Irish chamber pop outfit the Divine Comedy have always been something of an English major’s band in my eyes. Never mind the name they cribbed from Dante’s epic - their 1993 debut album Promenade featured songs inspired by Fitzgerald short stories (“Bernice Bobs Her Hair”), Wordsworth poems (“Lucy”), and Chekhov’s plays (“Three Sisters”). 2016’s splendidly historical Foreverland found frontman Neil Hannon dressing as Napoleon and singing about Catherine the Great. Their twelfth studio album Office Politics, released early this June, was a welcome surprise when it was announced, but it was immediately clear that the album would be an entirely different creature from the Divine Comedy’s standard oeuvre. Gone were the tricorn hat and epaulettes, and in came the… old-school CRT monitors? NHS specs and corded phones? Indeed, the album art alone wouldn’t look out of place as a still from workplace sitcom The IT Crowd (which Hannon actually scored the title theme to). Office Politics treads totally new ground for the Divine Comedy, exploring the ins and outs of modernity, technology, and, of course, the workplace.
Along with the new choice of subject matter, Hannon has expanded his musical reach from the standard strings, choirs, and keys. It’s the future now, and a great many songs are just dripping in synthesizers to reflect as much. Thematically, many of the tracks on this album are a little broad for me, making wild exploratory swings that sometimes miss their mark. Title track “Office Politics” is total Pet Shop Boys pastiche, but lacks the wry subtlety of “West End Girls” and instead aims for easy lyrical targets like interns and PowerPoints. Spoken-word tongue-twister “The Synthesiser Service Centre Super Summer Sale” could be Hannon’s take on John Cooper Clarke, if punk poet Clarke had all the swagger of a Guitar Center sales associate. “Infernal Machines” is glam-goes-Depeche, a synthesized stomper that bemoans the proliferation of all of those, you guessed it, infernal machines. “You’ll Never Work in This Town Again” is one of the album’s high points, a rollicking 60’s-style Western ballad with orchestral stabs that evoke Art of Noise’s “Close (to the Edit)”. It was almost a letdown when I realized that said track was a paean to Ned Ludd, iconic destroyer of textile machinery. Like… we get it, Neil! Technology is scary and Thomas Edison was a witch! Without more nuance (I often couldn’t tell the degree to which Hannon was being satirical) and despite the wide-ranging genres, much of Office Politics seems to be a retread of the same old subject matter, which is honestly a shame because the music is really enjoyable.
Many of the songs on this album express a fear of (or distaste for) modern trappings and a yearning for the past, in matters both professional and interpersonal. “Absolutely Obsolete” is part breakup song and part pink slip, narrator bemoaning how he just can’t cut it in a newfangled society where he is no longer expected to be the breadwinner. It’s a treat to listen to - Hannon’s partner and fellow musician Cathy Davey sings backup on the choruses, and her sugary-sweet voice adds a mocking tone to the assertions that “we’re sad to say that you’re completely, absolutely obsolete”. “A Feather in Your Cap”, similarly, finds its emasculated narrator heartbroken over a girl who treats him as just another notch on the bedpost. “Norman and Norma” is part of a Divine Comedy tradition of complex, melancholy character studies like “A Lady of A Certain Age” and “Our Mutual Friend”. But “Norman and Norma” is gentler, perhaps sappier even, in its exploration of the titular pair of empty-nesters, who are shaken out of their middle-aged ennui by (hilariously enough) a sudden passion for historical reenactments. When Hannon croons on the choruses: “Oh, Norman, it’s never ever felt like this before”, it makes for a surprisingly tender moment on an otherwise rather arch first half of the album.
It should be said that the 16-track double album does drag a little at some points. “Philip and Steve’s Furniture Removal Company”, the longest track on the album, is cute but nonessential, and in my eyes does not merit its 4:51 runtime. The final three tracks, though, ensure Office Politics ends on a high note. “‘Opportunity’ Knox” is a fun little number that sees Hannon adopting the persona of the titular Knox, an obsequious office worker who will do absolutely anything to score that promotion, up to and including murdering a coworker (if you’re a fan of previous works in the Divine Comedy Expanded Universe, you may be as shocked and dismayed as I was to learn that Neil has killed off businessman Billy Bird from 2004’s Absent Friends). “After The Lord Mayor’s Show” is prettily pastoral, building in intensity along the steady march of a snare drum - one can almost visualize the Lord Mayor’s parade wending its way through the streets. “When The Working Day is Done” is the perfect album closer, blending classic Divine Comedy choir-and-strings with contemporary lyrics. Hannon treats an experience as ordinary as the commute home from work with style and panache. The music starts tense and dreary, reaching a climax as one straphanger finally snaps: “We give and get nothing back!”. From there, tension only builds, introducing a choral element and rising horn line while percussion evokes the clang of train tracks as Hannon mourns “all the songs that go unsung / when the working day is done.”
I’ll admit, I was not initially sold on the new direction the Divine Comedy took with Office Politics. However, my opinion only improved as I listened to each new track. With an album as loose and experimental as this, there’s room for Hannon to stretch his legs out and try things that wouldn’t fit in on previous releases. The choice to plumb the modern world for inspiration instead of historical and literary figures is ultimately a good move as well. Office Politics has added wonder and excitement to subjects as humdrum as commutes and hapless interns, which hits a little close to home for a recent college graduate (such as yours truly) looking to hack it in the grown-up world. I can’t even complain that the album feels long. Since the Divine Comedy is so seemingly averse to touring in North America (as best as I can tell, their last visit was before I was born), I don’t expect to see them live any time soon. So I’m glad to have as much Divine Comedy content as I can possibly get, and I highly recommend those who haven’t experienced them to give Office Politics a listen.