On The Divine Comedy’s IN MAY

To the best of my knowledge, In May is this: a chamber opera for one voice, its narrative unfolding as a series of letters from a youngish man dying of cancer to his father who is living in California. The songs are all titled by the dates of the letters, the time counting down to the young man’s inevitable death (um, in May). In the course of the piece you learn some facts about his life—that his (former) girlfriend’s name is Anna, that his mother is dead, that his doctor is named Eisenstein—but beyond that, it’s mostly day-to-day ruminations on his mundane activities which of course take on a sense of profundity in light of his imminent passing.

It’s also this: a collaboration between lyricist Frank Alva Buecheler and composer Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy. From what I can gather, Buecheler was inspired to write the piece after visiting a friend who was dying at a young age. After first putting together a set of (fictionalized) letters in German, he had them translated into English by Tim Clarke and then approached Hannon, basically out of the blue, about contributing the music: “I told him his Divine Comedy songs were dramatic pieces—and that I thought he was an opera composer.” The piece has only been performed live a handful of times and now has been released as a new recording that was made available as part of the deluxe edition of the most recent Divine Comedy album Foreverland. As written, however, the piece is actually meant to be sung by the character of the ex-girlfriend Anna.

There are a few glancing evaluations of In May online, primarily in reviews that came out around the time that Foreverland was released. The bulk of these reviews tend to just mention Hannon’s collaboration with Buecheler or describe something of its chamber music setting of strings and piano and leave it at that. But I haven’t really seen anyone give it a proper full-length write-up or come right out and say what I overwhelmingly felt when I finally listened to the whole thing for the first time: that this is the best work Hannon has done in almost twenty years.

I’ve lived with The Divine Comedy’s music longer and cherished it more fervently than pretty much any other band I can think of, so I say this with nothing but love and admiration in my heart, but—the albums that Hannon has put out since 2001’s Regeneration have been spotty at best. There have been glorious individual compositions like “Our Mutual Friend” from 2004’s Absent Friends and “A Lady of a Certain Age” from 2006’s Victory for the Comic Muse, but too often these 21st century albums, as a whole, have had a jokey, shrugged-off quality that felt a bit like phoning it in.

Neil has said in the press that he realizes his cultural relevance is well behind him and that he enjoys the freedom that gives him. But I have to wonder how true that is, how much spin is being put on the issue, because it feels a bit like the thing he actually never recovered from was his mid-career attempt at a sonic pivot into Britrock territory.

Regeneration was released in 2001 and was produced by Nigel Godrich, who was at that point most well known for his hugely successful and influential work with Radiohead and Beck. This album was meant to help Hannon “leave behind” what he perceived as the stuffy fussiness of the suits he wore on stage and the literary pretentiousness of his songs and their arrangements. But, despite being 16 years old at this point, Regeneration actually sounds way more dated than any of the albums he made between 1993 and 1998 (the ones that were, ahem, full of literary pretentiousness and featured Hannon wearing suits on the album covers). It’s a solid album, to be sure, but I’ve always had the somewhat intuitive impression that he was surprised and disappointed that it never catapulted him into Radiohead-level success. Absent Friends, the album he made a few years after Regeneration, though delightful and lovely in its own way, always reads to me like a retreat into the familiar, a resigned sigh heaved in determination to just give the people what they want.

And while he hasn’t necessarily suffered, career-wise, from that commitment (he routinely continues to sell out tours all over Europe and is able to make new albums every few years when he feels like it), I think there’s a slight misunderstanding, on his part, of just what it is “the people” actually want. I think that he thinks, given the fairly massive UK success of his song “National Express,” that his fans want more dorky joke songs, clever lyrics, and cheeky historical references. And, yeah, all those elements are a huge part of what people came to love about The Divine Comedy. It’s a huge part of what I love about The Divine Comedy. But why were those elements so appealing? From my perspective, it’s that they were always folded in with an extremely grounded sense of mortality.

All his best songs have always been steeped in death (eg, “Lucy,” “Tonight We Fly,” “Eric the Gardener,” “Absent Friends,” etc., etc.). My favorite Divine Comedy album, Fin de Siecle, which, for a very long time I considered my favorite album full-stop, is about the death of a whole century. The joke songs were never the point of The Divine Comedy; they were merely context and contrast and comic relief to the true meat of his ruminations on life, death, the universe, and everything. In mistaking what his true gifts are, it’s almost like Hannon took the diametrically opposite path to his idol Scott Walker—rather than veering hard into nearly unlistenable experimentation and impenetrable high-art conceptualism, he went toward softball/cheeseball/cornball dork-pop.

Happily, though, In May is a return to form. Maybe it’s that he was freed from the pressures of writing “clever” lyrics since he was only responsible for the music; maybe it’s due to the fact that his own father was in the late stages of Alzheimer’s while he was working on the piece; maybe it’s because he’s also getting on in age. Whatever the case, he’s finally given me the album I’ve, in many ways, been waiting for him to do since I first heard Fin de Siecle.

While certainly not a perfect album, especially with nearly twenty years of hindsight, Fin de Siecle has always appealed to me for its combination of gigantic orchestral arrangements, Hannon’s delightfully cheeky baritone croon at the peak of its richness and clarity, and lyrics surveying a panorama of late 20th century white Western middle class concerns and observations (from newspaper scandals and gossip and the romance of public transportation to disease, environmental collapse, technological dystopia, war, and death). For me it’s always hit a sweet spot of sounding amazing and being fun to listen to while dealing with serious subject matter with a thoughtfully light touch, while also still being capable of smashing your heart into a million pieces with the melancholy dance-tronica of “Eric the Gardener” or Neil’s first explicit reference to having grown up in Northern Ireland in album-closer “Sunrise.”

Bringing all these elements together so seamlessly and effectively was a delicate balancing act, one that he’d seemingly built up to over the course of his three and half previous albums. It would have been impossible to sustain or repeat. I’ve always thought that the song “Too Young to Die,” which was recorded for his singles collection A Secret History, was a fairly bald-faced admission that he didn’t even want to try to replicate it, that he felt he was too young to allow himself to remain aesthetically pigeonholed. In some sense, it was no wonder that Regeneration sounded the way it did; it was a necessary palate cleanser, a way of honoring just how special Fin de Siecle was by leaving it standing as its own monumental achievement, by going off in a totally different direction.

However, with In May, Hannon has finally worked himself back up to an equal pitch (over the course of, yes, three more albums and a handful of side projects). Except here he’s working not at the scale of a whole century but instead in miniature—within the sonic limitations of a string quartet, single piano, one voice, and someone else’s lyrics (lyrics which narrate just six months of one man’s life, in an environment limited to the man’s house, mind, and very immediate surroundings).

The musical reference points in In May’s compositions range from familiar Hannon touchstones like Scott Walker and Michael Nyman to English musical theater composers like Leslie Bricusse and Lionel Bart but also, crucially, The Divine Comedy itself. Freed to shop his own back catalog, presumably by the assumption that the theatrical audience for In May wouldn’t necessarily cross over to his own fanbase, he’s able to lift familiar little idiosyncratic intervals and motifs that are most recognizable from the Divine Comedy’s heyday. There’s Promenade’s urgent, sawing string parts, A Short Album About Love’s down-tempo grandeur, and Liberation’s deep sense of place and space.

All those elements would of course be present in any production of the show, wherever it might be staged. But in this specific recording, there’s also Hannon’s use of his own speaking voice. He’s always been a bit actor-y in his music, slipping into the characters he’s invented for his songs, but usually with a heavy dose of wink-wink, nudge-nudge archness. At last, here he’s allowed himself abandon that hammy self-consciousness and to just breathe through the material. And I really mean breathe–just listen to when he sighs, “oh, my lovely feet!” in “3rd of January,” when his voice cracks on the word feet.

There’s no wink, no quote marks around it, no referring back to well-known podiatric literary references of the Western canon. It’s simple, intimate, honest, and completely soul-stirring.

The soaring perfect fifth at the conclusion of the whole piece, that big “your son!” at the end of “31st of May”, is the same interval as the one at the end of Fin de Siecle’s album closer “Sunrise.”

Sonically linking his hope for peace and reconciliation after The Troubles to a man’s final goodbyes to his loved ones after a rapidly progressing terminal illness is, when you take the long view, just a completely brilliant encapsulation of The Divine Comedy itself—his ability to marry the inevitability of darkness and death to a defiantly buoyant embrace of hope and beauty through the interplay of words and music.

But I think it also points, again, to the strengths that I don’t think Hannon even realizes he has. While he’s busy assuring everyone “I’m just basically a show off,” it’s his ability to craft these intensely personal, intimate, honest, unadorned moments that has fueled my love of his music for close to twenty years. Hearing him finally embrace this, at length, without apology, is enormously heartening. After all the musical deaths of 2016, how wonderful that no one actually had to literally die here in order for a great burst of life to be breathed back into the whole project of The Divine Comedy.

If you’ve enjoyed this piece, please consider checking out my interview with Tim Clarke, the English translator of In May. Click here for the show notes and links to where you can stream our conversation.