I recently read a tweet from Pete Paphides praising the new reissues of The Divine Comedy’s back catalogue and it prompted me to investigate the expanded edition of my favourite Divine Comedy album, Absent Friends (2004.)
Absent Friends is a fairly recent favourite of mine as I was only a causal Divine Comedy fan during the mid to late 1990’s when they arguably reached their peak popularity. I say ‘they’, when The Divine Comedy is more or less just the work of the all round superb songsmith, and only constant D.C. member, Neil Hannon.
I enjoyed the majority of The Divine Comedy’s infectiously catchy 90’s singles but I failed to take that interest any further than the odd, occasional listen to a greatest hits collection that I’d sometimes borrow from my housemate (and Neil Hannon super fan) Simon.
I can think of only one other occasion from that time when I flirted with delving deeper into the D.C. back catalogue. I once gave Simon’s copy of The Divine Comedy’s luscious mini record ‘A Short Album about Love’ (1997) a couple of spins, but that was ultimately about as far as I got sifting through the complete works of Neil Hannon, much to my good friend’s dismay.
By the time that Absent Friends was released in 2004 I was living with different housemates and The Divine Comedy had fallen off my radar completely.
A ridiculous 14 (fourteen!) years passed until my interest in The Divine Comedy was piqued once again. My wife was listening to Radio 2 when Simon Mayo played The Divine Comedy’s Our Mutual Friend as part of his regular ‘Long Song’ feature during one fateful dark winter evening. I thank whichever listener requested the song that night as Our Mutual Friend soon worked it’s way into becoming one of my all time favourite pieces of music.
I missed the song’s introduction on the radio but it had an unmistakable Neil Hannon vocal and I fell instantly in love with the gorgeous orchestration and the sorrowful saga that takes place over the song’s thrilling 6 minutes. Hannon has a knack for telling a good story through his lyrics and the tale that unfolds throughout Our Mutual Friend is arguably the very best example of his storytelling. I don’t want to reveal too much about the subject matter here in case you’re not already familiar with the song, but be warned, it’s a heartbreaker.
Have a listen for yourselves:
I’ve always been particularly soft to a captivating string arrangement and the strings on Our Mutual Friend are to my ears, some of the finest ever recorded. It was these strings that kept me stood to the spot when I first heard the song in my kitchen a couple of Christmases ago. I love how they just keep going and going, even after the climactic reveal from the protagonist. I believe that the last two minutes of the song further the point our hero makes at the start, “no matter how I try, I just can’t get her out of my mind.” The vocal-less finale of this song is encapsulating just that. The ensuing orchestration repeats his torment over and over, with the strings, brass and woodwind combining to elevate this sorrowful tale to something more akin to a classic tragedy.
It’s now become one of my all time favourite songs. I like to think I have something like a solid top 100 songs of all time (mainly ingrained in my heart from my mid teens to my early 20’s) and this is the only song that I’ve heard in the last 2 years that’s come anywhere close to cementing a place in that list. Not that I could name the other 99 songs however.
Our Mutual Friend has also become a tune I like to play a lot at Christmas time. The fact it has sleigh bells on it allows me to compartmentalise the song in that ‘Die Hard is a Christmas movie’ type way but I also imagine that the story itself took part over the festive period as well. Maybe that’s just because I first heard the song around Christmas time or maybe it’s because I can easily associate the song’s key lyrical moments of boozing, romance and heartache with a number of social situations that are commonplace at this time of year. It’s not the most wonderful time of the year for everybody, is it? Maybe I’m just reading too much into it?
Anyway, to take us back to the start and to wrap things up, Neil Hannon has reissued The Divine Comedy’s back catalogue with a wealth of B-sides and bonus tracks to embellish all of The Divine Comedy’s studio albums. To celebrate this and to marvel at the brilliance of Our Mutual Friend, I’ve put together a little playlist that solely concentrates on just the one song. A 40 minute exploration of Our Mutual Friend made up of early demos, outtakes, cover versions and a live rendition. I’ve even included a quite unexpected alternate version that sees Neil ditch the orchestration for some Pet Shop Boys-esque sounding synths. I can’t say it works a great deal when compared to the original studio version but I’ve included it here for the completists.
There aren’t many songs who’s company I can enjoy for 40 or so minutes, but Our Mutual Friend is a rare exception. I think it’s a masterpiece. I’m just sorry I went so long without it being in my life.
Thanks for reading.
The link to my Our Mutual Friend playlist can be found below: