quickie: The Divine Comedy
The Divine Comedy, Victory For The Comic Muse - I was confident from the first listen that others would be equally keen to affirm this as one of the year's best, but the reviews indicate that this is basically DC cultists only. That would make me an instant cultist, I guess, since I'd never listened to a whole album before. What's not to love? Neil Hannon is easily one of Indie Rock's 5 Most Erudite Men (Sufjan, the Mael brothers [Sparks], and Stephin Merritt are probably the other 4): not only can he reference Noel Coward at the drop of a hat and cook up a perfect archetypal story of an old-fashioned English lady fallen on hard times ("A Lady Of A Certain Age"), he can even pronounce Cote D'Azur correctly while admitting that he's a big enough dork to remember a show called "Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World." (Shit, just remembering anything about Clarke...)
Victory For The Comic Muse effortlessly marshals a variety of tones. Opener "To Die A Virgin" is hilarious because it nails the endless angst of the Male Teen Virgin while 30something Hannon sings in his deep voice, channeling a long-irrelevant concern, but he manages not to burn out on that initial peak. Penultimate track "Count Grassi's Passage Over Piemont" summons up the 19th-century sense of exploration, traveling further and further over mountains while musing on mortality ("If I'm to die, then let it be in summertime, in a manner of my own choosing/To fall from a great height on a warm July afternoon"). When he says "Oh unfathomable firmament," a sense of long-dormant wonder from an age of seemingly greater possibilities emerges; naming Segovia and Tuscany make geography seem like a quest again. Where Sufjan finds only himself in the past, Hannon finds other and greater worlds to explore. Bridging jokey almost-novelty songs with ferocious hooks and deadly serious thoughts on mortality is no small feat, and to do it with such beautiful organization is even better. There's one dud song in the bunch ("Diva Lady"), but this is easily one of 2005's best.