Parlophone - 2004 - 45 minutes

Three years after 'Regeneration', Neil Hannon seems to have rediscovered the sound that made fans of lush, sophisticated pop music take a shine to the Divine Comedy in the first place. Crafting stylish music while retaining a personal edge is a worthy aim, just as long as you can sing along to the results, and in this he certainly succeeds.

'Come Home Billy Bird', the first single to be taken from the album, and the best song on it, benefits greatly from the guest vocals of Lauren Laverne who provides a welcome counterpoint to the deep melodramatic voice of Hannon. The Divine Comedy always was about Neil Hannon, now shorn of band mates, self-produced and little changed, you wonder how much of an influence his Absent Friends had in the first place.

Unusual topics and the gusto with which they were addressed have always been endearing qualities of this man's music, and this album provides many more eccentric moments. 'The Happy Goth' and a ballad about a ship's journey to the breakers yard, stick in the mind for their subject matter at the very least.

That you know exactly what you're going to get will not be a problem for fans of an artist who is making a welcome attempt to return to what he does best. The sound of Neil Hannon treading water musically will go down well with anyone tired of the more conventional formulae for making pop music.

Ray Donoghue

Tracklisting: Absent Friends - Sticks and Stones - Leaving Today - Come Home Billy Bird - My Imaginary Friend - The Wreck Of The Beautiful - Our Mutual Friend - The Happy Goth - Freedom Road - Laika's Theme - Charmed Life