Twenty Years of ‘Fin de Siècle’

❉ Stephen Graham revisits Neil Hannon’s sixth studio album, deep into the twenty-first century.

“Immediately entering the album charts at number nine, the album would go on to provide the band’s first top-ten single.  Combining bombast and longing, the surreal with the terrifying, evoking past grandeur while examining today and our future, the album was Hannon’s most mature and rounded work to date.”

‘The world will be wonderful, they say. But from whose viewpoint?’

The end of the century.  A time where people reflect on ends, and beginnings.  Where old orders decay and new ideas flourish.  As the nineteenth century came to its close, this feeling swept the intellectual centres of Europe as new waves of social, cultural and political thought became the fashion.  Nowhere was this feeling more prevalent than in the faded opulence of Vienna, decadent capital of a dying empire.  The age of monarchs was ending, but what lay for mankind on the horizon?

The ‘end of the century’ mood was encapsulated in its literal French translation: Fin de Siècle.

Seeing this atmosphere of excitement and dread echoed a hundred years later, it was to become the inspiration – and name – for Neil Hannon’s sixth studio album.

The development of Hannon’s outfit – The Divine Comedy, less a band and more a collective term for Hannon and whoever is collaborating with him at any particular point – is easy to trace through those early works.  Beginning by carving a niche in literate chamber-pop, where authorial references and whimsical oboes caused fluttering hearts in a generation of literature students, by 1996 Hannon was able to realise his ambition to be a ‘60s orchestral balladeer in the style of Scott Walker.

Signed to the small Anglo-Irish label Setanta, the budget for this expansion came from the wild success of Edwyn Collins’ A Girl Like You.

It was with this album, Casanova, that Hannon gained his first mainstream attention, predominantly via the endorsement of Chris Evans’ Radio 1 Breakfast Show.  Cultured yet bawdy, it rode the wave of a culture which, alongside the resurgence of interest in the work of Michael Caine and Leslie Phillips, could place itself at the higher end of the ‘new lad’ spectrum.

With orchestra tours and A Short Album About Love – recorded ‘as live’ during rehearsals – soon following, by 1998 The Divine Comedy was firmly established as Britpop’s louche and erudite uncle.

Released on 31st August, Fin de Siècle built on the success which had preceded it.  Immediately entering the album charts at number nine, the album would go on to provide the band’s first top-ten single.  Combining bombast and longing, the surreal with the terrifying, evoking past grandeur while examining today and our future, the album was Hannon’s most mature and rounded work to date.

The manifesto of combining the arcane with the topical is established instantly as Generation Sex opens with a harpsichord accompanying the voice of Katie Puckrik.  Quoting a guest from The Jerry Springer Show, a cheerful but damning examination of modern superficiality is launched with the phrase, ‘I mean, it’s the ‘90s!’

Minor controversy was also stirred by the song also making reference to the death of Princess Diana, whose fatal accident took place exactly a year before the album’s release.

The album exhilaratingly cracks on with the hymn to hedonism that is Thrillseeker, before slowing down with the sweeping and heart-wrenching Commuter Love.  Here, the orchestral arrangement of long-term Hannon collaborator Joby Talbot transports the listener from a Waterloo platform to a Viennese ballroom, where our protagonist imagines his epochal romance with the unknowing object of his gaze.  For me this is the stand-out track of the album, one of Hannon’s all-time greatest, and why it was not released as a single I will never understand.

After the Wagnerian and Pythonesque Sweden, the album comes to a thoughtful interlude with the sleepy ‘Eric the Gardener’ before launching into Hannon’s singalong hit, National Express.  It was this song which gave The Divine Comedy their top-ten single, one of what Hannon would later describe as, ‘Not so much a one-hit wonder as [part of] a series of one-hit wonders.’

The album’s second half returns to those lavish drawing rooms of Vienna with the stirring Life on Earth.  After which, the haunting The Certainty of Chance leaves the listener horrified for the future as Hannon contemplates the undirected chaos of our world while Talbot’s orchestration evokes a freezing, post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Here Comes the Flood does not give respite, as ‘the race to end all races’ is announced in a narration from Dexter Fletcher.  A West Side Story-style choral piece, the only question that remains for a media-fixated humanity is which factor will be that which finally destroys us?

And yet, finally, we are reminded that there is hope.  In Sunrise, Hannon ends the album on a joyous, uplifting and contemporary note, marking the long-awaited emergence of peace in his native Northern Ireland.

As well as marking the end of an historical era, Fin de Siècle would also signal a new age for The Divine Comedy.  After releasing A Secret History: The Best of The Divine Comedy the following year, Hannon would part ways with Setanta Records and move to Parlophone.  A more contemporary indie sound and casual look – the band until now had always performed in suits – was experimented with in 2002’s Regeneration, but subsequent releases returned to the formula which had been most successful.

Happy in his self-made niche and with a dedicated fanbase, Hannon continues to tour and should definitely be caught if possible.  An affable, shy and funny frontman, his voice and manner can never fail to bring cheer.

Looking back at Fin de Siècle from our vantage point now, deep into the twenty-first century, we can appreciate its unease at what lay ahead.  We may no longer worry about the Millennium Bug or El Niño as the harbingers of our destruction but our fear of disaster, fuelled by a new and even more pervasive media, has only been heightened since that time.  Perhaps the cycle of change has not yet been completed.

❉ Stephen Graham ‘respects the rights of girls who want to take their clothes off’, and can be followed on Twitter at @PlopGazette

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