Pop: Divine, darling

Self-deflating aesthete or implausible sex symbol? Either way, Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy can charm spotty students and serious French girls alike. By Ian Shuttleworth
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Last year, The Divine Comedy finally arrived. After four years of glowing coverage in the rock press but disappointing record sales, the Casanova album and its clutch of singles - "Something for the Weekend", "Becoming More Like Alfie" and "The Frog Princess" - broke through. A triumphant London concert in October set the seal on things, with Neil Hannon (who, to all intents and purposes, is The Divine Comedy) backed not only by his regular band but also a 30-piece orchestra.

Hannon was at last established in popular consciousness, the latest crown prince of smart self-deprecating British popsters: a man who could be at once grandiose and vulgar, sentimental and ironic; who could in the same evening tackle an opulent Walker Brothers number and crowd-surf in his silken pants; a man, in short, all but unrecognisable in the shambling, bearded creature who takes time off from mixing his forthcoming live video to grant a hungover interview.

He blames his condition on the NME Brat Awards party the previous evening: "They'd put a bottle of tequila on every table, so they were inviting it." Did he, I inquire politely, pick up anything himself? Gears grind audibly; finally, he offers, "Er... scurvy." Soon, though, his customary sardonicism reappears at full power.

Hannon's upbringing didn't exactly fit him out for chart stardom; during his childhood, his father was transferred to the mid-Ulster bishopric of Clogher. Although no child prodigy - "Not at all. They thought I was thick, which always amazed me, because I thought I was a genius!" - childhood piano lessons led to music supplanting art as his first love. "I think I began trying to write songs when I was about 13. They were always songs, because I couldn't bear not to finish the whole thing, even if it was just appalling. Through my adolescence, I gradually brainwashed myself into believing that music was the only thing I could possibly do. And by the end of it, it was, because I'd failed everything else - more or less on purpose, I think. The first year I'd go, 'This is looking good. Wouldn't it be funny if I became a pop star?' The next year, it would be, 'Well, things are pretty good. I think I might.' Then I'd say, 'Yes, I think a career decision has been made. I'm going to be a pop star, mother.' Then it was, 'I've gotta be a pop star!', then, 'Oh my God, I've limited myself this much!' I got accepted by Liverpool Polytechnic to do foundation art, which gave me an excuse to take a year out and get signed - and we did, which was amazing."

This was mark one of the band. "It was the Divine Comedy BC - Before Crack-Up," says Hannon. "It was all just deeply sentimental - not really ironic, just REM-ic - and quite risible." Some two years later, Hannon spontaneously reinvented his musical persona, and the first Divine Comedy album proper, Liberation, emerged in 1993. Musically, it ranged from pure pop to mournful string arrangements; lyrically, it contained references from F Scott Fitzgerald and Chekhov to Mr Benn and carries the laconic credit "Additional words: William Wordsworth". It was followed rapidly by Promenade, which concentrated on small-orchestra arrangements.

Hannon the songwriter, the one-man Divine Comedy, was reborn as a self- deflating aesthete, a standard-bearer for sensitive unwilling celibates everywhere. "I always knew that that was going to happen," he explains cynically, "but I knew that the journalists would just love it. I also knew that spotty second-year English students from Wolverhampton would go nuts over it as they do, as well as - and here's the good bit - serious French girls with a melodramatic tinge."

Casanova became "a slight reinterpretation of what I was trying to do. It is very difficult to get any central satisfying truth from an album so steeped in vulgarity and baseness; that was the challenge. And I didn't get to any firm conclusions, which is good because it means I get to try again next year."

But Casanova was a watershed; thousands bought into Neil Hannon the implausible sex symbol, who reached his apotheosis on the stage of the Shepherd's Bush Empire last autumn. That concert, audaciously, also premiered the entirety of A Short Album about Love, recorded scant hours before the gig and now released for Valentine's Day. It's a fine blend of lush majesty and, well, an idiosyncratic style of wooing - "If you were a horse/ I'd clean the crap out of your stable/ And never once complain".

Hannon admits that the whole thing was more or less designed as a defining moment: "It seemed perfect at the end of 1996 to say, 'This is what we can do', and in a way, this album and the gigs with the orchestra in March are just rubbing salt into the wound." Look out for the video of the imminent single "Everybody Knows (Except You)" - "all blond ringlets and a big ruffly shirt - halfway between ironic and Byronic."

He restrains himself from talking about the future, because "It's a constant problem I have; as soon as I've finished something, I completely skip to the next thing and spend all my interviews talking about the album I'm going to make rather than the one I've just made. So I try to avoid that, especially because I haven't written anything yet."

The rest of the conversation flits all over the place. He deplores the current state of American music: "Largely, it's just 'Look at me, I'm a rock 'n' roll star' or 'Look at me, I'm a rap star; I'm great, you're not, I've shagged more women than you.' That leaves me cold. My angle is that I've shagged fewer women, it's all been a disaster and I'm really fucked up now."

With a final, careless aside, Neil Hannon might just change the face of British politics. "I don't want to think about the election," he says. "I just can't foresee living here another five years under that lot. So, people of Britain, if you wish to see The Divine Comedy stick around, vote Labour!" Then he realises: "That'll change the result all right - they'll all vote Tory." Not if today's pop fanciers know what's good for them, they won'tn

'A Short Album about Love' is released on Monday; The Divine Comedy play orchestral concerts in Britain and France in March