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30. The Divine Comedy, “Count Grassi’s Passage Over Piedmont” (Victory For The Comic Muse, 2006)
Neil Hannon is a parallel-world survivor of Britpop. In 1991, while the UK was in thrall to Madchester and “baggy,” The Divine Comedy released their first album, Fanfare for the Comic Muse —subsequently and quickly deleted from the catalogue, but by all accounts extremely R.E.M.-influenced, which made Hannon about seven years late to the party. In 1993, as Suede and Blur mounted their first serious attacks on the brave new Kinks/Beatles-loving Britpop frontier, Hannon thought it appropriate to release the first DC album, Liberation, on which his greatest influence appeared to be Romantic poetry (the final song is three of Wordsworth’s “Lucy” poems strung together) and Michael Nyman. Hannon’s pretty much stayed the course since then, remaining stubbornly unfashionable: He’s set Fitzgerald to song (“Bernice Bobs Her Hair”), written extravagantly Broadway-esque odes to national transportation (“National Express”) and given the occasional winking reminder that he’s aware of the present day (the hilariously acerbic parody “Europop,” a love song using the BBC show “Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World” as a metaphor). But his heart is in the Romantic era, which happens to be one of my least favorite eras in literature and which he brings to life, making the ideals new, fresh and moving again.
“Count Grassi’s Passage Over Piemont” is the story of a fictional count (as far as I know) setting hot-air balloon passage over the continent, passing over Italy. But what’s really on his mind is death: “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.” It’s all unbearably sad and moving and reminds me of the kind of similar 19th-century crap my dad used to quote with great fervor. That’s enough about that.