Office Politics will do absolutely nothing to change the fact that American audiences don’t know who the hell Hannon is.
You’d be forgiven for having no idea who Neil Hannon – the sole constant member of the now-30-year-old Irish chamber pop band – is. If American audiences know him, it’s likely because of cheeky songs like “National Express,” “I’ve Been to a Marvellous Party,” or (ugh) his song for the abysmal Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy adaptation, “So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish.” He’s toiled in long, brilliant obscurity outside of those cunning enough to sift past every other remarkable British band that fails to cross the Atlantic; to date, I personally have only received roughly one non-blank stare in over a decade of fandom. This fact frankly sucks – he’s on the same level of Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch or Arab Strap’s Aidan Moffat, but somehow more effortlessly inviting than either.
His newest, Office Politics – his twelfth full-length – is no different, and that’s just great. Office Politics doesn’t have the panache that Victory for the Comic Muse, Fin de Siècle or Bang Goes the Knighthood as far as titling goes, but just like those three albums, it’s just too clever. Growth as an artist is a fickle thing, and for Hannon, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is not a bad mantra; the formula has changed little since Victory, and that’s dynamite: he still knows how to entrance his audience with what he does. Office Politics concerns itself largely with the horrors of our modern dependence on technology, which is the worst possible concept for an album in 2019, but Hannon brings his absurd Midas Touch to even this hack premise, so much so that he’s able to sing lines like “Machines that do this, machines that do that/ Machines that go hiss, machines that go crack/ Machines that will give us the things that we lack” without you even thinking about rolling your eyes.
It’s hard to understand how he made the album as fun as he did, using the hackneyed “what if technology is bad?” premise as a way of opening up about his feelings about growing old and having to adapt in uncomfortable ways outside of the office. Take “A Feather in Your Cap,” for instance, which sees Hannon moping about a one-night stand, but because he expected it to mean more to her: “A tasty little snack to have between your meals/ A name that you can add to your list of lovers/ I only wish you had informed me of the deal.” “Norman and Nora” doesn’t even really make the theme self-evident, with the simple song giving us small glimpses into the long marriage of its titular characters; think “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” only with Desmond and Molly picking up medieval battle reenactments instead of playing in a band to salve their mid-life crises.
He plays in every mood he can, from maudlin to euphoric. The ludicrously fun “Office Politics” sees Hannon in lockstep with a deep bass throb, dropping stunning one-liners like “‘Live for now, bugger the future!’/ Thus spake Zara Brewster” and “See that PowerPoint presentation/ Worthy of a BAFTA nomination,” each stanza good enough that it’s honestly surprising that anything can elevate it – and then the Motown-esque backup singers come in on the chorus. “The Life and Soul of the Party” one-ups it by bringing them back for a disco number that demands you sing along to the “Life and soul/ OF THE PARTY” chorus immediately upon first listen.
And, okay, perhaps not everything works. “Psychological Evaluation”’s robotic interview completely fails to land and almost feels like a vehicle for Hannon to do some “Losing My Edge”-lite band name listing. “The Synthesiser Service Centre Super Summer Sale” is Hannon’s chance to namecheck every synth you can think of, but gets too caught up in the act of trying to be Yakko Warner singing “The Nations of the World” to give it the same zeal that made that song so endearing. “Philip and Steve’s Furniture Removal Company” is a too-smart joke you only need to hear once (“What if Philip Glass and Steve Reich had a furniture removal company?”) that gives us both artists’ brand of beautiful repetitive minimalism, but ultimately feels like an experiment that he should have tinkered with just a little longer – though it’s great that he felt comfortable to make this particular joke. Even the non-jokey and highly overdramatic “Office Politics clocks in at one full hour, which is only slightly too much, but Hannon could have gotten away with an editor in some places.
Office Politics will do absolutely nothing to change the fact that American audiences don’t know who the hell he is. That’s truly a shame, because aside from the fact that it’s unpretentious and inviting, it’s also his most assured and addicting work since Fin de Siècle. Time has only made Hannon more clever and funny, and the lack of widespread stardom he has earned seems to have done nothing to dampen him. Those who have missed out on him would do well to take the plunge into his work now, and Office Politics is a refreshingly fun entry point.