The art of losing isn’t hard to master; so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
So runs one of the great twentieth-century poems, Elizabeth Bishop’s perennial ‘One Art’, which proposes that loss can be a boon for the artist; indeed, that much if not all art is driven by loss, real or threatened. I’m not sure whether Bishop tuned into FM radio while penning her villanelles, but she would find an abundance of songs to prove her theory. As another great bard had it, ‘ ‘tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’. In Tennyson’s prophetic couplet we have probably half the entire pop canon; the other fifty percent deals with the love that hasn’t yet gone down the dumper, so it’s implied in any case. So many of those sodden-hanky songs are favourites of mine. There’s Elvis’s greatest record, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, in which that unbeatable voice runs the gamut from outrage to sulky snivel, and gifts every vertebra a little shiver, playing the spine like a xylophone. There are a thousand gorgeous songs in which the singer hopes to regain lost love, but knows that reality will deny them – ‘Nothing compares 2U’, perhaps (that Nellee Hooper production – so big and so bare, permeated by what has been left out). There’s the most perfect of all Cole Porter standards, ‘Every time we say goodbye’, where the turn ‘from major to minor’ furnishes the song with a metaphor for diminishing returns. I could go on and on. Perhaps the art of loss is relatively easy to master; or else, music is peculiarly suited to articulating the apparently inexpressible.
Bishop’s poem does hinge upon an addressee, the ‘you’ who appears in the last stanza; lost love is certainly there. But the other things to which she refers are touched with the mundane. She exhorts the reader to ‘lose something every day’, to ‘accept the fluster / of lost door keys, the hour badly spent’. Even if we have never experienced grief or the pain of parting, we know loss through the myriad objects we misplace every week, the time that runs short as we are swallowed into commonplaces or detained by interruptions and distractions. For Bishop, adjusting to these regular lapses prepare us for the big ones; the absent keys and runaway hours are mementos mori, reminding us that from the moment we are born, our batteries are winding down. That’s the poetry of the everyday for you. The smallest things are in fact the greatest. William Blake saw ‘a world in a grain of sand’; Bishop finds death in a watch or a wallet foregone. And while this may not be the province of much pop music, I’ve no doubt that Neil Hannon has taken Bishop’s collected poems on the tourbus with him and scribbled lyrics behind the flyleaf.
It wouldn’t be peculiar, after all. Hannon is known for a certain bookishness, an air of undergraduate aestheticism. The name of his ‘band’ is straight out of Dante, of course; and there are other incriminating instances of reference-dropping – the quotation from Cold Comfort Farm that provides ‘Something for the weekend’ with its hook, the setting of Wordsworth’s ‘Lucy’ poems on the Liberation album. So many rock critics hate this, predictably; clever-cleverness is at odds with their Springsteenish view of the world, particularly when accompanied by an arch smirk and a reading list. Neil Hannon was born to be Wilde; and for a while, he seemed to know it and revel in it. I must admit that I used to find The Divine Comedy rather silly in the nineties, even nauseating at times. There was something smug, not to say faux in that baritone; this was a man who crashed weddings in a fake bowtie, only to write daft, disingenuous character sketches of the guests. ‘National Express’ was about the worst of it; such an ungenerous, cheap skit, all that stuff about the woman with an arse ‘the size of a small country’. How astonished I was, then, to happen upon ‘Lost Property’ on a compilation album ten years ago; in that one track, I regained a band.
Regeneration was an apt title for The Divine Comedy’s 2001 album. It marked a Doctor Who-ish metamorphosis, a reset clock. For several years the sound of the ‘band’ (in reality a loose collective of associated musicians) had been ballooning, gathering, gaining. It was all plush orchestration and finery. But Neil Hannon fell under a spell; he heard OK Computer. In an interview at the turn of the decade, he revealed his envy of Radiohead’s cosmic tone poems and the game-changing production of Nigel Godrich, which did wondrous new things with the traditional guitar-band format. It was enough to convince him to reconvene The Divine Comedy as a group (including Hannon’s erstwhile musical collaborator, the classical composer Joby Talbot), ushering in a brief period of limelight-resistance and indie demeanour. With Godrich on board, the resulting album was a tingly, shivery thing, luminescent with synths and glocks and recorders, dotted with melodies to die for. On the opener, ‘Timestretched’, it’s as if Hannon is whispering ‘sssh!’ There’s something in the woodshed, but it’s benign and magical, and you have to approach it on tiptoe. On ‘Note to self’, you get the mordancy of indie shoegazing, but with sublime chord changes and a sort of classical handsomeness; Hannon might be have swapped Italian leather for Converse, but he’s still sauntering down Savile Row. ‘Love what you do’, the album’s main hit single, is possessed of another wondrous chord sequence, sweetened with Wombling woodwinds and idyllic bass runs. It could almost soundtrack the pleasant exertions of knowledgeable craftsmen in one of William Morris’s utopias. This all sounds smurf-like, but it’s actually adult music; these are songs about adjusting to everyday disappointment, settling for things, surveying the vicissitudes from an askance position. It’s fabulous stuff.
But best of all is ‘Lost Property’. The immediate subject matter is Bishop-like; the wider implications even more so. Hannon intones a litany of left luggage and ephemera, his baritone for once devoid of irony or suppressed glee. It could be a song whistled by a minion at Heathrow as (s)he rakes through the day’s haul; though I like to think of it hummed by a beachcomber, somewhere wild and end-of-the-line, like Dungeness or Spurn Head. The flotsam and jetsam of the discarded and forgotten are juxtaposed poetically, taking on a dignified beauty: ‘Silk Cuts and Bennies, / Ten packs and twenties’, ‘Two tennis rackets, / Blue Rizla packets’, ‘Passports and Parkers, / Mobiles and chargers’. Divorced from their owners, denied of their usefulness, they become objets d’art. The song also reminds us that these artefacts depend on people to give them meaning and purpose; it reminds us that nothing has its significance alone. Gradually, we sense they may be old friends, loved ones, people left behind or forgotten. The choruses lead us to this; the list-making gives way to existential rumination. ‘All through my life there have been / Many rare and precious things / I have tried to call mine’. By the end of the song, he dreams he finds them, stacked on top of each other in a sort of Platonic realm, but they are not to be restored to him on earth. It’s rather as we might imagine heaven, populated with those we mourn.
Loss is everywhere in the music, but the down-up-up-down of the genius chord sequence, and the rippling piano leitmotif imply endless motion, the sea washing up a new batch of unidentified items with every cycle. In the choruses, the chords start unpeeling themselves into vexed diminished triads, as Hannon contemplates the losses of his own life. As ‘Lost Property’ closes, the ‘dream’ of which the lyrics speak also slips from our grasp, the music sliding downwards and the glints of synth becoming ever more distant. If you listen, though, you’ll hear that it ends on an augmented chord (that is to say, a chord with a seemingly superfluous note). There may just be the dimmest hint of possibility here, a raised eyebrow, a ‘what if’. But it’s emphatically not the kind of arch touch you’d get in ‘The Frog Princess’ or ‘Generation Sex’. Instead, it’s a songwriter at the absolute height of his powers knowing when to go forth and when to hold back, served by first-class arrangement and production.
And so in that paean to loss I gained a band. Well, actually, I haven’t listened to anything Hannon’s done since, but I find myself revisiting the old stuff, which, dusted and divorced from its original context, seems to stand up better than I had previously thought. Ditties such as ‘Becoming more like Alfie’ and ‘Something for the weekend’ are still daft, but they’re also bloody brilliant, among the best singles of their era; and lest we forget, The Divine Comedy were also responsible for ‘My Lovely Horse’, the greatest song never to represent Ireland at the Eurovision Song Contest. But ‘Lost Property’ is a true lost classic. Ultimately, it belongs in that parallel universe which Hannon visualises in his dream; perhaps you too will dream of it anon, and, like him, weep tears of joy.