A Short Album About Love

In 1996, Neil Hannon's Divine Comedy unleashed Casanova, an album exploring the darker side of l'amour. This year he offers by way of stark contrast A Short Album About Love, as accurate a description as any album title of recent times, fittingly released just in time for Valentine's Day.

It was recorded live the day before the legendary Shepherd's Bush Empire concert of October '96, continuing where Casanova left off -- 30-piece orchestra and all. 'In Pursuit Of Happiness' is a gloriously optimistic ditty and makes a fitting Broadway-style overture: 'I'm not the kind to fall in love without good reason/ And if that's a crime, then baby I'm committing high treason/ 'Cos when you're with me I'm absolutely and totally, quite uncontrollably happy.'

But if you're wondering if the humour has been replaced with simpering nonsense, there's a sting in the tail. After an outrageously overblown instrumental, the song ends on a note of caution: 'Hey, don't be surprised if millions die in plague and murder/ True happiness lies beyond your fries and happy burgers', and it's straight into 'Everybody Knows (Except You)', the first single, a lighthearted number about unrequited love, and we're back into more recognisably Divine Comedy territory.

On a more serious note, the intensely personal ballad 'Someone', full of melancholy brass and soaring strings, wouldn't sound too out of place on an album by Hannon's hero, Scott Walker, both lyrically and musically. 'If...', on the other hand, is a fine example of what he does best: 'If you were a horse I'd clean the crap out of your stable and never once complain.' His talent is to deliver these lines in his beautifully rich baritone with such deadly earnest that you never quite know if he means it or is really taking the piss on a grand operatic scale. Either way, it's delicious.

The message of 'If I Were You (I'd Be Through With Me)' seems to be that love isn't always the sweet and pleasant experience it's cracked up to be. It contains some of the album's darker moments -- 'Don't you ever in your dreams take a lover and make her scream?' -- while carrying yet another heavenly tune. 'Timewatching', an old favourite from the Liberation LP, is given a luscious string arrangement that suits it wonderfully, before the sumptuously grand finale 'I'm All You Need'.

This is another fine addition to the Divine Comedy repertoire, and Neil Hannon's musical stature continues to grow and grow. A Short Album About Love may not actually be better than his previous releases, but it sits comfortably alongside Liberation, Promenade and Casanova with all its indiviual merits. It is a confident, unabashed celebration of the skill and panache he knows he has, and is undoubtedly the first essential musical purchase of 1997 for any discerning music fan.