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The divine Mr Hannon

How did the son of an Irish bishop, who went to Oscar Wilde's old school and says EM Forster changed his life, come to be the most exciting figure in pop? And what part did the A Team play?
On the cover of what is arguably one of the most original and seductive LPs of the Nineties, Casanova by The Divine Comedy - released in 1996 - the group's founder, lyricist and singer, Neil Hannon, was photographed wearing the kind of Sixties, existential Mod, retro-chic get-up that Paul Weller might have favoured during his Style Council period. Cement-coloured raincoat, loud, loosely knotted cravat and those wrap-around shades which always lend their wearer an enigmatic intensity and toughness. It's a look which bookish boys tend to hope is doing the work of a fast right hook - it's a look which is far more Penguin Classics than American Classics.

But Hannon's version of this nostalgia for the masculine elegance of nouvelle vague French cinema - worn as he was leaning against the roof of a Venetian water-taxi, with a cigarette dangling from his cupid's bow of a mouth - seemed to have a self-punishing, ironic twist. It somehow brought to mind Tony Hancock, as much as Alain Delon, in the way that it suggested a highly romantic, articulate young man, who was mocking his own chances of success as a smooth-talking boulevardier.

"People usually judge me as having completely the opposite personality to the one I've actually got," says Hannon, in a soft, aristocratically Irish voice which somehow manages to sound slightly bemused, faintly aloof and endearingly modest, all at the same time. "I seem to have been characterised as this..." - and here the voice slips into a wincing, hissing, whisper - "...dandy figure, which simply makes my flesh crawl. I never pranced around town with a cane and a cravat, not at all... apart from for photo-shoots. I've never had a problem with the facade, but I'm not quite as rigorously intellectual as some people like to think I am. I'm not saying I'm stupid, but I have not read all the books in that song..."

The song to which Hannon is referring is "The Booklovers", on an early Divine Comedy LP called Promenade. It consists of Hannon reciting what sounds like the reading list for a degree in English and American Studies, with each author's name accompanied by a little greeting. The son of an Irish bishop, and a former pupil at Oscar Wilde's old school, Portora Royal, Hannon is adept at mimicking the speech patterns of gentility and cultivated, middle-aged society. In fact, his entire project as a pop musician could be seen as the archaic aesthete's revenge against modernity. He formed his group 10 years ago, but he is still only 29.

Now, worn out from promoting A Secret History - the Best of The Divine Comedy, Neil Hannon looks ashen-faced and stoop-shouldered. The increasing success of his group through their last two records, A Short Album About Love and Fin de Siecle, has led to their signing with a major label, Parlophone, and to the beginnings, for Hannon, of pop stardom beyond the moodily-lit corridors of cult recognition. And with all that comes pressure.

Today, the modish young man whose face is currently gazing from posters the length and breadth of Britain is huddled in an old anorak and looking remarkably like Rodney from Only Fools and Horses. He's getting married in two weeks' time, he hasn't slept all night because he drank too much coffee to get him through a stint on live TV, and he nearly left all the lyrics to his new LP on a train. It's been a bad day, for Hannon; but in many ways his current, somewhat dishevelled appearance explains a lot about how he really regards himself.

"I judge myself as a clever aesthete. I'm pretty good on the style of things, and I know what I like to talk about. But I could never say that I had a particularly important, big idea: the big idea is really just to make the sort of music which a lot of other people don't want to have anything to do with; to be Europhile when it seem to be unfashionable.

"I did react hugely against American music and American culture altogether. I think it started with that TV programme The A Team when I was about 12. I'd not really had an opinion up to that point, and then there were these programmes that I truly loathed. I don't know why - it was maybe their brashness and vulgarity and tortured, formulaic structures. And then I saw A Room With a View when I was about 16. A pretty tacky Merchant- Ivory film but a very sweet one, and that changed everything for me. Not that it's a world-beating movie, but I suddenly realised the subtlety of it: the emotion came out in fits and spurts, and I liked that. I proceeded to read all of Forster's books in total rapture, and thought, "I've found my Holy Grail". It was the understated wit - the clarity of it all."

In A Room With a View, Forster pits the dandified, urbane aesthete Cecil Vyse against the athletic, vulnerable, emotionally honest George Emerson. And, in many ways, Hannon could be seen as embodying the instincts and mannerisms of both Cecil and George. The Divine Comedy, if you like, is where these two gentlemen attempt to fight it out. Musically, The Divine Comedy deliver a gorgeous fair-ground ride of perfectly orchestrated pop - with influences from ELO to Michael Nyman; and Hannon's voice carries the infectious melodies of his songs with an exuberance that his slender frame seems to deny. He can bowl you along in the best traditions of Andy Williams or Neil Diamond; he can reach the soaring melodrama of Scott Walker; he achieves what you could call the "Nessun dorma" effect of a top-class tenor belting out an aria from Puccini. Put crudely, he can do bulge in the trousers and lump in the throat with equal conviction.

"Up until Casanova I truly believed I had a bad voice. I had a good soprano voice, in that I used to take all the solos in the choir, and then I sang right through my voice breaking - which is probably the worst thing you can do. I became a tenor, but when I used to sing rock music, as a teenager, it didn't quite work - it just sounded like a chorister trying to sing rock. But I wish I had a tape recording of me trying to sing "Debaser" by the Pixies. Eventually, my style came just from my endlessly copying Scott Walker - that's what I sounded like. It's not necessarily a very good impersonation, and I'm not trying to be Scott: it's just my favourite voice."

When you listen to Hannon's lyrics, you quickly realise that these luxurious, orchestral and downright catchy tunes are the Trojan Horse to deliver a manifesto which was summed up in another song from Casanova, "Middle- Class Heroes": "Elegance against ignorance/ Difference against indifference/ Wit against shit." Hannon's subject, wrapped in the mock heroics of a pop musical-comedy, was the fate of the disaffected aesthete and the doomed romantic. Not since 1986, when Morrissey had spun about the stage with a bunch of ragged daffodils in his back pocket and sung the line "Hang the DJ", had there been such a provocative use of pop. In the first place, to subvert the title of John Lennon's "Working Class Hero" back in 1996, when Oasis were reaching their zenith, was not necessarily going to win The Divine Comedy any fans among the massive army of New Lads who were pop's current audience.

"I've always had far too great a liking for the high camp and the foppish - all the way from Gilbert and Sullivan to Flanders and Swann. Maybe it's the snob in me, but I just love it. That said, I don't like to use that sense of camp too much in the music because it does tend to alienate the people who just don't get it at all. I'm not trying to be elitist - in fact I'm trying to be hugely successful - and so there is this sense of being pulled in two directions."

The Divine Comedy have achieved an increasingly high profile as a group who champion wit, style and cleverness at a time when much contemporary pop and rock music is concerned with promoting itself as knowingly dumbed- down. But Hannon, you feel, has grown both weary and wary of being seen to represent nothing more than the cause of the caustic, suffering aesthete.

Added to which, he is about to get married, and in that commitment there is a certain abandoning of the romantic yearnings and disaffections which have comprised much of his earlier subject matter. After all, a Freudian might argue - though not necessarily successfully - that Hannon actually wanted to lose that bag full of lyrics which he nearly left on the train.

"I've thought about all of this very deeply," he says, "and I am well aware that some people might think that there is a risk of getting into a settled relationship and of that affecting your need to write. But I would much prefer to be happy. That's just me. I am not prepared to die in depressed poverty for my art."

Thus expressed, the ex-dandy then departs in a Mini Cooper.

Deborah Ross returns next week