Along with Morrissey and Jarvis Cocker, Londoner Neil Hannon has established himself as one of the premier hams on the British pop scene—which makes Regeneration, the eighth album by the Hannon-led Divine Comedy, something of a mixed blessing. Sure, the tunes are more divine than ever, but, by Hannon’s high standards, the comedy is depressingly earthbound. After all, this is the man who penned “The Pop Singer’s Fear of the Pollen Count,” one of the funniest sickbed laments this side of Marcel Proust—or even the Mozzer himself.

With a set of pipes that has earned him frequent comparisons to Scott Walker, a flair for writing histrionic set pieces, and a taste for Cecil B. DeMille-sized musical casts (the band’s last LP of new material, 1998’s Fin de Siècle, boasted more musicians than your average gladiator flick does centurions), Hannon comes across as something like England’s version of a Vegas crooner. Except, of course, that England has no Vegas. And if it did, I doubt it would hire someone whose “My Way” is titled “Gin Soaked Boy.”

All along, the danger has been that Hannon—whose increasingly arch performances over the past decade or so have blurred and ultimately erased the line between self-consciousness and self-parody—would go too far. He’s already set one of William Wordsworth’s Lucy poems to music (on 1993’s Liberation) and reinterpreted Noel Coward for the rave crowd (on the 1998 tribute compilation Twentieth Century Blues). How could he possibly top himself? A musical adaptation of Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians with Shirley Manson cast in the role of Florence Nightingale and Hannon playing the Martyr of Khartoum? Or an album of him and Lou Reed reciting the poems of Algernon Charles Swinburne to the accompaniment of Emerson, Lake & Palmer and a choir composed of all the fair-haired children of Liechtenstein?

Who would have guessed that Hannon would make an abrupt about-face, renouncing humor and leaving his cast of thousands behind? High comedy and bombast have never sounded so good together as in Hannon’s hands—which is why the relatively witless and stripped-down Regeneration is the biggest musical surprise since Gary Glitter’s kiddie-porn bust.

Maybe it’s his new marriage, or intimations of middle age, but Hannon has discovered the importance of being earnest. Subsequently, nothing on Regeneration—with the possible exception of “Bad Ambassador”—is as over-the-top flamboyant as such signature Divine Comedy tunes as 1996’s “Something for the Weekend” and 1998’s “National Express.” The result is a sound that is somehow simultaneously sparer and richer. The smoke and mirrors of the former albums—all that wonderful shallow flash—have given way to a new musical depth.

Some of the new lyrics, on the other hand, are the purest treacle, which might leave fans wondering if Hannon has gotten his hands on some kind of pop-star steroid—one that pumps up your musical muscles but shrivels your lyrical faculties to the size of Noel Gallagher’s. Take the otherwise wonderful “Love What You Do,” which pairs a soaring chorus with the kind of platitudes normally associated with television’s insufferable Svengalis of self-improvement: “Exercise your freedoms/Exorcise those demons/You have got to love what you do.” Zealous cliché-mongering also mars the schlocky-cool “Mastermind” (“You don’t need a law degree/To set your mind and spirit free”), which just goes to show that although schlock + irony = postmodernism, schlock + sincerity = Michael Bolton. The same goes for the plodding but pretty “The Beauty Regime,” a string-glazed number whose moral seems to be that we’re all beautiful in our own way, the fashion industry be damned.

Most of Hannon’s melodies, however, are so strong that his pedestrian versifying tends to fade into welcome invisibility, like Billy Bob Thornton in the presence of Angelina Jolie. “Love What You Do” may boast some of the dumbest stanzas ever written, but I find myself listening to it over and over again; as the guy in the song says, “You’ve gotta love it.” Similarly, “Note to Self” goes from synthy shuffle to guitar bash-up with such assurance and aplomb that you hardly notice the Hallmarkian lyrics (“A song is not a song/Until it’s listened to”).

If Hannon’s sense of humor has largely deserted him, his flair for finding the telling detail is still intact, especially on the stately “Eye of the Needle,” which sets horns and a church organ against a spacey Radiohead-like backdrop. Hannon pleads with God to say something, anything, in answer to his prayers, noting that “The cars in the churchyard/Are shiny and German/Completely at odds with/The theme of the sermon.” And his talent for playing the roué—as he did in “Becoming More Like Alfie” on 1996’s Casanova—re-emerges on “Bad Ambassador,” a seductive slice of neoglam that would fit quite comfortably on the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack. Hannon comes on like the devil in Tom Jones’ tuxedo, singing, “I’m a bad ambassador for that elusive place you’re searching for/I wanna show you so much more…./I wanna get you high/Don’t ask me why/It’s just something I’ve got to do/I’ll try to make it up to you.”

But my favorite track is “Lost Property,” which lays a strummed acoustic guitar and a hypnotic piano riff over a plaintive and sparse orchestral arrangement. A simple catalog of the things Hannon has misplaced over the years (“Gym kits and trainers/Asthma inhalers/Silk-cuts and Bennies/Ten-packs and twenties/C-class narcotics/Antibiotics/The holes in my pockets/I lost it all”), the lyrics are remarkable not only for what isn’t listed but also for their concluding lines, which reveal a deep pining for an idealized England: “Then one night in a dream/I passed through a sheepskin screen/To a green, pleasant land/I found them all piled up into the sky/And I cried tears of joy.” It’s a simple idea wonderfully executed—and a much-needed reminder that it’s possible to plumb the emotional depths without losing one’s sense of humor.

It’s not as if the transformation of funny into insufferable is anything new. Just look at the films of Robin Williams. Or the career trajectory of another oversized musical personality, Elton John, who went from the inspired and ridiculous to the insipid and ridiculous and broke my heart in the process. Hannon has yet to go that far, but whereas the Divine Comedy of old took Samuel Beckett’s dictum “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness” and turned it into inspired pop theater, the Divine Comedy of today has decided that what the world needs now is a good talking-to. Nothing makes that clearer than “Dumb It Down,” on which Hannon takes society to task for its tendency to simplify everything to an idiot’s level of comprehension. Unfortunately, that’s what he seems to be doing on much of Regeneration. CP