The title comes from E M Forster, but more pertinently refers back to The Divine Comedy's debut album Fanfare for the Comic Muse, released back in 1990, when the band was still a band, rather than just a vehicle for Neil Hannon. This ninth outing features the by-now-familiar studies of characters such as "A Lady of a Certain Age", a lonely jet-set demi-monde habituée looking back on her life. Set to sombre acoustic guitar and strings, it has a relaxed, Mediterranean elegance redolent of some Côte d'Azur Promenade des Anglais, as madame sails into her dotage, hoping for a fleeting glance from some young buck.
It's a sad, sympathetic portrait of faded glamour, an allowance not afforded the brittle lustre of more modern glamour in "Diva Lady", a caustic depiction of a wafer-thin celebrity that's rather less witty than one expects from Hannon, and musically drab too. Better is "To Die a Virgin", in which the musings of a sex-obsessed adolescent youth are brought to life with all the swaggering erotic bathos appropriate to his accidental tumescence. "You don't know how much I need you/The Handy Andies I've been through," sings Hannon, while the music envelops the character with a warm bluster that's like the musical equivalent of Oliver Hardy, flustered but affectionate.
At his best, Hannon tackles complex issues with a deceptively slight but charming manner, as in "The Plough". Employing a light, pop-operatic style reminiscent of David Ackles, his initial target - a social climber on the make - becomes merely the vehicle for a theological discussion regarding the dubious value of a monotheism in which one's god spitefully ignores adherents of all other faiths. It's an issue which strikes at the nub of our current spiritual malaise, but Hannon manages to smuggle it in under a sly pretext, waltzing us deftly from social archetype to social comment.
Not all his songs are quite as skilfully wrought. In "The Light of Day", the melancholy reflections upon a failed romance are prompted by an old photograph, which seems too hackneyed a device for Hannon; and the account of a balloon ride in "Count Grassi's Passage over Piedmont" seems freighted with too much intellectual baggage to achieve lift-off. By contrast, the banjo and strings bring an engagingly wholesome charm to "Mother Dear", a song about finally acknowledging one's mother as a person in her own right, rather than as a homemaker and maid. I'm not sure, though, whether The Associates' already florid "Party Fears Two" gains anything from being treated as an orchestral piece.
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