The Divine Comedy: Foreverland
Northern Ireland’s orchestral pop stalwarts The Divine Comedy have been together since 1989, and though leader Neil Hannon is the only member to have been an ever-present, that is still an achievement to be commended. Their eleventh studio album, Foreverland, however, is a mish-mash of musical genres that far too often plays it safe, costing it its identity. Though there are some bright moments to be gleaned, this album is clear proof that the mere addition of orchestral instruments alone isn’t enough.
First single ‘Catherine The Great’, telling the story of Catherine II of Russia, deals best with the combination of orchestra and band. Hannon’s delivery, melody and lyrics serve up a combination of Belle and Sebastian and ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’, with smooth joins between lush orchestral interludes and acoustic band strumming. A well-executed harpsichord solo can never be underestimated either.
Unfortunately, much of the rest of the album is really devoid of the same execution or adventure. The start of curtain-opener 'Napoleon Complex' promises much, with Hannon resembling Bowie more than ever in his vocal performance, but ultimately stagnates after somewhat running out of ideas. Title track 'Foreverland' moves from one place to another glacially, failing to stir anything but an apathetic glance at the watch, while the criminally beige 'To The Rescue' is far too predictable to wow with its large scale backing.
Most of Hannon’s best moments on Foreverland come in the form of a decent pastiche of an outdated genre; the charming ‘I Joined The Foreign Legion’, for example, is a light croon that’s filled with sorrow under the surface. Similarly, ‘Other People’ takes the guise of a 50’s Disney lullaby – it’s beautifully crafted, delicately nuanced and over far too soon. Nevertheless, these nuggets of warmth lack any real identity. Sure, there’s a decent level of nostalgia generated, and there are timeless elements at play that surely contribute to the title of the album, but you’re often left wishing you were listening to its inspiration, rather than something considerably more watered-down.
The Divine Comedy have been and are known as an orchestral pop band, and on Foreverland there is an array of instruments on show, with strings playing a large role in the atmospheric background, and brass and wind popping up every now and again to offer their assistance. At times it works well: the salsa groove and tension of ‘A Desperate Man’ is made all the more exciting by the contribution of commanding brass motifs and pizzicato string flicks, to the extent that it is by far the most stirring track on the album. Far too often, however, the value and potential is squandered by Hannon playing it safe; the “band” component of The Divine Comedy easily engulfs the subtle interest of the orchestra, with the drumkit masking a lot of the hard work. Hannon’s toiling is also often ruined by just a few simple twangs on a particularly infuriating banjo, which almost never fails to undermine an understated pop ballad.
It’s clear that Hannon has an ear for a good melody, and the presence of mind to craft fitting orchestral backing, but Foreverland needed to be much, much bolder to make the type of impact it was aiming for. With more of a focus on the orchestra, and less on creating a large sound, there could and should have been something far stronger.