Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Bath by the Divine Comedy

This post is part of my series on the album Promenade by the Divine Comedy. For an index, see here.

Today, I look at the overall structure of the album and the first song "Bath".

The Story
As mentioned in the introductory post, Promenade is a concept album, of sorts. I've added the "of sorts" qualification since the very idea of a concept album can send shivers down the spine of even the most hardened Pink Floyd fan and I don't want to put you off. Concept albums are often self-indulgent and overweening. Fortunately, Promenade is not like that. Neil Hannon has not sacrificed his song-writing skills for an exercise in self-aggrandisement. The songs remain tight, well-structured and even -- dare I say it -- catchy.

The album tells the story of a day in the life of a couple. Each song provides a snapshot of the day's activities. According to a short site about the divine comedy, the day in question is 31st December 1999. While the choice of year seems somewhat arbitrary, the idea of it being set on New Year's Eve makes sense given that the title to one song is "Ten Seconds to Midnight". I can think of no other date on which counting down to midnight is a common practice.

Why is this structure adopted? Well obviously I can only speculate, but my feeling is that it is done to demonstrate the richness of human existence. Although we are only offered glimpses of one day in the lives of the protagonists, that one day runs the full gamut of human emotion; it shows the density of our memories and experiences: the buzzing booming confusion with which we all contend. I think this is patent when we look at the first song on the album, entitled "Bath".

The Ever-rolling Stream
"Bath" is a song of two halves. The first half is a sombre, ominous and instrumental prologue. It begins with sounds of waves lapping the shore. Then, Hannon reads a quote from a hymn by Isaac Watts. The quote is as follows:
Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away. They fly, forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day.
Watts may have meant for these lines to have some religious significance. They may, for instance, evoke the tragedy of a material, time-bound existence and the need for God to imbue it with purpose (read the rest of the hymn and you might agree). As we shall see in later songs, I suspect that Hannon is a religious sceptic so he would not seem to share this motive.

Instead, I think the purpose of the quote it to set up the key question addressed in the album: how is happiness possible if we are mortal and our existence is destined to come to an end? The preoccupation with this question is manifest. Consider: the album is itself framed as a day in the life of two people; one song, "The Booklovers" is largely about the timelessness achieved through art; another song "Ten Seconds to Midnight" looks at the stages of life; and finally, the song "The Summerhouse" is about the weight of memory.

As we shall see, the album ends on an upbeat note, suggesting that an answer can be found.

Ophelia Raised from her Watery Grave
The opening quote is followed by a two-minute string-heavy instrumental. Then, the tone changes quite suddenly in favour of an upbeat two-minute pop song. The song introduces us to the female character (heroine) in the album's story. She is taking a bath.

Hannon has, I think, that rare gift for treating serious matters with humour and humorous matters with seriousness. So while he deals with weighty themes, nearly everything he sings is sung with tongue firmly in cheek. This is obvious in the lyrics of Bath which describe our heroine as a:
 "frail Aphrodite, so pale, pink and white...naked as sin, wearing nothing but a grin, and a pin in her hair."
There is something so light-hearted and carefree about the imagery here. Especially when juxtaposed with the ominous instrumental opening. Nonetheless, dark thoughts re-enter the picture. While taking her bath, the heroine questions her fate:
"will she be drowned? Found with her hair tied behind, shoulders back and head inclined?"
This presages what happens to her in the song "Neptune's Daughter" when she is nearly drowned. But that lies in the future, for now she is safe: she can finish her bath and open the windows to greet the day:
"Darkness and fear will disappear, like the soap, when she opens her eyes. She throws back the dormer windows, morning light shows Ophelia raised from her watery grave..."
Alas, there are no versions of this available on youtube so you'll have to buy the album to hear the music. This is what really brings the words to life.

The scene shifts in the next song, when we are introduced to the male character. I'll be covering that next time out.

1 comment:

  1. I really loved this post. Please do continue to write about this fantastic album, and indeed other DC work, as they are my favourite band and reading your interpretation adds a little something extra for me.