There’s a good argument for Half Man Half Biscuit being the greatest indie band of all time. After thirty years they still remain utterly loyal to the tiny Probe Plus record label, releasing thirteen albums and five EPs laden with equal parts pithiness, wordplay and the most spot on cultural references.
Half Man Half Biscuit don’t do much in the way of promotion of their new releases, so the release of their latest album, Urge for Offal, was only (quietly) announced last month. No singles released ahead of the album, no articles in the mainstream press hyping the release, no global electronics giants buying all their users a copy (whether they want one or not), just a quiet announcement on their (decidedly unofficial) website giving a release date and showing a reassuringly amusing tracklisting and the sort of artwork that can only be that of a Half Man Half Biscuit album.
Urge for Offal opens with “Westward Ho! What a Let Down” and an unexpected clattering of Carl Henry’s drums, before Neil Crossley’s unmistakable bass makes it’s presence known, paving the way for a scream of guitar noise. A brilliant song detailing a particularly depressing fortnight holiday in Devon, “Westward Ho! What a Let Down” is a harder rocking song than the Half Man Half Biscuit fan might expect, with Ken Hancock and Nigel Blackwell’s guitars going into overdrive. This increased focus on electric guitars is a real feature of Urge for Offal. Sure, they’ve always been a vital part of HMHB’s musical tapestry, but this is the first time that they’ve been given so much emphasis across a whole album.
While the musical pallet of the band may have shifted in a noisier direction, Blackwell’s lyrics remain firmly rooted in every day life and punctuated by chucklesome observations. “This One’s for Now” finds him struggling with writing a song about a particularly unfascinating individual while remaining utterly self-absorbed. He’s even self aware enough to acknowledge his own limitations as a songwriter by reprising a coda from HMHB’s previous album. Three decades in and Blackwell remains an utterly unique talent.
Despite claiming that he’s never been much good at writing love songs, Blackwell has always had a special talent for dissecting the down side of relationships in songs. While “My Outstretched Arms” may not have the trademark HMHB amusing title, it’s a reassuringly realistic song of unrequited love in the tradition of “Keeping Two Chevrons Apart” and “RSVP”, the trick is once again performed with “Old Age Killed my Teenage Bride”. “Bain of Constance” is another song where the guitar amps are given a thorough workout and is in contrast to the following “Theme Tune for Something or Other”, which is itself a rare example of a Half Man Half Biscuit instrumental. Elsehwere HMHB are not above indulging in their favourite themes, with the title track (HMHB’s first since 1993’s This Leaden Pall), telling the tale of a local band with ambitions far beyond their abilities and “Adam Boyle Has Cast Lad Rock Aside” detailing one fashion victim’s descent into hipsterville. Easy targets for sure, but no one hits them with such infallible accuracy as Nigel Blackwell does.
Closing track “Mileage Chart” sounds like nothing else on Urge for Offal. With a wash of keyboard as an intro, it sounds oddly contemporary, yet like no one else. This is the great talent of Half Man Half Biscuit – they have the ability to assimilate new sounds and expand their musical pallet without ever sounding like anyone except themselves.
Following the pitch black humour of 2011’s 90 Bisodol (Crimond), Urge for Offal is an exercise in levity for HMHB, which in itself may be a particularly shrewd move for them. 90 Bisodol (Crimond) was the first Half Man Half Biscuit release to make any sort of mark on the album charts since 1987’s Back Again in the DHSS, however it was a particularly dark album. The increased emphasis on guitars means that Urge for Offal is a considerably more accessible album for newcomers to HMHB and that’s no bad thing, as they deserve to finally have recognition as one of the UK’s greatest bands.