For many Half Man Half Biscuit will always be a comedy band; forever associated with a yearning for a Dukla Prague away kit, trouble in the heart of Trumpton, and a sneaking suspicion that singer/guitarist Nigel Blackwell might well be the bastard son of Dean Freidman.
Dismissing HMHB as purveyors of bundles of gags wrapped up in pointed punk riffs would be doing them a massive injustice; they’ve come a long way since 1984. 90 Bisodol (Crimond) finds the band in fine form, and possibly at the most consistent point in their careers.
Naturally there are moments of inspired wit and pointed humour, but the overall tone of 90 Bisodol is rather dark. RSVP, a country folk tinged ballad, tells the story of a dumped boyfriend who just so happens to be providing the catering at the wedding of his ex. It turns out he’s a dab hand at poisoning. Mass murder not your bag? How about a spot of necrophilia? Excavating Rita should tick that particular box. Over the course of the album lifecoaches are killed in car crashes, Nigel talks of jumping off the roof of Dignitas, a spurned lover launches himself in front of a train, and then there’s those eels causing a stink in a decommissioned fridge. Subjects for a Carcass album perhaps, but HMHB?
Perhaps the most unhinged moment comes courtesy of Descent Of The Stiperstones. Kicking off with seething organs similar to those of Like A Rolling Stone, an otherwise ordinary trip for a jar of Swarfega turns into a bizarre encounter with Lynette McMorrough who played Glenda Brownlow in Crossroads. She’s apparently been recreating her Crossroads life in miniature, complete with car to knock down the miniature version of her on-screen dad. Each detail becomes more freakish as the tension builds musically, culminating with Blackwell making a run for it and crashing into a dummy of Warden Hodges on his way.
If this all sounds a little heavy going, then it is worth noting Blackwell’s wordplay and rhyming couplets are a joy. Musically the band are in form too, whether knocking out punk inflected folk, or taking brief forays into allusion they always seem to know exactly what is needed. There’s a fair few catchy tunes here too, the Rawhide swing of Fix It So She Dreams Of Me for example or Joy In Leeuwarden’s celebratory ode to Korfball (look it up).
They save the best for last however with Rock And Roll Is Full Of Bad Wools, an amazingly well pitched stab at celebrity musicians on Soccer AM on one hand and glib bar bands on the other. Lyrically perfect, vocally dextrous, and rumbling with a menace that weirdly is not too far away from Holy Bible era Manic Street Preachers it is surely one of Half Man Half Biscuit’s finest songs.
Blackwell’s ability to distil the frustrations of everyday life makes for some finely-honed, cynical vignettes. For example, it’s no surprise that 90 Bisodol contains a song called L’Enfer C’est Les Autres or that it’s about pavement hogs. His ability to ransack popular culture and classical literature whilst chucking in a handful of regional specific dialect and geographical references sets his writing apart from the casual misanthrope. These songs aren’t just gags; they’re beautifully written and well informed and as such, 90 Bisodol (Crimond), bleak as it may be at times, is perfectly crafted. It is no wonder that some refer to Half Man Half Biscuit as national treasures.