Unstrapping his shin pads after last year's success with The Duckworth Lewis Method, Neil Hannon returns to his main day-job with Bang Goes The Knighthood, an album on which the cast of familiar Divine Comedy characters are targeted with his usual precision and urbanity.
It's remarkable not just how well Hannon manages to sketch entire lives in just a few lines – or sometimes just a single phrase, as when a trendy media club is evoked by the description "your armchair's round but your glass is square" – but how he does it with a non-judgmental panache, pirouetting nimbly along the high-wire between blame and approbation so that his characters may more comfortably assume their roles.
The aristocratic masochist being spanked in a Soho dungeon in the title-track is allowed his justification, explaining to his maitresse that "You make me feel something/And feeling something beats feeling nothing at all", while even the socially inept lad in the neatly-etched vignette "At The Indie Disco" suffers only the faintest breeze of mockery for his inability to develop a relationship further.
Elsewhere, any trace of disdain for the National Trustafarians seeking stately homes to visit in "Assume The Perpendicular" ("Lavinia loves the lintels, Anna the architraves/Ben's impressed by the buttresses thrust up the chapel nave", etc) is conveyed solely by the way the banjo punctures the pomposity of the brass arrangement. Something similar happens with the prancing music-hall piano of "The Complete Banker", though as the title suggests, even Hannon can't resist a gentle tilt at this most deserving modern Aunt Sally. Most skillfully of all, with "Neapolitan Girl" he returns to the Eurotrash territory previously visited in "A Lady Of A Certain Age", employing a jolly, lightly chugging Europop setting for a really rather dark song about Italian girls selling sex to feed themselves in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War: in Hannon's hands, their plight is varnished with a Riviera Touch of empathic glamour that is implicitly forgiving.
It's not an entirely successful collection : "Can You Stand Upon One Leg" is a silly, throwaway kids song – Hannon's Sesame Street moment, maybe – and "The Lost Art Of Conversation", his Beatlesque pop piece about the delights of discourse, is little more than an excuse to string together ludicrously literate lists of subjects for discussion.
But like The Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt, when Hannon keeps his inner show-off restrained, he can lay waste to one's emotions. Here, it's his poignant analysis in "When A Man Cries" of the difference between childish tears and adult tears – the one so public and profuse, the other so private and piercingly intense – that cuts to the quick in a manner made all the more intense in coming from one best known as a social satirist.
DOWNLOAD THIS When A Man Cries; Neapolitan Girl; Have You Ever Been In Love?; Bang Goes The Knighthood; Down In The Street Below