There was a point in the late 90s when Neil Hannon was up there with Jarvis Cocker for the title of our foremost pop-literate pop star. Since then he’s shuttled between styles from chamber pop and straight-up indie rock to music hall ribaldry and delicate, winsome balladeering. Here at the Sage, he’s got a small-ish band – guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, accordion – backing him and he’s on typically good form, dispensing bonhomie and easy charm.
Hannon’s work as the Divine Comedy has always been based on navigating the tightrope between sighing, delicately wrought drama and Hannon’s winking, eyebrow-aloft gag reflex. Indeed, there are several moments in tonight’s show which might make you lean toward reading his work as comedy rather than drama. There’s the mid-set drinks break, during which the band strike up a jazzy lounge accompaniment as Hannon doles out wine and cocktails to them and Lisa O’Neill, who joins him for a cosy, affectionate run through the breezy Funny Peculiar from the new album Foreverland, Hannon’s first Divine Comedy album since 2010.
Then there’s the bit where he pops offstage and returns dressed in full Napoleonic general’s garb, enormous hat and all, for I Joined the Foreign Legion to Forget. ‘What was that about a complex?’ he deadpans.
The Complete Banker and Bang Goes the Knighthood, two hits which come early on in proceedings, are typical late-period Hannon – the lyrics are dextrous and almost painterly in their portraiture of morally abysmal men, and are carried on melodies which are equal parts Noel Coward to Flanagan and Allen. This tendency toward vaudeville isn’t meant as an insult; for every slyly comic tune like recent single Catherine the Great (‘Catherine the Great, there were few brainier; just ask the King of Lithuania’), there’s an elegantly constructed, baroque playlet like A Lady of a Certain Age, which tells the story of a woman gamely chasing her youth on cruise ships and trying to forget her crumbled family life and encroaching mortality. In a live setting, you get the best of both views: an evening of being spoken to and entertained like you’ve popped round to Hannon’s parlour, plus the unexpected swoops and tugs of real imagination, beauty and pathos which he’s capable of.
The hits – National Express, Becoming More Like Alfie, Something For the Weekend, Songs of Love, plus a rousing version of the misty-eyed Magnificent Seven homage Absent Friends – roll out toward the end, and the atmosphere turns from clubbable to enthused; after a joyous gallop through Tonight We Fly, the reception is raucous. Hannon’s position as one of pop’s most singular and refined voices is, still, untouched.