Think Pink Floyd’s The Wall told from the perspective of David Mitchell in Peep Show and you basically have The Divine Comedy’s new concept album Office Politics. The double album is an exploration of loneliness and disillusionment against a corporate backdrop, of wanting to make a genuine connection but not having the confidence to do so. Frontman Neil Hannon blends genres and tones with merry abandon across this epic album, and while not all sixteen tracks land, the good mostly outweighs the bad.
The album’s opening track “Queuejumper” begins with an atmospheric drone, hinting at the darker themes to come, before jumping into upbeat drums and whimsical xylophones that bring an almost Disney-equse life to the track. Meanwhile, Hannon’s warm vocals and witty lyrics make this commute to the office a foot-tapping ‘happy village’ song. This track is immediately followed by the album’s cyclical title track, which combines Hannon’s satirical lyrics with a soulful chorus that can only be described as ‘synth-ska’, employing horns and backing singers over an 8-bit baseline. The chorus is repetitive, but maybe that’s the point; we’re isolated in this world of corporate banality.
This same theme flows into the next track, “Norman and Norma”, which sees Hannon croon with Thin White Duke irony on what passes for romance in the lives of a middle-aged, working-class couple. The result is a track that is equal parts witty and bittersweet. David Bowie’s influence is also evident on the following track: “Absolutely Obsolete” could be from the perspective of a jilted lover, a redundant employee, or an outmoded computer in the back of the office skip. This is where the repetitiveness of Office Politics works; the chorus hammers home the self-depreciation of later tracks, while the song as a whole plays with rhythm and tempo and even genre without ever losing momentum.
The opening fanfare of “Infernal Machines” sounds as though it’s been ripped straight out of a classic film: its distorted, reverberating quality giving the intro a nostalgic timbre. This is cut short by a dark and rhythmic guitar riff, making for a refreshing change of tone. Hannon’s up and down vocals, which describe the ubiquity and omnipotence of modern technology, are as catchy as they are threatening. Think Cage the Elephant doing a cover of Daft Punk’s “Technologic”, with some distorted piano and the odd synthesiser solo for added mischief. The track builds to a crescendo then seamlessly transitions into “You’ll Never Work in This Town Again”. The track, a comment on those losing jobs to automation, uses 1930’s swing to send us back to the Great Depression, the reverberated vocals emphasising hopelessness and isolation, before playing us off with a fun mambo beat.
The next two tracks, “Psychological Evaluation” and “The Synthesiser Super Summer Sale”, both place more emphasis on lyrics than music, the former a spoken word piece about an invasive interrogation by a busybody android, the latter a rapid-fire slam poem that showcases Hannon’s stunning diction over techno sound effects that sound as though they’ve come right from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. The end result is a respectable piece of art, even if you can’t exactly imagine listening to it on your way to work.
“Life of the Party” drops us into an awkward office social where Hannon’s anxious shaky vocals clash perfectly with the overconfident inner monologue and disco beat, evoking a need for genuine connection that goes beyond the awkward corporate patter. It’s here that the themes of self-consciousness and self-loathing become overt, with the male and female backing vocals making us feel like we’re striking out with (and being judged by) both genders. Meanwhile, “A Feather in Your Cap” is an interesting reversal of traditional gender roles; Hannon laments at being a notch in his absent lover’s belt over a Twin Peaks synth pulse. The raw, open sensitivity is touching, especially in the chorus, where Hannon appears seemingly unsurprised by this latest heartbreak. It’s let down somewhat by its coming straight before “I’m A Stranger Here”; taken in tandem with this balalaika-heavy funeral march, both tracks become plodding and self-pitying. That “Dark Days Are Here Again” comes next also does nothing to pick up the album’s pace. Taken on its own, however, “Dark Days” has enough breathing space to really impress, juxtaposing ominous choral vocals with electric guitar, before building to a mighty crescendo.
“Philip and Steve’s Furniture Removal Company” dreams of a life reimagined as a sitcom. The track fittingly blends tacky sitcom opening credits with a local radio jingle… and that’s about it. You could wax philosophical about longing for fame or using the sitcom format to bring order and context to your life, or you could just do what the track itself does and repeat the title ad nauseum until the dreamlike xylophone wearily picks up the baton. “Opportunity Knox” is the opportunity for Hannon to flex his comedic muscles that “Philip and Steve” thinks it is. The deep backing vocals and gently accelerating tempo call to mind a cossack dance, while the primary-school-musical piano solo builds alongside the lyrics. A brown-nosing employee’s bids to impress escalate from snitching on a coworker to flat-out murder in a couple of verses, all in the spirit of climbing the corporate ladder.
“After the Lord Mayor’s Show” is a breathless plod to the finish line about work going on even after the thrill is gone, but the song’s not really interesting enough to get you invested in the idea. The drums from one track carry us into the grand finale, “When the Working Day Is Done”. The momentum of the album has long since been lost, but the final march makes for a valiant attempt at a rallying cry with its aggressive chord progression. The lyrics get lost to the track’s building intensity, but the sentiment – the desire to escape the monotony of the ‘Nine to Five’ – is still there.
Office Politics collapses somewhat under its own weight, and by the final track you’d be forgiven for feeling a little tired. However, it’s impossible to write such a long album without stumbling onto something special. It’s hardly ‘all killer, no filler’, but the tracks that work are worth hitting skip a couple of times. At its height, Office Politics is artful, experimental, and above all, fun, even if you are likely to end up coming back to the one disc more than the other.
Office Politics is available now from Amazon.co.uk and other leading retailers, courtesy of Divine Comedy Records.