Treble is celebrating its 10-year anniversary by posting a series of articles that reflect the last 10 years of music, including a series of Hall-of-Fame essays on significant albums released between 2003 and 2013. These are albums that left a significant impact not just on us, but also music on a greater scale (but mostly on us). We’ll be posting a new reflection on a significant album from the past 10 years every day for the next few weeks.
“It’s mostly about coming and going, people being there and not being there.” –Neil Hannon
I discovered the artist whose music I’ve played more than any other’s in the past decade by happenstance. I wasn’t looking for The Divine Comedy; I was looking for Nöel Coward. I don’t remember why I was looking for Nöel Coward. I may have been looking for something to play on my show on KAOS Olympia. Or maybe there was some research thread I was on, the purpose of which is comprehensively lost to me now. I may have been inebriated. Back then there was a 50-50 chance of that.
One of the results Napster gave me was The Divine Comedy’s cover of Coward’s “I’ve Been To A Marvellous Party.” It’s probably the most atypical song in their catalog, but its conceit is great: Neil Hannon alternates verses that faithfully replicate Coward’s original recording with comically caricatured techno verses in line with the fashion of 1998. Whenever a band gets through to me with a joke as their entry point they’ve got favored nation status right off the bat.
Between 2000 and 2005 I only owned one Divine Comedy album, and it was their compilation A Secret History. In America Neil Hannon’s history couldn’t have been more secret. His brand of pop music was the kind that could only find commercial foothold in the U.K. where he’s had 13 Top-40 singles. It follows the spotty genealogy of Burt Bacharach, early Scott Walker solo sides, Sean O’Hagan, even film composers like John Barry and Michael Nyman. I also understand Hannon has an ELO fetish.
So the Irishman may not have much resale value in the States in general, but people like me are genetically programmed to dive into music like The Divine Comedy and scarf it up. There have been a couple of periods lasting about a week where I played nothing but The Divine Comedy. We’ve exchanged tweets. It’s serious.
The other thing about the time between 2000 and 2005 was that everything changed. For me, that is. Conclusively. I normally resist sopping web pages up with confession because Google AdSense can never find an appropriate co-sponsor — Art Instruction Schools? Publishers Clearing House? Cymbalta? — but it’s the only way I can explain why The Divine Comedy’s Absent Friends is my favorite album of the last ten years.
Sigh… Alright, here’s the concise history. 2002 and 2003 were the most social years of my life. Up to that point I’d never been great at being an extrovert. But through a combination of lazy strategy, self-determination, quality associates and open bar tabs, I started regularly communing with a flexibly sized “group.” We had core members, common causes, many peripheral members, internal subplots and moveable feasts. We did a lot of things. We were karaoke addicts. We played elaborate practical jokes. It was the extended adolescence I’d always wanted, at least since the termination of my first marriage. We should have been an HBO series.
About those internal subplots: Most of them involved romantic entanglements, negotiations and scorecards. Even though I was having a jolly old time, I still had major mood swings. These could be loosely traced back to my absolute resistance to commitment, facing off against the nagging acknowledgement that I’d have to make one eventually. But I wanted to forestall it for as long as possible, until I either was sufficiently experienced enough to go about one with confidence or had my hand forced by a dramatic turn of events. It turned out to be the latter. It came in the form of a baby.
(Hold on a sec, Cymbalta’s marketing guy is on the phone.)
The upshot is, in the spring of 2005 I moved from Olympia to Seattle with my partner and our 7-month-old daughter. I’d taken a job programming MSN’s internet radio stations, which started my tempestuous, eight-year association with Microsoft’s music concerns. We got a little apartment near Fremont. Everything had changed — from social butterfly (I prefer moth) to family man in the blink of a cosmic eye.
At some point that summer I purchased Absent Friends at the Queen Anne location of Easy Street Records, which no longer exists.
The dual nature of Absent Friends didn’t really hit me until I read Hannon’s quote at the top of this piece, and I didn’t read it until a few weeks ago. It’s an album of goodbyes and hellos, out of sequence and generating from different situations. It deals very specifically, yet casually, with the processes of exiting an old life and bringing in a new one. It looks great in a smoking jacket. And yes, it channels all the parallel situations I had experienced over three years through an epic, quasi-Victorian motif. It was exactly what I needed at the time, one of those rare albums (I’ve had four) that felt like it dropped into my hands to answer questions I must have been asking.
Not all the goodbye songs announce themselves as such, but the first one, the title track, sets the tone. Over a rolling rhythm track that brings to mind the theme of Bonanza, Hannon drinks toasts to close associates who have passed onto the moderate beyond. Only they’re not exactly personal acquaintances. They’re Jean Seberg, the Breathless actress who killed herself in 1979. Woodbine Willie, the priest who gave cigarettes to dying soldiers in World War I. Steve McQueen, the action actor for whom “the great escape he tried to make was not to be.” Oscar Wilde, who swung from wild acclaim to exile in an uncomfortable heartbeat. There’s even Laika, the dog who flew into space on Sputnik 2 and didn’t fly back.
There were more obvious celebrity deaths Hannon could have sung about, so how did he settle on those five? I assume there was something about their archetypes that struck a chord in him. Perhaps they’re linked by their novel or elevated ambitions (or the Russian space program’s) that played some part in their demise. Elvis’ or James Dean’s death would have been too easy. The dead people in “Absent Friends” have more mystery and substance to their demises. In any case, they’re now “friends,” who at some point might have been in the same pub, and it at least feels like Hannon’s extending the handshake to the listener. Thanks, Track One!
The other farewells come at some inconvenience. In the wit-powered “Sticks And Stones,” Hannon very politely requests an ex to stop slandering him, as sympathetic castanets and accordion try to keep him from over-emoting because he might knock over his demitasse. His prim plea, “Spare a thought for my heart,” is so sincere and even-tempered, it makes you wonder what he did to blow the whole affair up in the first place. “The Wreck of the Beautiful” is a haunted elegy that slips around exact notes while Hannon comes to the slow-boiling, galling realization that the novelty of his youthful aspiration is now running aground at an excruciating pace.
I probably lived “Our Mutual Friend” a couple of more times than I’d like to admit, and it’s one of Absent Friends’ most-realized songs. With a maddeningly repetitive, insistently Latin base, Hannon describes the mundaneness of single life in Clubland. He struggles to make a connection, fumbles through inane conversation, drinks to embolden himself for an awkward dance and a pre-blackout kiss, then awakes to find all that work went for naught in the least pleasant, yet predictable scenario possible. Hannon’s giving the squalid details such regal treatment both heightens the drama and renders it petty. It’s the “Bolero” of failed one-night stands.
It’s uncertain what Hannon’s saying farewell to in the Copland-esque “Freedom Road.” The solo narrator sounds like an American truck driver whose cross-country travels have given him a new appreciation for the landscape (“That shit takes my breath away,” he sings as high-pitched violins spring to life). Realizing such vulnerability puts him at odds with the brawn of his truck-stop friends, he gives up trying to explain it, “parks up his rig and walks away.” Walks away from what? Just the truck and his occupation? Or something more? All you can tell is that he’s walking toward the beauty he’s been watching from behind the windshield. You don’t know if he’s heading towards the light or returning to the earth, if you get my meaning.
The goodbye songs don’t all come in sequence; they’re scattered throughout the album amongst the birth songs. Sliding along the two forms gives Absent Friends a weird sort of breathability. There’s a distinct separation between the past and the present, but thinking about each of them doesn’t happen in a linear fashion; it happens as they come up. And the theatricality of the farewells sets up the innocent beauty of the welcoming songs in amazing ways.
The rest of Absent Friends’ songs (save for “Laika’s Theme,” an instrumental) are either sung to, by, or in allegiance with children. Hannon also had his first child around the time my partner and I did (probably before, I didn’t get the birth announcement). The flush disarray of new parenthood finds its way into Absent Friends’ remaining five songs — of which two are about roughly the same topic, one is sung by a child, one is sung by who sounds like an over-reaching guidance counselor, and one is the most moving pop song I’ve ever heard.
“Leaving Today” and “Come Home Billy Bird” are both about that classic, oft-deployed pop music theme: traveling on company business. They are, logically, placed in sequence. “Leaving Today” could also obviously be classified as one of the goodbye songs. Hannon makes the narrator’s pre-dawn departure a moment of wrenching anguish, as he slips past his half-asleep wife, peeks in his baby’s nursery, then grudgingly steps into the cab. The orchestral ennui is almost as thick as “The Wreck of the Beautiful,” and for a while I thought it might be a tad overwrought. That was before I started going on business trips. “Leaving Today” doesn’t exaggerate the distress that much.
“Come Home Billy Bird” is the comic opposite, as the extremely hungover “international business traveler” limps and lurches through misadventures of airport inconvenience at blazing speed, in exasperated fear of missing the most important appointment of the weekend: his son’s “big football game.” You can even choose between English or American football if you like. I found that handy.
Hannon sings as a boy in “My Imaginary Friend,” a Todd Rundgren-style piano shuffle about invisible companions. Well, the kid sees them — I’m not sure what your problem is. In one of Absent Friends’ most delightful mini-moments Hannon sounds out the word “peripatetically” like he’s a five-year-old who just learned the word. “The Happy Goth” jumps forward to our troubled teenage years, as Hannon tries to get inside the mind of a ghost-white teen stereotype (“That music you play, I’m not saying it’s bad/It just seems terribly sad”). Instead of resolving the chorus in swaths of echo and self-inflicted pain, though, Hannon sets it against a swinging cocktail beat. Yet he doesn’t talk down to the Happy Goth; in fact he finds himself defending her character to her parents. One of Hannon’s greatest gifts as a songwriter is his ability to take a subject that’s ripe for lampooning (“At the Indie Disco,” “Commuter Love”), but uncovering a measure of empathy for his characters at or before he gets to verse three. That’s what happens with “The Happy Goth.”
Then there’s “Charmed Life.”
“Charmed Life” is the badge of my lachrymosity. I’ve written about this one single song before. I’ve actually made a video for a project about what this song means to me, and I hate looking at pictures of myself. You remember that news story from about 15 years ago about the woman in England whose neighbors complained that she played “I Will Always Love You” on repeat at ear-splitting volume, and left her windows open? If I were even more of a screwball than I already am, if my emotional boundaries were just the slightest meter or two to the left, and I lived with a parakeet in a furnished flat in Clapham and very few friends who didn’t know C++, I might play “Charmed Life” to that level of saturation. As it is now, I tend to sniffle when I hear it.
It’s the last song on the record, and it would have sounded right at home on one of Sinatra’s earliest Reprise recordings. It’s one of the only two or three songs that I remember where I was when I heard it. I was driving home on the 520 bridge in Washington State. I’d had Absent Friends a couple of weeks but hadn’t quite gotten through the whole thing yet. So finally it was coming to the end of the album, and “Charmed Life,” and I’m commuting.
“When I hold you in my arms, and look back on my charmed life…” That’s simple enough. It’s a straightforward love song. A ragamuffin counting his blessings. He’s got the girl, everything’s going well, they cook together on Thursday nights. The first verse is about how he the singer never made a lot of money, “but I always seemed to land upon my feet.” Fair enough. I wasn’t making any money just two years earlier — I know how that goes. Now I had a job. I could afford to look back in fondness on those times. Then the chorus again, “When I hold you in my arms…” etc. He’s lucky he’s got such a nice girl who fits his wingspan.
The second verse is about love. “The course of true love never ran smooth/They broke my heart, I broke theirs too.” Yeah, that’s true. I remember that. I didn’t have that much foresight when it came to those things. Could’ve saved a lot of money and prevented some rug burns. “But I knew I’d find the one, and sure enough she came along.” Also a nice sentiment, but how does your girlfriend feel about you addressing her in the third person? It’s nice, but a bit impers…
“And then not long after that, along came YOU…”
Holy crap, he’s not singing to his girl, he’s singing to his child.
Now look. I don’t break that easily. I’ve withstood almost every moment of sentiment in almost every song I’ve ever heard. I don’t cry at songs. I don’t care which ones you throw at me. “The Way We Were.” “The End Of The Road.” “Just Like Heaven.” “Take This Job and Shove It.” “Thrift Shop.” I’ve gotten through all of them without so much as a heart flutter or a facial tic.
So I don’t really know what happened on the 520 when that line came across and the orchestra swelled for the instrumental break. Maybe I was thinking about the lack of definition I’d had before, how much I tried to resist feeling too much, how by almost all accounts I should have run out of chances, and how now I was heading home to a girlfriend and a nine-month-old girl so intuitive and lovely that I can’t believe I had anything to do with her being here in the first place… or whatever. Maybe I was thinking about a cheese sandwich, I don’t know. I just started tearing up.
I think I played “Charmed Life” about 50 or 60 times that summer. I got through about half of them without getting choked up, I think. And then I snapped up the rest of the Divine Comedy’s catalog. I even bought another copy of A Secret History. I’m not sure why. I just needed it close by or something.
Anyway, it’s eight years later now. We got married. We had two more kids. I’m out of Microsoft and officially under-employed. We’re somewhat on edge. Everyone has to start over now. There’s a lot of mileage between the blithe temp on 520 and the struggling-again crank of the present. Both of them love Absent Friends. It’s one of those very few albums where I not only got the point, but it might have actually changed my mind or heart about something. It’s orchestral and anachronistic, but I can’t see how it will ever not be timeless.
So yeah, to answer Treble’s eternal question, I have hugged my record collection today. Absent Friends hugged back.
Paul Pearson is a writer, journalist, and interviewer who has written for Treble since 2013. His music writing has also appeared in The Seattle Times, The Stranger, The Olympian, and MSN Music.