Although much of their post 90’s output has met with critical acclaim, this particular writer hasn’t warmed to any of the albums The Divine Comedy has released since 2001’s reinventive ‘Regeneration’. Aside from a few pleasing tracks here and there, none of the records they have released in the last 18 years has really hit the high water mark of classics like ‘Fin De Siecle’ and ‘Casanova’. 2016’s ‘Foreverland’ may have been a surprise hit, reaching number 7 in the UK charts, but for this listener, it was a creative low point.
Hearing of their return three years later, I wasn’t too sure what to expect from Neil Hannon this time around. What we get is ‘Office Politics’, a 16 track concept album based around the nature of the workplace as well the role of technology and the effects it has on society. This theme shapes the music as well, making for a weird, fun and zesty record.
Superb lead single ‘Queue jumper’ kicks thing off in an upbeat, catchy manner, full of odd Paul Simon-like flavours, and bright quirky percussion. Hannon unexpectedly goes all robotic on the title track, soon developing into a creation more reminiscent of The Specials and The Blockheads. Interesting if not entirely convincing. ‘Norman and Norma’ features foppish White Album-style piano verses meet a synthpop chorus on a track that doesn’t work well as a single compared to some of the other material here, for example, the McCartney-meets-Bowie brilliance of the funk-tinged ‘Absolutely Obsolete’. It’s ambitious but often humorous, and a song like the ridiculous Kasabian parody ‘Infernal Machines’ is either going to be annoying or irresistible. Far more agreeable are the Morricone vibes and jazz on the shadowy highlight ‘You’ll Never Work In this Town’.
The vocoder, hyperactive electronica of ‘Psychological Evaluation’ is also most enjoyable, while the insane Kraftwerk homage ‘The Synthesizer Service Centre’ deals out blasts of machine noise and a blizzard of bleeps. ‘The Life And Soul Of The Party’ offers rousing oddball disco, contrasting with the wonderful ‘Feather In Your Cap’, a delicate analogue synth ballad that features an unfamiliar style of vocal from Hannon during its verses, before delivering a heartstopping gem of a chorus. The stripped back, theatrical, flamenco guitars and horns of ‘I’m A Stranger Here’ wouldn’t feel out of place in a West End musical, and the doomy, cacophonous melodrama of ‘Dark Days Are Here Again’ brings to mind Diamond Dogs-era Bowie. Elsewhere, imaginary sitcom theme tune ‘Philip And Steve’s Furniture Removal Company’ is a mapcap ode to Philip Glass and Steve Reich, based around an overlapped vocal loop, and ‘Opportunity Knox’ is centred around music hall and murder stories.
Towards the LP’s final moments, ‘After The Lord Mayor’s Show’ impresses with charming piano, military drumming, Hannon’s vocal at its most alluring, while the excellent closer ‘When The Working Day Is Done’ could easily be Scott Walker in his prime.
The trademark eccentric, irreverent wit and reflective melodies are all present here, while the standard of the songwriting is a huge improvement on ‘Foreverland’ from three years ago. Taking a chance on making an ambitious collection of songs, ‘Office Politics’ proves to be their most eclectic collection to date, and a record that finds Hannon rejuvenated. A few misses, but plenty of this album hits the target.