If you were around in the mid 1990s, you can’t fail to have noticed The Divine Comedy. Hit after hit, each delivered like an old time show tune, with hilariously ingenious lyrics and a huge amount of fun.
Their singles compilation A Secret History is a little out of date now (it came out in 1999) and it concentrates, perhaps wrongly, on the singles up to that point, rather than their best known and loved songs. It suffers a little from having all their best known singles clumped up at the front, but it’s still a great compilation.
National Express is first up, complete with the brilliant bit about how “It’s hard to get by / When your arse is the size / Of a small country”. This leads into what is undoubtedly their best song, 1996’s exceptional Something for the Weekend. If you don’t remember where you were the first time you heard the tale of how “he” found something in the woodshed, you have to be suffering from some kind of selective amnesia.
The hits keep coming, with Everybody Knows (Except You) (1997), the excellent Generation Sex (1998) with its quite unprecedented line about injecting “The sperm / Of worms / Into the eggs of field mice / So you can look real nice for the boys.” If there’s a common theme, it’s one of great little pop songs with brilliant lyrics.
Becoming More Like Alfie (1996) is no exception. If you’re not from the UK (I am), a bit of a geek (I was/am) and a former wearer of free NHS spectacles (I was) then this song might not mean so much to you, but for me it ticks a lot of boxes.
There’s a distinct lack of pre-1996 tracks on here, which is surprising given the three albums and five EPs and singles they put out prior to Something for the Weekend, so nearly everything is taken from one of the three post-chartbreaking albums. The Summerhouse, from 1994’s Liberation, the first of the tracks from their early years, is a sweet song about returning to your childhood haunts.
The next few tracks, such as the updated version of The Pop Singer’s Fear of the Pollen Count are perhaps a little less charming than some of the earlier ones. The latter moments of the album are, for the most part, chronological, as though whoever compiled it made a conscious decision to put the hits at the front and everything else towards the back.
Songs of Love is as close as you get to the Father Ted theme, but is a bit disappointing for not being the real thing. I’ve Been to a Marvellous Party from the Noël Coward tribute album Twentieth Century Blues is brilliant and never stops being funny. The Certainty of Chance with its beautifully frightening coda, is quite wonderful.
Finally, you reach the end, and you might well be starting to ask yourself what else is actually missing. Well, everything they’ve released in the 21st century, such as Come Home Billy Bird for starters. Also the Father Ted theme in its original form and faux-Eurovision entry My Lovely Horse really should have found a place on there somewhere, and that is an unforgiveable omission. But what is there is extremely good, and makes for an extremely strong compilation.
So what have we learnt? Well, it’s certainly true that out there in the rest of the world, pop songs with lyrics like “I’m Jeff Goldblum in The Fly” are few and far between, and that’s a real shame. The Divine Comedy may not have stuck in the public consciousness for long, but I think it’s fair to say they achieved greatness in that time. And A Secret History is a fair appraisal of their most successful period.
A good place to start looking for A Secret History would be on iTunes.