It’s taken a few plays but I’ve now finally clicked with the new Half Man Half Biscuit album, the cryptically titled 90 Bisodol (Crimond). This band is still best known for Back In The DHSS, a record released over a quarter of a century ago which achieved cult status partly because of its deadpan and hysterically funny lyrical content (the songs tended to be concerned with exquisitely chosen minor TV celebrities and obscure sporting figures) and partly due to the low low low production values and lurchingly incompetent musicianship. HMHB’s frontman and chief songwriter Nigel Blackwell became increasingly uncomfortable with the media attention the band started getting so a few months after the release of the LP he sensibly announced the group were breaking up, only to quietly resurrect the brand a few years later. The new album is their tenth since 1990 but you’d have to have been paying close attention to have noticed the previous nine – Nigel remains indifferent at best to publicity, and they’re still signed to the genuinely independent Liverpool label Probe Plus, essentially a one man operation with a non-existent promotional budget (the one man in question is Geoff Davies, and a nicer person you couldn’t wish to come across. He once rang me up to personally apologise because a CD that I’d ordered from him was temporarily out of stock).
These days Half Man Half Biscuit are actually technically pretty adept but happily they have the good judgement to keep their playing functional and their arrangements basic so that nothing distracts from Nigel’s magnificently pithy, minutely-observed and breathtakingly well-turned lyrics. In broad terms he’s a satirist sending up pretension both in individuals and society in general, but part of the delight to be derived from his words is in the way he avoids easy targets like X Factor winners or politicians and invariably nails universal truths you recognise but would never have occurred to you. He’d really hate the accolade but he’s as much of a national treasure as Alan Bennett or Jarvis Cocker.
Ironically the reason 90 Bisodol (Crimond) didn’t make as much of an impression on me initially as previous collections such as 2002’s (sorry but I’m going to go there) majestic Cammell Laird Social Club is I think because it’s noticeably their most professionally produced album to date, and while it ‘s still difficult to manage it making the playlist on Radio 1 it’s significantly closer to your standard slick indie guitar band sound and thus easier to let slip into the background. It’s worth making the effort to concentrate on it a bit though – as ever, there are catchy tunes and nicely non-fiddly riffs here in abundance, and an almost embarrassing wealth of brilliant lyrics that make you beam with glee. I’m not even going to quote you any because that would be tantamount to a plot spoiler, but I will throw you a few song titles: Something’s Rotten At The Back Of Iceland, Left Lyrics In The Practice Room and Rock And Roll Is Full Of Bad Wools, this last being a climactic full-on anthem on a par with previous epic album closers like National Shite Day or We Built This Village On A Trad. Arr. Tune. There are poignant tales of thwarted or usurped love (RSVP, The Coroner’s Footnote), descriptions of wholesome activities for all the family that promise more than they deliver (Fun Day In The Park) and the most charming and sympathetic account of necrophiliac practices you’re ever likely to hear (Excavating Rita). In a world where so much that is good is sacrificed in the name of progress it’s beyond reassuring to find that HMHB are as true as they’ve ever been. You can really taste the hops.