In the mid ’90s, Neil Hannon featured in a Q magazine 20 questions interview. He was asked how he’d like to be remembered and his answer was “Oh I don’t know’¦ Pop Genius”. That was around the time of his fourth LP Casanova, a time when praise was forthcoming from the critics but not too many others.
A decade and a half on, Hannon’s status, not only as pop genius, but of full-blown national treasure, is somewhat guaranteed. Derry’s dapper dandy has consistently delivered on a promise of masterful songcraft, lush arrangements and lyrical wit and wisdom. He will appear as a special guest at the Dublin Writer’s Festival in June. He and Duckworth Lewis Method sidekick Thomas Walsh are up for an Ivor Novello. Don’t be surprised if he’s made a member of AosdÃ¡na. He may not be a household name, but his songs certainly are.
More immediately, tonight’s show in the Sugar Club is long sold out. The louche red interior, dimly lit and carrying an air of benign decadence feels like the natural habitat for the act’s antiquated stylings. This is one of Hannon’s first solo outings as The Divine Comedy in a long while and is a night for his more serious fans to get a taste of tenth (yes, tenth) album Bang Goes The Knighthood.
Neil Hannon strolls on stage with his customary air of awkward confidence and sits at the polished grand piano to the kind of roar that State assumes is only occasionally heard in the Sugar Club. He’s wearing a bowler hat and carrying an old-style doctor’s briefcase. This is Hannon’s new promotional garb for the record, that of the devil-may-care capitalist of new song -The Complete Banker’, which, by the way, gets a particularly pronounced applause.
There’s a nicely under-rehearsed touch about tonight. He fluffs the odd note here and there, forgets a cue or two. No one, least of all him, seems to mind. Everyone’s enjoying themselves far too much to kick up a fuss, especially with the songwriter’s humour punctuating the spaces in between numbers. Some of this is properly hilarious. About half way through a lounge-piano version of -The Frog Princess’, Hannon ponders to the crowd ‘I always knew I’d end up like this’, before turning the second half into a cruise-ship entertainer parody. “Thanguvermuch, I’ll be here all week”, he quips at the end. He stops half way through new single -Indie Disco’ to point out a lyrical reference to fellow Nordies Ash. All night, the audience communicate back with guffaws and hoots amongst the applause. If the songwriting inspiration should ever dry up – which is unlikely – a career in stand-up awaits him.
This humour has found its way on to new album tracks like -Can You Stand Upon One Leg’ with its kids-show theme tune, and the gooey -I Like’, both of which are warmly received. Hay fever season is getting up Hannon’s nose (“you’re lucky I can see the piano” he sniffs) so he breaks into a bouncy, sing-along rendition of -The Pop Star’s fear Of The Pollen Count’. DLM co-hort Thomas Walsh ambles on stage for the tick-tocking playtime of -Jiggery Pokery’. State feels like a five-year-old at a bubble factory.
But as Electric Six probably found out, wit and giggles is only a part of great artistry. The real stuff, the marrow of human emotion and matters of the heart are never far from Hannon’s fingertips. He dons an acoustic for -A Lady Of A Certain Age’, a plaintive observation on ageing from 2007 Choice Prize winner Victory For The Comic Muse.
But it is the crushingly beautiful -Our Mutual Friend’ that provides the evening’s emotional zenith. Its tale of a house-party romance that ends in tears is something everybody reading this review can relate to. Tonight, it is stripped of its pacing, bitter-sweet orchestration and is instead drummed gently on the ivories. An affecting song is rendered powerful. The Sugar Club swoons as one.