The Divine Comedy in New York City

originally published on SPINonline

If Neil Hannon becomes any more laconic during his live sets, he'll run the risk of actually nodding off on stage. Not that this langorous delivery is necessarily a bad thing at all-quite the opposite, in fact. The Divine Comedy have created a delicious wink and a cocktail sip of a stage act; a martini dream wherein a man with a smidge of style and a shelf of the right reading material can magically transform himself into a dashing Casanova. A enticing confection, to be sure, but one which had slightly soured as of late. The crowds still whistled along on cue with "Frog Princess", packed the clubs and gladly shared their cigarettes with Neil Hannon, desperately in need of an onstage drag, but lately, more often than not, the intelligent and charismatic songwriting had been swallowed up by overly acidic showmanship. Sweet and occasionally songs dissolved in cynical delivery and biting banter. Certainly cerebrally appealing, but somehow slightly soulless and only coldly charming.

This is perhaps why the Divine Comedy's April 18th show at Fez in New York City came a such a delicious surprise. With this engaging and captivating set, frontman Neil Hannon and pianist Joby Talbot seemed to have renewed their faith in the honest appeal of their songs. Stripped of their usual bitterly witty delivery and cynical banter, playing to a capacity crowd which included such music luminaries such as Setanta labelmates and dino-rocker Robert Plant, the Divine Comedy gave a refreshingly energetic and genuine performance. Songs ranging back to earlier albums such as "Liberation" and "Casanova" all the way up to their current release "A Short Album About Love" seemed to be transformed from cynical and clever ditties into melodic and tender gems.

It takes a uniquely gifted performer to deliver a line like "If you were a horse, I'd clean the crap out of your stable and never once complain" and not completely drench it in sarcasm. During Friday's show, Hannon was able to meld his intelligent and witty literacy with a touching vulnerability and absolutely mezmerize the audience.

Perhaps the most stunning moment came with Neil Hannon's rendition of a Stephin Merritt penned 6ths song which had been handed to him merely hours before the show. Merritt, the Magnetic Fields frontman, posesses a rare genius for crafting songs which emphasize other singers' strengths, and this one perfectly suited Hannon's brand of witty intellect tempered with gentle sentimentality. Without adequate rehearsal opportunity to sheath the song in a slick veneer, Hannon cameforth with a shyly charming and slightly trepidatious acapella rendition of this dour, sensitive song and with this flash of the more human Hannon, rather than the elegantly inaccessible creature he's devised, the audience was left breathless.