the parent-child dynamic are recurring themes on the new album. "My Imaginary Friend", replete with Bagpuss-style banjo, is about a child whose father's work-related absenteeism prompts invention. "Come Home Baby Bird", something of a duet with the Xfm DJ and former Kenickie singer Lauren Laverne, finds its hero torn between the extra-curricular hedonism of his business trips and the normality of watching his son play football.
"It's funny," says Hannon, "because I wrote 'My Imaginary Friend' thinking, Oh, this is a silly little Bacharach-esque song - kind of 'Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head'. It was only much later that I looked at the lyrics and thought about my dad being a vicar who was absent for vast amounts of time. It was great when I saw him, and I'm not complaining, but his being away must have had an impact.
"I never had an imaginary friend. I got the idea from this 1960s Peter Sellers movie called Only Two Can Play. He's a mobile librarian, and his kid has an imaginary friend. Mentioning 'mobile library' in the song was just an excuse to get the word 'peripatetically' in there. Put them together and they rhyme quite well."
If Hannon's deftness with words of many syllables is impressive, his managing to write beautifully, but never cloyingly, about the father-daughter relationship is a more meaningful achievement - both "Charmed Life" and "Leaving Today" are mature, multifaceted songs that highlight his near-alchemical flair with lyric and melody.
"Charmed Life" finds him reflecting on his own good fortune, and wishing the same for his daughter, while "Leaving Today" is a limpid and bewitching song about separation anxiety. When I tell Hannon that I think his vocal on the latter is one of the most potent performances of his career, he explains that he recorded it at Abbey Road's studio 2 just minutes after the orchestral session for the song had given him goose bumps.
"I was certainly on my guard against sentimentality", he says of the song's lyric. "But if you're going to get better as a songwriter, you have to keep writing about reality. I had to write about being a father without it being too horrible for people to listen to."
Hannon was born in Londonderry in 1970. His father was Bishop of Clogher from 1986 to 2001. Around 1991-2, Hannon was living a nocturnal existence in his parents' attic, writing songs inspired by such disparate bods as Jacques Brel, E M Forster and the children's TV character Mr Benn. Soon, Graham Linehan (later co-creator of Father Ted), would write that The Divine Comedy's Liberation, was "by a mile the best album of 1993", and by 1995, Hannon had returned the favour, penning the theme music for the aforementioned sitcom. (Hannon has also collaborated with Michael Nyman, and Yann Tierson, who was responsible for the soundtrack of the film Amélie, and guests on Absent Friends.)
For Hannon's detractors, rhyming "mobile library" with "peripatetically" is a bit much. As is naming your band after a poem by Dante. And referencing Oscar Wilde, Steve McQueen and the space-dog Laika in the same song. What would he say to those who claim his oeuvre is too clever-clever? "That it's just clever," he laughs, draining the last of his Guinness.
The Divine Comedy plays the Royal Court, Liverpool (0151-709 4321) on Sunday; London Palladium (020-7494 5409) on Monday; and Usher Hall, Edinburgh (0131-228 1155) on Tuesday
'Absent Friends' is out now on the Parlophone labelReuse content