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“You see, I never worked in an office so I don’t know what I’m talking about…” The Divine Comedy at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre last night.

October 7, 2019

This candid admission, made early in the performance, set a certain tone for the evening.  In an odd way, it is because Neil Hannon has never really known the “daily grind” that he can tell us about it.  Never underestimate the unique insights (in purely artistic terms) or people who don’t know who the hell they’re talking about.  They are the ones who can make us see things anew.

The evening started, however, with a tight little four piece band from Warrington called “Man & the Echo”.  As band names go – this one does not exactly reek of egalitarian governance.  I wonder how chummy the bassist, drummer, and keyboard player really are with the “Man” with the microphone when they’re all sharing a van?  But whoever they are, they offered short sharp witty songs full of percussive energy and more people should have sat down in time to hear them instead of hanging around the bar.  Why don’t people support the support?  The support needs support.  One day your own kids – or the kids of people you care about will be supporting people far more famous than them.  Give ’em a listen.

Stylistically, they were perfectly cognate with The Divine Comedy and you can see how they passed the audition.

The house was full in time for the main event.  This was very much a concept performance from Neil Hannon, one that came with a theatrical set, although the “office” concept was more influenced by Fritz Lang than by any known ergonomic rationale.  We cheered all the musicians we don’t know and then whooped as the thin man himself bounced in, wearing an uncomfortable looking dayglo orange suit that looked as though it had been originally designed for someone out of Showaddywaddy before being suddenly cut and retailored to satisfy Elvis Costello.

This was a performance by and about someone who has never worked in an office but who has been culturally saturated by office-themed imagery.  This was very much a new album based concert, with Office Politics (2019) heavily showcased.  Some gigs try and sneak new material in between a succession of crowd pleasing classics.  This gig was about occasionally leavening the new album tracks with bits and pieces of sure fire familiar hits.  The office was definitely the theme – not a mere leitmotif.

Now I’m reviewing a gig rather than album.  To review an album I’d have to listen to it carefully all the way through at least three times.  Which I haven’t done yet.  The dystopic grandeur of a particular nightmarish imagining of an office space was better communicated by the actual scale of the Bord Gais theatre than by the fairly meagre props on offer.  My sense of the new songs, is that much of the talk of a “new direction” for The Divine Comedy seems overstated.  Many of the most effective songs could have appeared on almost any other album.  Neil Hannon is pushing this clash of humanity and technology around the water cooler notion quite hard, but in fact he’s as (primarily) interested in love and loneliness and memory as he ever was.  At his best, Neil Hannon can still create thumb nail character sketches that rival those of Ray Davies.  There can be no higher praise.  The catchy “Queuejumper” works in an office context – but it works in a lot of other contexts as well.  Songs like “Norman and Norma”, “A Feather in your Cap” and “I’m a Stranger Here” register the kind of poignancy we have long long come to expect.

As a performance, there were a few odd moments.  Neil Hannon forgot the words at one point and needed two or three fresh starts.  Well, that’s live entertainment.  There are some people who can integrate self-deprecation into their performance persona and Neil Hannon is most assuredly one of them.  He announced the tongue-twister “Synthesiser Service Centre Super Summer Sale” by saying “you’re not going to like this”.  Actually I did.  It was a techno nightmare of jabbed and crabbed effects that came closer to something that Donna Haraway might theorise under the rubric of cyborg studies than anything else we heard that evening.  However, when he followed up with the exquisitely familiar “Lady of Certain Age” he did so “by way of apology”.

Everyone was placated by rousing versions of “Generation Sex”, “Europop”, “Something for the Weekend” and “National Express”.  “At the Indie Disco” was also played, a more restrained performance than the last time I heard it two years ago at The Olympia – when we got a version which actually managed to integrate large sections of “Blue Monday”.

At the end of the evening, the office equipment was soberly packed away and when the six musicians reconvened following the requisite applause it was a tight little acoustic scrum.  This tiny huddle on one side of the enormous stage then gave us “Songs of Love” and “Tonight we Fly” – managing to make the most familiar of songs at least look slightly strange.

Over the last thirty years, Neil Hannon has managed to bank an immense fund of goodwill from his fans.  Last night he was forced to make a few emergency withdrawals from that account to carry him from quarter to quarter.  It was fair to say though, that he never went too far overdrawn and he finished the night firmly in the black.

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