Thankfully only three years since the almost perfect Foreverland, Neil Hannon is back with more intricately crafted examples of his distinctive take on songwriting. Character-led narratives, surreal concept pieces and genre-hopping magic abound in this eclectic, heartfelt dressing-up-box of wry, melodramatic brilliance.
From the jaunty opening bars of lead track ‘Queuejumper’, you’d be forgiven for thinking that “The guy who did that National Express song” was back at it again with a poorly thought out comedy song. This track, while distinctly singalongable becomes somewhat forgettable when weighed against the breadth of the quick changing quality material which follows it.
Immediately, the lead track is out-ranked by the scratchy guitar chords of the title track ‘Office Politics’, a playful rumination on tepid office antics, some standard high jinks and the cliches associated with the irony of working a job you don’t like in order to afford to keep yourself alive long enough so you can keep returning to the job you don’t like. This theme is beautifully backboned with robotic, synthetic drum programming throughout, a feature utilised across the whole album, wherein Hannon outs himself as an obsessive synthesiser nerd.
Latest single ‘Norman and Norma’ is one of the album’s clear standout tracks. A far cry from the costume drama of subjects on the previous record (Catherine The Great or Napoleon) our characters are decidedly normal – geddit? The story in this delicate piano ballad is of a young couple, truly in love, who marry in mundane circumstances in the 80’s, live a pedestrian life with a few children and little excitement other than a lone Mediterranean holiday and some ignorable anecdotes. The pair drift apart emotionally as they grow older but eventually rekindle their love over a surprise shared interest in historical reenactments. It’s a song that occupies the same space in my brain as perhaps the work of the late Victoria Wood. I don’t know if that’s a compliment or not but to me, she was a gifted storyteller who utilised a quintessentially British sense of comic timing with style and aplomb in order to disguise the bitter pill of pathos with laughter.
The album takes a hop, skip and a jump gleefully through more existential musings on employment and its necessity or lack thereof in the next handful of tracks. The fun surely had in the studio becomes apparent in the switching and swapping of musical styles. There are electro-glam romps, salsa-tinged swing passages and even Spaghetti Western style ornaments in the vein of the ever-influential Scott Walker.
This middle section, or second act, marks a deviation from what you might consider “songs” in the traditional album format. In ‘Psychological Evaluation’, the machines have taken over, man is obsolete and Hannon is being interviewed, we assume as part of a job, by some kind of officious Human Resources robot. There’s a musical back-and-forth Q&A between Hannon and the android which culminates in us being offered a list of the artist’s influences, if not for every album, then most certainly this one. Japan, Depeche Mode and Thomas Dolby are amongst the many names in the roll-call to keep in mind as you play through this record, a paean to the artists and their often avant garde, synth-heavy approach to occasionally radio-friendly pop song.
As if it weren’t already an unusual feature of a record to list your musical influences in such a forthright way, the following track takes it up a notch. Reminiscent in part, of the short pieces on The Who Sell Out, the song takes the form of an extended radio jingle and lists every significant synthesiser model and brand utilised in pop music of the last 50 or so years. Purists will most likely play pedants in reference to Hannon’s pronunciation of ‘Moog’! If the concept or subject matter isn’t to your taste, there’s plenty of lyrical dexterity and tongue-twisting vocal gymnastics to appreciate instead. Even the title itself is a mouthful, ‘The Synthesiser Service Centre Super Summer Sale’!
‘Life and Soul of the Party’ opens with the “Rhubarb rhubarb” of a small gathered crowd and sets the scene of a naff office party and the insufferable humans who relish them. The track in part is similar in feel to some of the more recent Belle & Sebastian output. If you’re a fan of either artist, you’ve no doubt heard this comparison before. It rings true here as much as ever.
The upbeat pace is however broken and we’re treated to a truly moving and authentic piece of 80’s Sophistipop in the shape of ‘Feather in Your Cap’. David Sylvian’s signature is all over the verses in this one but that’s no surprise as Hannon has frequently spoken of his love for Japan. (As an aside, I urge you to seek out his solo piano version of the 1981 hit ‘Ghosts’ from the influential long player Tin Drum). This one lets us know that beneath the joking, pastiche and lampooning is a genuine love for this genre, from a true aficionado.
The shifting in direction, flow and pace of this album is a key dynamic utilised to great effect. I can see how it might be irksome for many but I’m in love with the fact that even though I’ve played the record a good twenty times now, I still can’t predict what will come next. This trick is never highlighted better than with the passage into the pairing of ‘I’m a Stranger Here’ and ‘Dark Days are Here Again’. Two tracks which could easily find themselves in a Stephen Sondheim production.
Stepping off the stage, Hannon breaks the fourth wall and shares with us a voice note hastily recorded, in suboptimal conditions, to prevent losing the idea into the ether. The song is almost as absurd as the concept; a theme tune jingle melody for a fictional sitcom documenting the hilarity that might ensue if we were to follow musical Avant Gardists Philip Glass and Steve Reich around New York City whilst they carried out their day jobs. It starts as a simple vocal line in the round, propped up with insistent hand claps which then overlaps and clashes and collides with itself. Referencing the methodology of the titular characters, the track morphs into a further exploration of the melody on marimbas, probably six of them, then expands and grows further still via piano, adding violins and bursting into a huge sounding male voice choir, repeating the title of the show, ‘Phillip and Steve’s Furniture Removal Company’. I challenge anyone to deny the ohrwurm power of this contradictingly complex yet simple melody. If there’s a crowdfunding campaign to get this show to fruition, I’m in.
‘Opportunity Knox’ takes us back to the theatre and treats us to a genuinely hilarious tale, skilfully told, of a character so desperate for work, they murder someone in order to take their job. The account follows the investigation by the police and has some wonderful jokes. “That isn’t blood/It’s ink” is a lovely punchline. Any more on this one will be considered a spoiler.
‘After the Lord Mayor’s Show, Comes the Donkey Cart’ is stoic yet uplifting. The penultimate track taking responsibility for beginning to close down and wrap up the album. The title is an idiom you might not be familiar with. It references an underwhelming ending following climactic pageantry. Once you’ve seen the parade, the only thing left is to watch people clean up horse manure. There’s a metaphor in there which has been the leitmotif throughout the record and is carried over the threshold into the album’s sombre closer.
The spirit of Scott Walker is once again invoked on the album’s final cut, ‘When the Working Day is Done’. Sinister and cinematic in equal measure, this capstone piece leads, follows and finishes with a persistent military march-like rhythm pushing and guiding the listener through the drudgery of the all-too-familiar narrative circumstance. This reflective track is home to, what is for me, the single most accurate lyrical representation of the record’s enduring theme; “We give and get nothing back.” A perfect soundbite to chew on as the album finishes.
With this record, Hannon has found a number of delightful ways to encourage internal musings on where it all went wrong with the world. The 80’s was a prosperous time for many. Perhaps the last ‘good’ time he remembers. It was hopeful if nothing else. Now look at the mess we have. What even do we have? All we do is work and die and occasionally we love and laugh. It’s the latter of the two that I think we’re encouraged to embrace in this album.
In Office Politics, Hannon has once again given a much deeper meaning to the mundane situations and events in his fables. Outside the theatrical concept album format, stripped of studio trickery, meticulous arrangements and grandiose performances, there is, at its core an eternally true everyman message. If these songs aren’t clear in their sentiments, then I would ask you to consider this apt verse from Eric Idle, a man without whom, an album like this simply couldn’t exist. “Life’s a piece of shit/When you look at it/Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke it’s true/You’ll see it’s all a show/Keep ’em laughing as you go/Just remember that the last laugh is on you/And/Always look on the bright side of life.”
Office Politics is released on June 7th through Divine Comedy Records.