Six Damn Fine Degrees #97: The Divine Comedy, Liberation and Promenade

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

In 1993, The Divine Comedy released their album Liberation. While, technically speaking, not the first Divine Comedy album, it marked the first release where musician Neil Hannon effectively operated as the band. He wrote, arranged and performed all the songs, with the help of a handful of musicians providing percussion and strings, and William Wordsworth providing a lyrical assist on the album’s final track “Lucy”.

Its release coincided with the start of my first year at university, so the album has a special place in my heart as the soundtrack of those early months. A start at university which was not, as the cliche would have it, a hedonistic few weeks of endless partying and joyous independence. But primarily dealing with the shock of relocation, endless nights listening to music in my room trying to process the change of it all.

Less than a year later, the band were to release the follow-up Promenade. Neil Hannon was still playing in the same sandpit of chamber pop, wit, romance and nostalgic invention – but with more money and ambition this time around. And a lot of love of Michael Nyman. Its release coincided with a break from university and returning to my parents and the reassurance of old friends from college. Two of whom had also been fans of the first album. I shall call these two friends Steven and Howard, primarily because those are their actual names.

Knowing the album’s release date, the three of us devised a plan. We would travel to London to purchase the album. Not from any regular record shop where the hoi polloi might buy this album. No, we would go straight to the source. The record label. The address of which had been conveniently printed on the sleeve of the first album.

Our research revealed this was a location a short walk from Brixton, so we resolved, as student super-fans, to rock up at this address as cool as we could possibly muster and ask for copies. “Why, you must be true fans,” I hoped the cool indie receptionist at the record label would remark when we strutted into the glamourous rock and roll building, “You can certainly have free copies of the album, and all this other cool stuff nobody else will have that we save for the True Fans.” Then she’d do something really cool like smoke sexily in French and ask us all to hang out with her and her Indie friends.

Things did not pan out as planned. The address given on the earlier album turned out to just be a normal house. On a quiet street. For everyone else, it was an ordinary day on the old Shakespeare Road. With nothing to indicate its indie-rock credentials. We hovered around the gate at the front of the house for a short while, stumped by the reality crashing into our music label fantasies. Before, like the go-getting young men we were, slinking off to buy the album at the Brixton branch of Our Price. (Subsequent albums from the same record label did not print the address on them, maybe it had become too much of a hazard with awkward, confusing student fans loitering outside wondering where the imagined French indie manic pixie receptionist was)

I have especially fond memories of this trip precisely because after months of disconnect at university, it reminded me of a normality that came with coming home and hanging out with old friends. Somehow the abrupt break that university had felt like didn’t seem so absolute after all. And when I returned for the final term of my first year, Promenade proved a wonderful soundtrack to getting at least a small modicum of my shit together.

Neil Hannon as the Divine Comedy was to go on to make further fine albums (and it should be said, still does, he’s not joined “Lucy” in Earth’s diurnal core), but it’s those two that I feel fondest over. So when he announced a five-night residency at London’s Barbican where he would play all his first ten albums, two a night – it was the first night and those two albums I bought tickets for.

Playing the albums in their entirety, in sequence, makes for a very interesting live experience when you know an album so well. You already know the set list for the show. You are aware of where the show is going to take you next, while also enjoying what is done differently for a live performance. Liberation especially has its sound expanded given the larger live band. It also gives a chance for Neil Hannon to comment on his much younger self’s intentions and, perhaps, what made such a young man write some of the lyrics he did.

And for me, it just reminded me of that time in my life. These are old records now. Hannon’s got older. I’ve got older. The young, confused person who so devoured those albums when they first came out is long gone. But it was rather lovely to spend a bit of time with them all for one night at the Barbican.

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