You expect there was a lot of pressure on The Divine Comedy when making this album. After all, not only had their last album, Regeneration, been dismissed as Radiohead-lite, but since then the line-up has been whittled down from 20-odd musicians to just one man. However, as this move involved front-man Neil Hannon sacking the rest of his band, most of whom were his childhood friends, my sympathies were limited, to say the least. So, having shrugged off the constraints of his band members, what would Hannon do next? Make a three-hour concept album? Experiment with trance music? Maybe a bit of New York-style electro-clash? No, not shocking enough. How about doing an album in the style of, get this, The Divine Comedy? For this record sounds more quintessentially Hannon than anything he has done in years. The big orchestral arrangements are back with a vengeance here, complete with plinky-plonky piano and soaring strings. Even his old influences have returned for this album; the opening track sounds so Scott Walker that the man himself would probably do a double take and wonder why he couldn’t remember recording it.
After a few tracks, I began to wonder what the old members of the band used to do, if this record could sound so completely Divine Comedy without them. On closer inspection, it turned out all was not as it seemed. Despite being titled Absent Friends and various press blurbs telling us about the “disbanding of the old line-up”, several former band members crop up in the credits. Perhaps it was all a hoax to convince the public that the failed previous album was nothing to do with Hannon himself and that the blame in fact lies with some anonymous trumpet player? After all, the unceremonious dumping of his friends always did seem a bit suspicious given his reputation as class weakling, victim of bullies and the one who never got the girl. But never mind all that, is Absent Friends any good? Yes and no. If you have their back catalogue but weren’t convinced by Regeneration then relax, because this is a return to form for the band. However, if you wanted The Divine Comedy to push the envelope now that Hannon has shaken off the others, think again. On the other hand, if all you think of when you hear The Divine Comedy is National Express, then don’t bother with this, go get the Best Of instead.