After Regeneration sadly, mystifyingly failed to have the intended impact, Neil Hannon broke up the band, toured with Ben Folds (the two performing extra-special covers of classics such as Careless Whisper to great acclaim), before returning to the studio to record what is largely a solo album with occasional contributors - including long-term regular Joby Talbot - albeit an album still under the Divine Comedy name.
If Regeneration was a departure from Fin de Siècle, then Absent Friends is at least the same relative to Regeneration. Drawing back from the seriousness and rock stylings of that album, it re-introduces the funny, charming side of Neil Hannon’s writing, covering happy goths, imaginary friends, charmed lives, and the madcap-dash to the airport world of the international business traveller.
Overall, it’s the sound of a free and happy man (happy he and happy he alone…), retaining the simple melodic approach of Regeneration but bringing back some of the early Divine Comedy fun from Casanova, Promenade, and Liberation. It all sounds very relaxed, Sticks and Stones moves with ease and grace that belies the pain within: “Sticks and stones may break my body but words can tear me apart”. My Imaginary Friend, meanwhile, finds time to include quirky distorted vocal interludes, and ‘Laika’s Theme’ is in no hurry to complete its space-chorus orbit.
Come Home Billy Bird is the closest the album comes to previous hits, musically at least, while on an album not so long on individual lyrical bite, both Our Mutual Friend and The Happy Goth more than compensate, the former with a Tales of the Unexpected pay-off, the latter with the oft-felt, seldom understood appreciation of the difference between sad songs and sadness.
Overall, Absent Friends is not quite up there with the very best of Neil Hannon’s albums (look, that bar is pretty high up there - can you even see it?) but it’s a fine recovery from the aftermath of Regeneration.