Listening to Neil Hannon's seventh album feels like waking up again and again in the middle of a succession of overpriced musicals. While people who thrive on melodrama are generally to be avoided like an airborne retrovirus, there's something to be said for a well-connected lyrical balladeer with a chip on his hip and a voice like Neil Diamond after dark.
The opening is a name-dropping salvo to a roster of "Absent Friends" that includes Jean Seberg, Oscar Wilde and Steve McQueen. Both driving overture and multi-eulogy, it establishes the album's deep love affair with magnetic melody and snarky paradox. "Sticks and Stones" plays with shopworn clichés like a cat with a yarn-ball, duly spinning lines like "Flesh is weak but darling, we know / That the ego's weaker still."
Slowing the tempo, "Leaving Today" plots the ache of parting on a graph whose axes are plucked arpeggios and the lush swells of a full string section. For every predictable "Like the dew, she clings to me," Hannon gleefully punctures the high-flung dramatics with a "No way, Jose, you don't get away that easily." Like most of Absent Friends, the song adores orchestral grandiosity and distilled pop structures, and Hannon's wry sentimentality comes off like a bathhouse tryst between Brett Anderson, Stephin Merritt and Morrissey.
In the verses of "Come Home Billy Bird", a hard-drinking businessman named William lumbers through a gauntlet of first-class disappointments, interspersed with "come home" choruses ripped straight out of Black Box Recorder's playbook. Benjamin, "The Imaginary Friend" of the next track, provides the haunting inspiration for an uptempo tune that might just be the first song to feature a banjo riff and rhyme "mobile library" with "peripatetically". And unless you count Hollywood's ridiculous Titanic saga a few years back, "The Wreck of the Beautiful" is the most musically cinematic tribute to a sunken ship since Gordon Lightfoot's abysmally saddening ode to the Edmund Fitzgerald.
By the time "Our Mutual Friend"'s symphonic percussion and hammering cellos reach their crashing apex, the album begins to feel a little like the fourth consecutive hour at a well-stocked party full of musical theater majors. Students of adroitly sweeping panoramic music and unflinchingly wise-ass sentimentality should listen to Absent Friends with a spongy attentiveness, but the pedestrian curiosity will probably begin searching for a pincushion before Hannon's dramathon reaches its denouement.
For the steadfast, the penultimate instrumental ("Laika's Theme") and the album's closer ("Charmed Life") reward diligent listening with a sufficiently light-hearted conclusion to all this tonnage of the heart, and in the end, this is a record of truly thick comedy, even if it is a far cry from divine.