Since the days of their 1996 breakthrough album Casanova, with its surreal, campy mix of literate crooning and jaunty, orchestral pop, The Divine Comedy and the man at the helm, Neil Hannon have veered a bit off track. From the decadent lothario he presented on Casanova, Hannon became more of a Noel Coward on Fin de Siecle, taking on the culture as a whole, still comically but at times so bombastically as to detach the cool from the camp. In 2001 came Regeneration, with the band sounding as if they wanted to join up with the Radiohead followers of Coldplay and Travis. Shortly after that album's generally conceded failure, Hannon disbanded his group.
He returns with Absent Friends, an album he originally planned to release under his own name as a solo album. It looks back to his old Scott Walker-inspired sound, but lyrically it is more mature, regarding domestic life and the passage of time in ways he has never attempted before. In an interview with The Guardian Hannon said, "It's nice to look clever but it's certainly not a raison d'Ítre. With Absent Friends, I just wanted to make a beautiful thing, something that sounds gorgeous on my stereo, with a roaring fire and a glass of sherry and a Labrador at my feet." It is an accepting album, with a bittersweet melancholy that forgives. One certainly would not find themselves in bad company if they were to lay claim to this as his best album.
Amongst those songs dealing directly with family and children, "Leaving Home" contains a wonderful moment where the overblown reveals more than the ascetic could. Starting small and releasing his orchestra more and more, Hannon lets all loose, when, looking at his child in the nursery as he prepares to depart, his voice booms, "I'm leaving today / I could stay if you asked me / So for God's sake don't ask me to stay."
The album closer "Charmed Life" frolics along with a melody sounding as though George Gershwin tried to write a country and western tune. Love and fatherhood graces Hannon with a sense of relaxed reflection: "But I knew I'd find the one / And sure enough, she came along / And not long after that, along came you."
But it is "Our Mutual Friend" which is the album's finest moment, and one of the heights of Hannon's career. The title is gaily grabbed from the Dickens novel. Hannon flips the lyrics in on themselves just as he does with the pulsating minimalist melody. A galloping string charge out of a Michael Nyman film score starts things off and is shortly joined by piano chords and drum beat.
Hannon tells the tale of being introduced to a woman through a friend. They go back to the friend's place. Playing with the lyric, Hannon states, "She told me that she really liked me / And I said 'Cool, the feeling's mutual.'" But the melancholy is clearly on its way with the lines, "We sank down to the floor / And we sang, the song that I can't sing anymore / And then we kissed, and fell unconscious." The tale ends:
I woke up the next day,
All alone but for a headache,
I stumbled out, to find the bathroom,
But all I found was her,
Wrapped around another lover,
No longer then,
Is he our mutual friend.
A talent for melody, lyric, arrangement, and voice such as this is clearly exceptional, but it is the unique execution, sophisticated, fey, and understanding, which pushes Hannon into the top-ranks of pop-songwriters and the album to near-classic status. Now, where to find some sherry?