Over the last 30 years, Neil Hannon has proved that he can write songs about absolutely anything.
Which other musician could take a song about the restorative powers of coach travel into the Top 10, as he did with his band The Divine Comedy for 1999 hit National Express? Who else has the musical smarts to come up with both the lovely lilting theme and perfect bad Eurovision song (My Lovely Horse) for the sitcom Father Ted?
Songs about a ball bowled by cricketer Shane Warne to Mike Gatting, referencing New Wave French cinema, talking troubled masculinity or bad bankers? It’s all there in Hannon’s back catalogue, wrapped up in his wry, smart, literary chamber-pop signature style.
But when pushed, he can go direct and political. On 1998’s Sunrise, one of the most acclaimed songs about the Troubles, he tackles his upbringing in Northern Ireland and hope for peace following the Good Friday Agreement.
“When you get hit over the head with polemics, it can turn you off a bit,” he says. “In terms of pop music, I am not pointing my elbows at any one-letter-and-one-digit-based bands but sometimes you want to talk about sex and TV.”
Which band fronted by Bono could he possibly mean? Still, Hannon has gone full-frontal on the politics for a second time on one song from new LP Office Politics.
“Dark Days Are Here Again was written the morning after Trump got elected,” he says.
“I knew we had slipped into a weird, bizarre parallel universe. It is not just about Trump but the rise of populists, which is just a pleasant term for fascists.”
I was thinking, ‘Is this the apocalypse?’ You have got to laugh.
So he woke up in a fury?
“I woke up in Dijon, actually. On the tourbus. I stood outside and it was like the world knew. There were dark clouds over everything. All the leaves had simultaneously fallen off the trees. And I was thinking, ‘Is this the apocalypse?’ You have got to laugh.”
When we meet, Hannon, fittingly, has a lovely horse motif on his V-neck sweater. He talks like he writes – offering forthright political opinion but quick to laugh. His 12th album with The Divine Comedy is, Trump-bashing aside, classic Hannon. Serious subjects sneak in under the cover of character-driven humour.
“It is really kind of… Hmmm… I mean… everything I could say would make it sound a bit grim. I try to wheedle into people’s consciousness, finding ways of saying bigger things with really quite stupid things,” Hannon says.
There are currently around 1,450 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.
While the song Queuejumper was literally inspired by a selfish BMW driver on the M4 in Ireland, it also works as comment on some recent political leaders. “It is precisely the entitlement that enrages me.”
The songs are ostensibly about the world of work, though Hannon admits he’s never had an office job. Or, indeed, a job. They include musings on the impact of technology on our lives, as the optimism of the early internet age recedes into the rearview mirror.
“It is not just robots taking people’s jobs,” he says. “It is social media distorting democracy. There are people who just want technological progress to make heaps of money. It is just another method of screwing us.”
The LP comes three years after Foreverland became the Divine Comedy’s second Top 10 album in the UK. The songs were written at the same time.
“It was one of those purple patches when it was pouring out of me,” he says. “And they divided into two camps – songs about relationships and weird new wave synth-y songs railing against society.”
Since 1991 The Big Issue has sold more than 200,000,000 copies – helping the most vulnerable in society earn more than £115 million.
“There is a lot going on,” he continues, raising an eyebrow. “Not all of it good. More headlines yesterday about the increasing rampant disparity between the richest and the poorest. That is pretty much the thing that winds me up the most in this world.
“All this waffle about entrepreneurs creating opportunities? I don’t dig all that bollocks. It seems like ordinary working people are expected to do more and more for less and less.”
Hannon has, to his surprise, found himself coming around to a relatively new idea to spread the wealth. For, if more people are working and more people are in poverty, something is going very wrong.
“If it is not a quality of life, what is the point? So I am increasingly in favour of Universal Basic Income. It is a bit like, when I started doing music in the late Eighties and early Nineties, there was a thing called the dole. People often referred to it as the Young Musician’s Allowance.
“That is how I lived while I was trying to do what I wanted to do. And it would work the same way. Everybody would get it so nobody is homeless, nobody dies in squalor, nobody has to commit crimes. It is a very broad stroke picture – but the places where it has been tried, they found that people do want to do more but it enables them to find out what they are good at.”
Hannon found he was good at writing songs. About almost anything.
Talk inevitably turns to Brexit, “which, of course I’m against, because it is the stupidest idea that anyone ever had ever”. But Hannon saves his polite fury for the way Brexit is overshadowing the big issue of the age.
“There is only one issue right now and that is the fact that the world is completely fucked, ecologically,” he says. “That is why I am so mad about Brexit, because it is deflecting from the thing that if we don’t solve, we are
“If we accept that everything has to change to fight environmental catastrophe and the end of biodiversity as we know it, we could make everybody’s life better.”
Sounds like time for Hannon’s third direct political intervention in song form. But first, more whimsy. Hannon has to finish the musical version of Father Ted, for which he has reunited with writers Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews.
“Almost all the songs are done, almost all the script is done. But that doesn’t mean it is imminent,” he says.
“Graham and Arthur were so important in my early career because they gave me this amazing opportunity. But since then I have done another 20 years of albums. Back then I was this weird little indie kid they could order about. Now I am not so willing to be pushed around, so there have been a few disagreements. But we are getting there.”
Office Politics is released on June 7