Just in case Liberation was a bit too easily-digestible, not quite soaked enough in literary reference, art or artifice, for its follow-up Neil Hannon pulls out all the stops. On Promenade he casts aside, for the most part, the easy and the obvious, the pop and the rock. He replaces it with strings upon strings, distinctly un-pop, un-rock constructions, building big bold arches over a concept album about a pair of lovers enjoying a seaside trip. Their grand day out is soundtracked by the unashamedly baroque, the knowing, the smart, the literary arrangements.
After quoting lines from Our God, Our Help in Ages Past, Promenade opens with the alarming and amusing line “Rub-a-dub-dub it’s time for a scrub”. It’s a perfect lyrical feint - a drop of the shoulder and a side-step later and we’re into Going Downhill Fast, the wind whistles past, natural beauty abounds, the piano barrels down the road with us while strings float like butterflies alongside. The freewheeling fun is brought to a halt by The Booklovers, a witty bookish version of A House’s Endless Art, with Hannon briefly caricaturing each author in the roll-call.
A toast is raised during A Seafood Song, and another list: this time a fishy list. Later, more toasting, during the raucous A Drinking Song:
We’re drinking to life
We’re drinking to death
We’re drinking ‘til none of our livers are left
In the same song, Latin mixes with French mixes with hedonism and what I imagine to be the only use of the word chanticleer in modern pop.
Typical British weather informs the narrative when the lovers get caught in the rain. In some ways Geronimo harks back to Going Downhill Fast, but that song’s seemingly endless summer daze is gone, replaced by that wet stuff we do so well, leaving the pair soaked but invigorated:
What began a drizzle
Has now become torrential,
And doesn’t look like coming to an end.
Elsewhere, childhood memories and French cinema are explored, and at the end, the most exquisite portrayal of pure love and happiness. Our pair flies as their hearts beat together, seeing others as only the smitten can:
Looking into all your lives
And wondering why
Happiness is so hard to find
Where Liberation flirted with the concept of baroque pop, mixing it with more obviously straightforward themes, Promenade is laudably singular in its dedication to the form. Barely a song passes without a daring moment - even When The Lights Go Out All Over Europe includes tendencies towards operatic grandeur, and The Summerhouse is four otherwise conventional indie-pop minutes with a cor anglais solo snuck in for good measure. Only at the very end, with the life-affirming Tonight We Fly does Hannon present us with something we might consider ordinary, and yet in truth it may well be the most remarkable song on the album. Just when you think you’ve got the measure of him, Hannon moves another step ahead…