A Woman of the World

As I said in my introductory essay to Casanova, this is an extraordinarily long-feeling album because of the way it’s organized into mini-suites, and with “A Woman of the World” we come to the third song of the middle suite, the section I characterize as most representative of classic DC (“Songs of Love” –> “The Frog Princess” –> “A Woman of the World”).

The song also showcases one of my favorite vocal performances of Neil’s. He uses every part of his range here, like a Plains Indian resourcefully making use of every part of a buffalo: there’s the straight-ahead narrator, the conversational/spoken-word chattiness, the heavily affected faux-crooner, and, of course, the shredded belt. It’s such a casual tour de force, which is, in some ways, all the more unexpected coming in this often overlooked song in the DC catalog.

Also, the arrangement shows Neil’s genius in this period for undermining his own orchestral impulses. The song is obviously built to resemble a big, brassy, Broadway showstopper, but the sonic balance is always kept in check with some little oddball touch. It starts off with the watery phasing of the electric piano on the introduction (which makes a subtly witty segue out of “The Frog Princess”). Then, when the baritone sax is bopping along, it’s equalized like crazy so that it’s as trebly as possible. When Neil’s vocals are affected and arch in the bridge section, the strings are rich and warm. When the brass is swinging, it’s processed to feel canned and tinny. The overall effect is ingeniously two-dimensional–it’s like aural art deco, like the musical equivalent of the classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s cover or an early New Yorker. There’s a sense of humor to it, but this aesthetic choice also reflects the tawdry glamor of the Holly Golightly character. It’s 100% the right impulse.

There’s also a fascinating mingling of violence (“maybe I’ll kill her, just trying to thrill her / if she don’t kill me first”) with half-entertained notions of performing femininity (“I’m jealous of her–she’s a woman of the world,” “maybe I need her because I want to be her–baby, can I be your girl?”). It’s easiest to categorize these lyrics as a general nod to Truman Capote’s homosexuality (as well as the unspoken gayness of the novella’s unnamed narrator), but I’ve always preferred to take it one step further and hear it as a more undefinable exploration of gender fluidity. (Nothing sexier than an otherwise hetero guy asking, “baby, can I be your girl?”) This is courageous but necessary, as it allows Casanova to continue cataloging as many different iterations of late-20th century sexual expression as possible, which Neil continues to expand in “Through a Long and Sleepless Night.”

And, as a sauce to how wonderful this song is on its own merits, it’s always made more wonderful when I think of listening to it while driving down Route 41 with Casey, on our way to a family friends’ lake house, in late summer 2000 after my return from London. I was so excited to share this new music with my besties, hoping they’d hear all the same intelligence and exuberance that I heard in it.

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The Frog Princess

This is one of those great pop songs that does exactly what pop songs do best–it makes very little literal sense, but feels exactly right. I always sort of mentally glossed over this song in my younger days when I wasn’t actively dating all that much, but now that I find myself going out a lot and going through break-ups of varying degrees of seriousness once every three to four months, I swoon at how accurately Neil has captured the awful ambivalence of courtship and casual relationships. In our most vulnerable moments, when we want nothing more than to love and be loved, it becomes a matter of emotional survival to guard our hearts with overly indifferent statements like “you don’t really love me and I don’t really mind / ’cause I don’t love anybody, that stuff is just a waste of time” which, paradoxically, embolden us to ask the question we’ve secretly been leading up to all along anyway: “your place or mine?”

I also love that the song seamlessly manages to have it both ways, sonically, too. It starts off with a dopey, farty/froggy bassline that underscores the ridiculous comedy of these dating/mating rituals when both parties are feigning excessive casualness before swelling and cresting into a lush, pulsating, string-laden heartbreaker, just aching with suppressed longing for genuine affection, for even a momentary cessation of all the socially sanctioned posturing. The nautical trumpet figure unites the two sections of the song, as it goes from a cheeky quotation bringing to mind horny sailors on leave to a lonely, keening howl at the moon, silhouetting all these tragic single figures adrift on the ocean of their own loneliness.

The first time I saw the DC play live, on March 14, 2001, at the University of Southampton, on the Regeneration tour, Neil played this song solo on his acoustic guitar as one of his encores. The crowd went bonkers for this fan-favorite, whistling along to mimic the beloved orchestration that was dancing through all our heads, and even providing the whooshing guillotine sound effect, which you could tell utterly delighted him.

Songs of Love

Ah. Leave it to Neil to break all the tension he’s been building over the course of the last three songs with a sweet little ditty about boners. “Run around / with trousers on fire / and signs of desire / they cannot deny” is such a wonderful, funny, compassionate, and heartbreaking line. It’s always been funny to me, but somehow it’s extra funny now, considering it more deeply in the context of Casanova as a whole. The plinky, pastoral gentleness of the vocal round is masking, like cheap perfume, the musky hormonal desire of these kids the narrator is describing, heightening the ridiculousness of the fool’s errand the songwriter is on: putting a romantic face on the messiness of private emotions so that they’re sanitized enough for public consumption. After all the rancor aimed at the War Between the Sexes in the previous songs, it seems only fitting for Neil to take the piss out of himself a little bit here.

He’s also taking exquisite care to continue building the narrative arc of the album as a whole. After all the down and dirty lust and rutting of the first half of the album, it was only natural to continue the cataloging of human sexual impulse by focusing on pubescent hormones. Similar to the way that the line “everybody knows that no means yes” still always mildly shocks me in “Becoming More Like Alfie,” I love the quiet deviousness of the lines “fate doesn’t hang on a wrong or right choice / fortune depends on the tone of your voice”–a sly bit of advice that is equally appropriate to a singer/songwriter aspiring toward commercial success by writing sappy love songs as well as for young Casanovas probably looking more for some skin-on-skin action rather than eternal love.

But Neil is also keeps subtly weaving in the intimations of mortality that are driving us toward the grave at the end of the album: “so let’s sing while we still can / while the sun hangs high up above / wonderful songs of love.” In other words, in the summer of our lives, let’s take advantage of all the pleasures–both physical and aesthetic–that are abundantly available to us.

Of course, this is also one of his simplest and loveliest songs, which also yielded one of his highest profile covers when Ben Folds included a very faithful version on his Sunny 16 EP. Featuring two of Neil’s most notable sonic signatures, the round-style vocal overdubs and tinny harpsichord, it’s an undeniable stone-classic of the DC catalog.

Speaking of that harpsichord, when I last saw the DC perform live in fall of 2004, his keyboard player threw a couple of tiny improvised flourishes into the solo. “I didn’t write that,” Neil chastised him, deadpan but utterly serious, after the applause died down. His type may hibernate in bedrooms above, but that doesn’t mean they’re not watching shit like a hawk.

Charge

Neil wrote this song about ten years too soon. If it had come out in the late ’00s during the full blossoming of hyper-pop epitomized by of Montreal in the Hissing Fauna/Skeletal Lamping era, it probably would have been heralded as a brilliant mini-suite exploring the war between the sexes via hilariously apt slices of pop music and pop culture. But, as it came out in ’96, buried in the middle of a set of otherwise immaculately wrought traditional pop songs, it just kind of comes off as an oddball way station between the two halves of Casanova. Which is too bad because, for all that I said in the previous entry about this being the skippable part of the album, I want to make it clear that I’ve come around to understanding how brilliant it actually is. Would I put this song on a mix CD? Probably not. Is it something I crave listening to if I’m in the mood for some DC? Erm, no. But really studying how it operates in the context of what Neil’s doing thematically here makes me appreciate it now more than I probably ever have.

After the cynical and occasionally disturbing examinations of female and then male sexual appetites in “Middle-Class Heroes” and “In and Out in Paris and London” respectively, of course the next logical step in the sequence would be to musically literalize the War Between the Sexes. The lyrics in “Charge” are dark, twisted, and brilliant, the ridiculous double entendres spat with something approaching pure contempt. Where “In and Out” is suffused with a kind of pleading douchiness that undercuts its horndog fixation on conquest, “Charge” doesn’t even pretend to dress up its engorged rage with a sentiment like “I fall in love with someone new practically every day”–it’s just “bang, bang, bang all night.”

And yet despite all this, the song also manages to be laugh out loud funny. The Barry White-esque spoken breakdown might be one of the most genuinely hilarious moments in the entire DC catalog. The line “I have in my hand a piece of paper that says ‘let’s make love not this phony war thang‘” is truly inspired. I listened to a lot of goofy doo-wop with my family while I was growing up, and we learned to cherish all the wacky (and sometimes overly simplistic and on-the-nose) metaphors and imagery in their inevitable mid-song monologues, and this little section always recalls the sense of delight we took in affectionately mocking them. I mean, the specificity of the wording of the phrase “I have in my hand a piece of paper” just tickles me to no end. I love that he doesn’t just have a piece of paper; he has it in his hand. Also, every time I hear the song, I’m always kind of waiting for him to have in his hand a bottle of Moet or a long-stemmed rose, but nope–he has in his hand a piece of paper. This is all just too awesome. Add to that the totally tongue-in-cheek loverman baritone rumble with which he delivers this bit of patter and I just couldn’t ask for a funnier few seconds of music.

Not content to stop with one slow jam sonic cliche, though, he pushes it one step further with the instant segue into a Prince falsetto. The lyrics start getting even more florid, bringing back more prominently the sex/war metaphors: roamin’ around No Man’s Land? Ahem? Gonna set your village on fire? I love that it’s almost impossible at this point for him to push these double entendres too far. Each one keeps getting worse, but they work together absolutely beautifully as a sort of seven-car pile-up of disturbing associations. To escalate this section of the song so far only to pull it back to a sudden pianissimo is the ultimate in thwarted expectations, a war tactic in and of itself that totally catches us off guard and destabilizes us: the bottom drops out and the volume drops down and some sort of creepy molester/ Hannibal Lechter-esque character moistly beckons us to make ourselves at home. Ew.

But for a proper ending, of course, we have to transition back into a final chorus. The big sforzando hits, and you hear one of the few places in all the DC catalog where Neil is legitimately straining his voice. That shredded “charge!” is so pained, so indicative of a character committed to his own insane bloodlust, it perfectly evokes both pity and fear, in a kind of Kubrickian illustration of a man breaking down under the slow, suffocating pressure of outside forces colluding with his own inner demons. Being a Divine Comedy song, though, of course these inner demons take the shape of some truly random (and, yes, funny) melodic interpolations: a bit of Tchaikovsky and Sound of Music in between thrusts.

Again, none of this is particularly easy to listen to, but it’s absolutely necessary, both providing a logical conclusion to this sequence of songs as well as foreshadowing the intermingling of sex and death that will continue to tip toward the grave in the back half of the album.

In and Out in Paris and London

And here we enter fully into what I view as the big problem section of Casanova. “In and Out in Paris and London” provides a bridge between “Middle-Class Heroes” and “Charge,” and though, as stated previously, I used to feel a certain affinity for “Middle-Class Heroes” in my early 20s, I’ve always mentally classified the one-two punch of “In and Out”/”Charge” as this album’s skippable section. It pains me to admit that both as a Divine Comedy fan and as someone who respects the sanctity of the front-to-back album experience, but this song’s facile condemnation of an inveterate womanizer doesn’t seem to be saying anything terribly interesting about masculine sexuality, despite how cunning and well-crafted it actually is formally.

With its thrusting quarter-note rhythm and Neil’s extremely heavy, arch vocal performance, the song’s essential shallowness is designed to provide meta-commentary on the first-person narrator, his exhausting pursuit of empty sexual conquest represented by the exhausting, repetitive simplicity of the tune itself. Viewed in this way, it links neatly with “Middle-Class Heroes,” which similarly uses a high-flown sonic tackiness to critique a certain kind of garish hausfrau, while they also complement each other as a kind of yin and yang of what Neil apparently wishes to categorize as equal opportunity examples of opposite poles of icky, unreflective lust. But, maybe these songs succeed a little too well in being insufferable. Contrasted with “Something for the Weekend,” which through its easy playfulness works as a straight-up song even if you surgically remove the “when he woke she was gone with his car and all of his money” punchline, these songs are really missing the multidimensional sweep and charm of the DC’s best material.

And, to what end? To make the point that some guys think only with their dicks and want to fuck everything that moves? Well, OK. Thematically, a song like this certainly has its place in the encyclopedic catalog of late 20th-century sexual mores that Casanova as an album aims to be; I just wish I liked listening to it more as a song, rather than merely respecting it as an objet d’art.

Though, I’m being too harsh again. As ever, there are glimmers of delight here. Trainspotters will of course note the way Neil mangles the George Orwell and Charles Dickens allusions in order to turn them into the most intentionally over-the-top double entendres imaginable, the way this song’s clueless lothario would no doubt say anything he viewed as pseudo-intellectual to get into a girl’s pants. There’s also something dorkily amusing about his use of the old-fashioned phrase “slap and tickle,” and I can never resist chortling at the over-eager delivery of “way-hey, yeah!” And, even though it’s kind of the opposite of what I think Neil intended, I really adore the line “I fall in love with someone new practically every day” because, well, frankly, so do I. It’s just too bad that, in the world of the song, this can only be viewed as a liability (and a male liability at that) and not an impulse to be harnessed, channeled properly, and celebrated.

Middle-Class Heroes

If this song were a movie, it would star Brenda Blethyn.

You’ve seen her play a variation on this character dozens of times before: vulgar and clueless, betraying an undercurrent of pathos and mute despair. And, unless Mike Leigh is at the helm, despite her best efforts, all this usually comes along with a big, steaming pile of condescension.

Looking back at the journal I kept during my summer studying abroad in London between my junior and senior years in college, the first reference to the Divine Comedy that appears there is my mention of buying Casanova and Fin de Siecle at the record shop, followed quickly by a transcription of the spoken section from this song:

I see unspeakable vulgarity,
Institutionalized mediocrity.
Rise up, little souls; join the doomed army.
Fight the good fight; wage the unwinnable war:
Elegance against ignorance,
Difference against indifference,
Wit against shit.

Ugh. I cringe at that now.

This is one of the very few DC songs that has not aged well, mostly because of its lyrical pomposity. (The sonic pomposity is actually kind of charming, the heavy brass and sickly sweet strings undercut as they are by that plinking marimba line.) In his young man’s attempt to stand up for wit and elegance, Neil kind of just ends up sounding like a dick. Which, while I may sigh and shake my head over, I actually can’t begrudge him, all things considered. When I was younger and feeling trapped by middle-class suburban mores, the sentiment in this song definitely resonated with me. I knew I wanted to run far away from anything remotely resembling the scene painted here. But, now that I have some distance from it all, I can really only reiterate the essence of what I said in my review of Revolutionary Road: it’s my fundamental belief that, at the core, everybody’s doing the best they can with what they have, wherever they are. Even the kind of tacky, frowsy housewife being excoriated here. (And, not to get too sensitive about it, but of course this song is about a woman. Can you imagine if it were about a sad-sack David Brent-esque character instead…? Ooh, yeah, classism and misogyny.) So who is it actually serving to get so snotty about the scent of their candles, the design of their tablecloths, or even their mating habits?

It’s also worth noting that Neil manages to misquote Hamlet at the end of the bridge. The lines from Act III, scene III are actually

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.

Obviously he needed to fit the words to the time signature of the song, but gilding the lily by specifying his thoughts flying up to heaven is really a bit much (not to mention effecting a redundant non-rhyme between heaven/heaven), and there’s a world of difference between one’s thoughts and one’s feelings.

Anyway, the one thing I can say in the song’s favor, even now, is that it’s certainly vivid and well-drawn. The introductory line about “oriental paper globes hangin’ like decomposing cocoons” is absolutely gorgeous, as both an evocative description of a specific kind of living space and an aurally pleasing collection of sounds and syllables. Neil’s vocal performance, while a bit over the top, highlights the newfound smoothness of his baritone and reconfirms his status as a vocalist strong and charismatic enough not to get lost in the middle of this song. Even with the many, many issues brought up by the lyrics and narrative and “message” and the wide-ranging sonic palette at play, there’s no way to ignore that this is a Neil Hannon performance of a Neil Hannon song.

Becoming More Like Alfie

The fact that this song is just under three minutes long seems impossible. It’s like some high class art thieves have snuck into the middle of it and somehow spirited away an extra minute and a half without anyone noticing. Not because the song feels long, but because it feels too short for the amount of pure stuff going on here.

Neil’s vocal delivery in the first verse starts off cool, measured, almost scientific. He’s charting his/the narrator’s sexual and romantic development: “once, there was a time…” / “and once…” His nonsense syllables are restrained, conversational, analytic: “but now, hmm, w’l, now I find…” Even the language being used is exaggeratedly pragmatic: “it saves time to say what you mean.”

But then the shackles come loose and he shakes off his restraint, the sound and feeling of the song perfectly mirroring the sexual liberation/frustration in the narrative: the coy fluegelhorn figure disappears, his voice scoops into a crescendo and a growl, and the chorus chugs along like a good Britrock chorus should (well, at least Neil’s version of a Britrock chorus circa 1996). There’s a winkiness, an audacity, and a deep cynicism in the line “everybody knows that no means yes” that always sort of shocks me. The effect is somewhat softened by the subsequent dorky lyrics about the NHS and the elaborate intertextual reference to Michael Caine’s famous mid-’60s black frame glasses, but for a generation raised with explicit sex-ed admonitions that “no means no,” there’s still more power in this reversal than there seems there ought to be.

The second verse brings back the fluegelhorn, but he manages to modulate his vocals somewhere halfway between the politesse of the first verse and the raw emotional purge of the chorus. It’s visceral without feeling like lashing out; there’s blood pumping here. Take, for example, all that moisture in the final “F” sound of the word “enough,” or the sexy little melodic embellishment on the word “time.” It goes even further, though, as he fully inhabits the part, imbuing the word “love” with absolute rancor and calls back the spoken “hmm” from the first verse with the bile-filled “ha” that he nearly chokes on. He uses a classic DC trope up next, the spoken delivery of a line instead of singing it, for “but not now,” three little words that convey volumes about repression and denial…and about being a bookish dude in his mid- to late 20s trying to come to grips with his views on love, romance, and sex. Much like “everybody knows that no means yes” from the chorus, the final lines of this verse — “now I’m resigned to the kind of life I’d reserved / for other guys less smart than I / y’know, the kind who will always end up with the girls” — always kind of catch me off guard, no matter how often I hear them. Even if they’re not strictly autobiographical, it seems like such an unexpectedly truthful window into the kind of sexually nihilistic “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” sentiment that must ring uncomfortably true for a lot of similarly smart, conflicted guys around that age.

After another spin through the chorus and a shouted “oh, come on!” that brilliantly manages to be both a rock and roll frontman’s exhortation as well as one more expression of the narrator’s emotional agitation, we get a stinging little go-go dancing guitar solo. It twirls around with a sort of forced joie de vivre–the melodic improvisation is sweet, but the guitar tone is ever so slightly pinched, and the rhythmic pattern, while not tapping out 32nd notes or anything, gives a sense that it’s rushing toward the finish line, as if trying to prove “see, I’m having fun!!” Which just makes his final, exhausted sigh “I’m becoming more like Alfie” feel all the more hollow and sad.