After a dozen outings, Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy proves on Office Politics that he can pretty much write about anything and draw out humor, pathos, and absurdly specific details. Office Politics is a double album – a full 16 song saga – that dwells on the themes and trivialities of the drudgery of office life, but more significantly the exponentially increasing role of machines in the office, and our society in general.
Those themes are not exactly unexplored territories, and a lot of songs here don’t necessarily push beyond familiar beats, but the way in which these beats are delivered is from a distinct perspective that makes them sound fresher than they otherwise might. For instance, the title track is a litany of mundane office clichés: the PowerPoint presentation, the pervy boss who misses “the good old days” of sexual harassment, the woman who gets wasted at the Christmas party, the foolish intern. The imagery is nothing new, but Hannon’s droll, monotone delivery of the song introduces the tone for the rest of the album.
Although “Office Politics” is a good introduction to the album’s themes, it is surprisingly not the opening track. That would be the slightly confounding and singular “Queuejumper.” The music and performance are very jaunty and cocky, which fits with Hannon’s titular character who likes to assert his superiority by jumping queues. This is maybe the song least relevant to the office and technology themes, except for maybe crafting the idea of a man who is so stifled and neutered by his environment that he resorts to childish and relatively insignificant actions to prove that he is “smarter [and] better than you.”
“Office Politics” is followed by the subtly tragic “Norma and Norman,” a tale of two lovebirds who have one great honeymoon in Majorca before starting a family, which leads to Norma losing her job and Norman being barely able to support his family on his single salary. It’s all together like a kooky Ken Loach film, with the couple ultimately reigniting a spark between them via 11th-century battle reenactments.
The first half of the album primarily focuses on these office themes, albeit with the existential dread of machine superiority interlaced throughout. After “Norma and Norman,” each track is essentially dealing with the problem of human labor being replaced with technology. “Absolutely Obsolete” confronts the hypocrisy and naked greed of the boss who tells his employees that they’re all a part of a team or a family but, when a cheaper tech alternative arises, doesn’t hesitate to sack somebody.
“You’ll Never Work in This Town Again,” with a melancholic jazz sound, condemns those who wanted “a life of ease/everything done by machines,” and who are now losing their own livelihoods to those machines. “Infernal Machines” leans into the industrial sound, reading like an advertisement for all the machines you can buy, that can do anything you can and can’t do. The sticking point revealed at the end is that this list includes “machines that make mistakes.”
“Psychological Evaluation” is just that, with Hannon voicing the rote responses of a man being questioned by a robotic voice, a voice which is so distorted you may not even initially notice it is saying words. In this segment, the “evaluation” is proven to be an exercise by the machine with the goal of reaching a “conclusion regarding human evolution.”
The first half of the album ends with an inconsequential track, “The Synthesiser Service Centre Super Summer Sale” the biggest appeal of which is Hannon’s tongue-twisting ability. The second half of Office Politics, however, doesn’t have much to do with the office at all and instead leans into the problems of communication and connection that coincide with the rise of technology. The songs here are slower-paced, but a little more touching and even beautiful on occasion. “The Life and Soul of the Party” is reminiscent of “Queuejumper” and “Office Politics” in that it portrays a classic archetype, in this case, the worst guy at the party. He talks relentlessly, asks a million questions, doesn’t like the music and insists on playing his own iPod. He’s dreadful, yes, but as the song makes clear he’s just looking to make a connection, desperately. “A Feather In Your Cap” is a song which invokes the sound of 80s soft rock love ballads, only to make the song’s narrator a forlorn character who realizes their hookup was just a “feather in the cap” of their partner, and nothing more.
“I’m a Stranger Here” is a dark, hazy song about a man who feels unmoored from the present, and that darkness is carried into “Dark Days Are Here Again.” Both tracks effectively craft creepy and somber atmospheres, but the latter song suffers a bit for making so much of the album’s (already pretty clear) subtext into text. The final song “When the Working Day is Done” does a similar thing and ends up feeling like a perfunctory song that is here to announce “the album is done!” Before we reach the end we get a somewhat entertainingly dark story of a man so desperate for a job he lies, ass-kisses, and then likely commits murder in “‘Opportunity’ Knox,” as well as a hypothetical theme song for a slightly cerebral sitcom. “Philip and Steve’s Furniture Removal Company,” as explained by the pitch Hannon attaches to the beginning of the song, would hypothetically be about the titular service of Philip Glass and Steve Reich in the early 1960s, and center the “repetitive nature of the work.” The song takes that theme of repetition to heart, with the title being repeated endlessly, eventually overlapping over itself to form a musical salad made of a single phrase.
The idea of eventually reaching some sort of catharsis through repetition is demonstrated through the eventual break from annoyance to a kind of surrender to the melody that occurs somewhere inside of you while listening to “Philip and Steve’s…” It’s an intriguing grace note to an album that frequently frets about the disappearance of good, honest labor to cold, fallible machines without really referring to any benefits people can find from work outside of financial stability. It underlines that incomes aren’t the only thing to be taken from “obsolete” employees, but sometimes a sense of purpose is as well.
Office Politics does not have any necessarily original thoughts or arguments brought to light, and a few tracks feel like playful experimentation by Hannon, rather than something that contributes to the overall package. However, despite its shabbiness, Office Politics has some surprises for the listener, as well as a mix of healthy cynicism towards capitalist office culture with reasonable compassion towards those worker bees who are getting screwed over whether they deserve it or not. It’s an often odd, frequently engaging listen that anyone familiar with Hannon or the Divine Comedy may find appealing.