This compilation was released in 1999, at a time in which the band led by Neil Hannon was as much in the public eye as it had ever been in the critics’. The last two albums (“Casanova” and “Fin De Siecle”, issued in 1996 and 1998 respectively) had been a breakthrough in terms of overcoming the commercial apathy that had always surrounded this exuberant chamber pop outfit. It was the right moment to show those who began listening then just what had been the genesis of that sound – something that (for the most part) was nothing but a well-kept secret.
As a result, this 17-track compilation brought together all the recent hits and quasi-hits along with fan favorites and some new songs, remixes and rerecordings.
The major successes the band had (in terms of sales, at least) were featured in their original versions. Those included “Something For The Weekend”, “The Frog Princess”, “Becoming More Like Alfie” and “National Express”. Of those, the best-known cut must be “Something For The Weekend” (it hit number 13 upon its release). I personally did never like the song that much, as I find it too facile – it has a lot of charm but not a lot of depth. It represents the one facet of the band that the general public could like more easily – but it does so at the expense of the other.
Songs like “Everybody Knows (Except You)” combined intellectuality and sass far better, whereas “The Summerhouse” and “Tonight We Fly” (from the conceptual album “Promenade”, a record that told the story of two lovers spending a day by the sea) showcased Hannon at his most yearning and approachable.
For it part, “Songs Of Love” will always remain one of the most authentic examples of baroque pop in existence, with its mellifluous harpsichord and ornate lyrics where the link between the pursuit of artistic beauty and carnal satisfaction is wryly analyzed.
The one track that was rerecorded for “A Secret History” was “The Pop Singer’s Fear Of The Pollen Count” from “Liberation”, whereas “Your Daddy’s Car” (from the same album) was remixed to make it sound a little tighter. That was as far back as the compilation went – no songs from the (now deleted) debut titled “Fanfare For The Comic Muse” were featured. (One demo found its way into the deluxe 2-CD edition of the compilation, though. That edition came with a whole CD devoted to live versions, covers and rarities along with a hardcover book.)
From “Liberation” you also have Hannon’s amalgamation of three of Wordsworth’s “Lucy” poems. The Lucy poems were simple lays that celebrated the birth, live and death of love in its most natural and unmitigated form, and Neil alternated an all-out acoustic treatment with a full rock accompaniment to underline the emotions that go with finding and then losing the realization of something that most people only dare to dream about.
Finally, the new tracks were the incredibly average “Too Young Too Die” and the entertaining “Gin Soaked Boy”. The former loses me from the very beginning, with the irremediably generic statement of “Too young to die and too old to survive”, whereas the latter is a character study of a heavy boozer with a mucked perception of reality that is as amusing as John Entwistle’s “Whiskey Man”.
With the exception of “Generation Sex” (from Fin de Siecle) and “The Pop Singer’s Fear Of The Pollen Count”, this compilation contained no songs that could be deemed as superfluous or irritant. Even the messy electronica of “I’ve Been To A Marvelous Party” was a warranted inclusion, if only because listening to Hannon impersonating Noel Coward was something that had to come at some point (a “band” version of the song does also exist). In that sense, this CD was quite satisfactory – it showcased the person who will always be at the center of the band from A to Z. As the only Divine Comedy compilation that has been released so far, I have to recommend it. But just remember that what came after this (specially “Regeneration” and “Absent Friends”) was as adventurous as what came before, and every bit as enjoyable.
Would I recommend purchase of this compilation: Yes
Do I feel like digging deeper into their catalog after listening to it: Yes