The Divine Comedy’s Victory for the Comic Muse

“I know I’m a genius,” admits the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon on the documentary DVD that accompanies the band’s new album, Victory for the Comic Muse. True, he then goes on to say that, at the same time, he’s an insecure “twat,” but one can’t help feeling that assessment is the key to why this is possibly Hannon’s least essential album.

Not that the Ulsterman ever had a low opinion of himself. His self-consciously clever lyrics and his strutting performances at concerts have always suggested a certain (forgivable) arrogance. It is just that, before, he felt the need to keep straining every songwriting sinew to convince everyone else of that fact. Now, one suspects, he feels he has enough converts—or perhaps he’s just too old, wealthy, and contented to care.

Don’t get me wrong. Victory is not a bad album. Far from it: the fruits of a genius’ comfort zone are still way beyond what most songwriters will ever achieve. Standout track “A Lady of a Certain Age” is almost as majestically heartbreaking as “Our Mutual Friend” on previous album Absent Friends. “Diva Lady” is a sharp slap in the face of an albeit obvious target. And “Mother Dear” is a catchy take on what amounts to the antithesis of standard rock and roll subject matter.

Still, that latter track’s lyrics—the sense of all being mutually forgiven now that Hannon has made a success of his rebellious career—are even more perilously close to complacency than those of “Charmed Life” on the last album (those being addressed to Hannon’s baby daughter). And elsewhere on Victory, the sense of Divine-Comedy-by-numbers is worryingly persistent. The lyrics of “To Die a Virgin” and “Snowball in Negative” both, in their different ways, revisit territory staked out on the band’s seminal Casanova album, while the cover of the Associates’ “Party Fears Two” rides the railway-train rhythm that Hannon admits on the DVD should be imprinted on his grave.

And then there’s the very existence of that DVD, whose contents constitute a rather self-indulgent documentation of the record’s recording. Hannon’s aspiration was to sweep away the time-consuming complexity of modern techniques and return to the old ways of doing things, with all the musicians (and there are a lot of them) playing together into a reel-to-reel tape recorder.

It is as well that Hannon is still challenging himself, but you can’t help wishing the film instead documented a return to Hannon’s old-fashioned ways of writing songs, when he let his imagination run gloriously riot, instead of being content to let it run in the same old mental rills.

The title of the album is a reference to the Divine Comedy’s disowned first record, the R.E.M.-influenced Fanfare for the Comic Muse; once again, there is the implication that Hannon feels his early musical struggles have now all been vindicated. The truth is, they were vindicated years ago, with Promenade and Casanova in particular. Hannon’s task now is to make sure the Divine part of his muse doesn’t fly away to someone who needs it more.