Listen to this track by Northern Irish pop concern with a rotating line-up, The Divine Comedy. It’s “National Express”, a single and a top ten hit in the UK as taken from their 1998 album Fin de Siècle. I say “their”, but perhaps I should say “his”, given that The Divine Comedy is steered by the central figure of singer and songwriter Neil Hannon, working with other musicians in the creation of his albums when not playing multiple parts himself.
Hannon’s general musical neighbourhood is centered around the minutiae of British life that is both real as well as that which is steeped in cultural myth. His approach also owes a debt to that which Ray Davies took in the 1960s with the Kinks, with his well-respected men about town, dedicated followers of fashion, and Village Green Preservation societies that populated a decidedly British landscape. Maybe that Kinksian connection is why The Divine Comedy are very often included when the subject of Britpop comes up.
But, I think Hannon’s work went one better than most.
For one thing, he not only sang about British identity overtly in the way that a lot of his Britpop contemporaries did. He seemed to also put across a once-removed persona that commented on the same; the dapper gentlemen with the wry and acerbic songwriter living just below his surface pulling his strings. This dynamic of Hannon’s best externalized the considerable levels of irony that can be found in British pop music at the time. This song has it in spades as one of the most biting profiles of modern life in Britain that came out of this era.
The National Express, for those of you who’ve never been to Britain, is a bus service that is sort of the UK equivalent to Greyhound. It’s service is looked upon as something of a national institution. But, of course like most institutions, it is very open to being seen as something of a snapshot of the culture it supports. “The National Express” shares some of the similar associations that getting on a Greyhound bus in North America has; being adrift, broke, alone, and often trying to escape the seemingly inescapable. That undercurrent is certainly true in this song, with “all human life is here/from the feeble old dear to the screaming child”, albeit in a more reserved and understated way in a culture of “keep calm and carry on”.
Hannon’s tune comes off as a sort of orchestral pop commercial to the joys of people-watching on the surface, full as it is of the simple pleasures of British culture. But, there’s plenty of angst too; lost youth, forgotten dreams, regret for roads not taken, and fear of adulthood are all lurking beneath Hannon’s Scott Walker-esque vocal style and bombastic ’60s MOR arrangements. The world presented in this song is very small indeed, and with few options available to its occupants to enable them to improve their situations. It is a place that is defined by its limitations, and not by its possibilities, and is ultimately a tragic one.
Tea and crisps, anyone?
To get a feel for Hannon’s head space around the time this song came out, have a read of this 1999 interview.
Otherwise, head on over to thedivinecomedy.com for more recent news.