Fin de Siecle was the last album The Divine Comedy recorded for Setanta; its title is almost too perfect. There’s a definite sense throughout that this thing, in its present form, has gone about as far as it can. If the line between genius and insanity is sometimes invisible to the naked eye, so to must be the clear glass of the two-way mirror between apotheosis and self-parody - a point proved, you might feel, by this very sentence.
Fin de Siècle is an album (cliche ahoy) of two halves - on the one hand you get the knockabout singalong anthems propelled along on Northern Soul-style rhythms, on the other the weightiness = the rare heft - of tracks like Sweden and Thrillseeker.
It starts - as almost no good album has ever done - with a sound-bite from Katie Puckrik, and launches straight into Generation Sex, honing in on the paparazzi in the gutter with laser-guided accuracy, before taking a moment to point out a home truth:
A mourning nation weeps and wails
But keeps the sales of evil tabloids healthy
The poor protect the wealthy in this world
The natural bedfellow of Generation Sex here is the wonderful and comical National Express. For those looking for a good time these two are worth the price of admission alone, but elsewhere fun is thinner on the ground. Instead, the mood is generally darker than on previous Divine Comedy albums. Sweden might just be the most brilliantly conceived bombast, crashing cymbals and a closing list of that nation’s great and good - “Ingmar Bergman, Henrik Ibsen, Karin Larsson, Nina Persson” - but there’s definitely something lurking under the repetition of the song’s title through the song. Two lengthy tracks - Eric the Gardener and The Certainty of Chance (both co-written by Hannon and Joby Talbot) - hint at a calmer future, but elsewhere there’s fatalism, doom: Thrillseeker drops one-liners a-plenty, but they’re coming out of the villain’s mouth - more “No, Mr Bond - I expect you to die” than “Just keeping the British end up”; “This life owes nobody happiness - only pain and sorrow” sings Hannon on Life on Earth; “You’ll know the end is nigh. We’re gonna die!!” concludes Here Comes the Flood.
Fin de Siècle, fin de la vie, fin de tout?
Not quite - the album closes with Sunrise, and its beautiful beacon of hope and redemption:
From the corner of my eye
A hint of blue in the black sky
A ray of hope, a beam of light
An end to thirty years of night
The church bells ring, the children sing
What is this strange and beautiful thing?
It’s the sunrise
Can you see the sunrise?
I can see the sunrise
It’s the sun rising
A label-departure Best-of aside, it would be two and a half years and several hundred sunrises before The Divine Comedy would return. When they did, it would be as a quite different-sounding entity…