Within the narrow confines of rock and pop there can’t be many greater antithetical events to occur within the same month as U2 giving everyone their new album, with all the fanfare of a presidential inauguration, and Half Man Half Biscuit releasing their latest effort.
“Urge for Offal” is the Biscuit’s 13th long player since 1985’s “Back in the D.H.S.S.” And even though they recorded 12 of the hallowed John Peel sessions, somehow it’s hard to believe they still exist. And because of their lampooning of the music industry over the years, the very idea of writing a review of their material seem somewhat daft.
“Urge for Offal” is for the most part more of the same, jangling up-beat guitar post-punk riffs with head-nodding, foot tapping drumbeats. There are some slightly more edgier songs than usual, something they flirted with on their last record, the excellent “90 Bisodol”. Opening track, “Westward Ho! Massive Letdown” is a forceful rocker, carried along by an almost Joy Division-esque deep bass. “Baguette Dilemma for the Booker Prize Guy” and “The Bane of Constance” are in a similar, heavier vein.
But it’s not the music we listen for it’s the words. Singer, guitarist, and songwriter, Nigel Blackwell (Half Man Half Biscuit is pretty much a pseudo name) has carved out a whole niche of his own, encompassing the mundane, the tragically mundane, the pathetic mundane and the hilariously mundane. Not to mention the absurd fictional encounters with people of the z-list, that-name-sort-of-rings-a-bell variety. The combination sounds confusing, and it can be, but persevere and you’re rewarded with something close to brilliant. The trick: lull the listener into a safe zone then hit with something strangely poignant, or extremely bleak, or laugh out loud funny. Usually you find these moments on the third, fourth or even tenth listen.
His bleak skepticism shines bright on “Urge for Offal”, while two songs directly confront suicide, “My Outstretched Arms” and “Stuck up a Hornbeam”. The latter is one of the album’s best, an upbeat rockabilly number with content that couldn’t be darker, the man wants to jump ‘but there’s such a view.’ It’s another of his songs you can’t imagine anyone else being able to write. In the midst of contemplating ending it all, our protagonist foresees what will come next, the typical closing line of the opening paragraph of the local paper report, ‘gonna get discovered by a bloke out walking the dog’. You can’t pinpoint why, but it makes you laugh.
There’s more unrequited love and a touching song about a loved one passing away peacefully in “Old Age Killed my Teenage Bride”, ‘And yesterday at one hundred and one/she had a shower cup of tea and a scone/and just as Cash in the Attic came on…’ The title track is a pleasant acoustic number, reminiscing about glory days of a band’s beginnings, one your brother thinks is dire.
Somewhat of a forte in the past have been their takedowns of middle class orchastrated culture rot, both funny and cuttingly accurate (see ‘Paintball’s Coming Home’ and ‘Corgi Registered Friends’.) Here ‘Adam Boyle’s Cast Lad Rock Aside’ is the closest contender for this category, a tale about a fickle eejit who champions one image, and subsequently discards it for another, with just as much vim. We all know one.
When bands have been around as long as HMHB have you begin to see a pattern. “The Unfortunate Gwatkin” is this album’s trudging spoken word song. These can straddle the ‘challenging’ line more than others (which is saying something for them.) We’re not accustomed to hearing straightforward narratives in pop songs. At the end he inexplicitly screams, “Cresta! What the fuck where we drinking?” Similar to the ‘Cresta’ chant, at the end of “The Bane of Constance” contains another, ‘Midge Ure looks like a milk thief!’ sung as sincere as half price rock singing about world peace. Old Ludwig Wittgenstein would’ve been a massive HMHB fan.
I doubt the comparison has been made often before but Blackwell’s lyrical collage is reminiscent of Kurt Cobain, who once described his writing as a “big pile of contradictions.” One of the joys of listening to any HMHB song is the not knowing what direction the song will take at any given moment.
The record is capped off with an epic and melancholic love song dedicated to the paper that shows the distance in-between, Mileage Chart. The melody is a lovely throwback to indie days of yore, usually I’d say it’s wasted on a subject matter so frivolous, but that would be defeating the purpose of all I’ve praised thus far.
U2’s single “The Miracle of Joey Ramone”, a pass-me-the-bucket homage to Joey Ramone (who, dead, can offer no rebuttal. Sorry Joey.) Witness a washed up tax-dodging corporation that sometimes plays music seeking credibility by association to someone who actually had some, a dead vagrant’s pet cockroach has more self-awareness. During the recent World Series, viewers were subjected to a 30 second U2 spot during each commercial break. The same one. For each commercial. If you’ve never watched baseball, there’s lot of commercials. In moments like this the knowledge that somewhere in England’s north-west HMHB are preparing a new release is all that can stop you from binning music off altogether.
Often, before I go to play a HMHB record, I’ll think – for a split second – that they don’t exist, that they were part of some mad dream I had. I can see it, the missus asking, “What do you want to hear?” and me responding, “Stick on Half Man Half Biscuit” and she’ll be left thinking I’ve lost the plot. They affect you like that.
“Urge for Offal” is not their best, though the parts where it’s good, it’s excellent. They’re still here, and we can be glad about that.