The obvious reference point for the title is the long-forgotten début album Fanfare for the Comic Muse. The truth, as so often is the case with The Divine Comedy, is more ambiguous. Victory for the Comic Muse is also a line taken from A Room With a View, a favourite of Neil Hannon’s, the Merchant-Ivory film adaptation of which provided the audio sample at the start of Liberation. Hannon is too knowing to chalk these incidences up as merely coincidence, at the same time too smart to let on where the planning begins and the happenstance ends.
This comic muse starts off with a sound-clip from The Camomile Lawn, and the jaunty To Die a Virgin. It’s the first of three solid tracks at the start of the album, all of which barrel along nicely enough without quite ever hitting the heights, emotionally or musically. Perhaps by this stage Hannon is content to crank the handle from time to time, you might be forgiven for thinking. But then along comes A Lady of a Certain Age, to set the record straight, as it were. And in the telling of its tale - ‘chasing the sun around the Côte d’Azur until the light of youth becomes obscured’, an English lady of a certain age muses on the material comfort but emotional discomfort of the privileged set, the kids, the rich husband, the mistress, and the twilight years cadging drinks off nice young men. It’s a poignant tale, told beautifully.
The Light of Day and the piano curio Threesome round off a subdued first half of the album; the second half is where the action and excitement are to be found. A staccato cover of The Associates’ 1982 hit Party Fears Two is a triumph: Hannon can’t quite match Billy MacKenzie’s hysterical banshee screeching, but with strings replacing synths, the track holds together remarkably well.
The rest of the album is no less impressive. If you could have guessed from the titles in the first half that the songs might also be straightforward, then you could apply the same logic to the closing tracks. ‘Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World’, Count Grassi’s Passage over Piedmont’, Snowball in Negative’ all suggest adventure, intrigue, mystery; the last two also feature lovely piano parts and textural shifts. Only The Plough hides its suspense and drama behind a hum-drum title, though in truth it’s as fabulous a tale as ever Hannon has writ, played to a marching beat whose discipline is halted and rejected in the hero’s chorus line: “I’ll plough my own furrow; I’ll go my own way”.
Overall, Victory for the Comic Muse tries to play it a bit safe, and suffers as a result, but if Neil Hannon can still come up with songs as good as A Lady of a Certain Age and The Plough, there might be life in the old horse yet.