Even after all these years I find there’s something very admirable about Half Man Half Biscuit and the way they have conducted themselves throughout the last quarter of a century. Remaining on the miniscule Probe Plus label since their debut release, they remain singularly anti-career in their approach. They do not tour, but play one off gigs as and when they can be bothered. They only release albums once Nigel Blackwell has written enough material to warrant releasing one. Since the sad passing of John Peel they rarely get any airplay anywhere other than 6 Music. Indeed when the radio station was under threat of closure, campaigners decided to attempt to get Half Man Half Biscuit’s “Joy Division Oven Gloves” to number 6 in the singles chart as a protest to the proposed BBC cull. The fact that it only reached No 60 was no doubt something that delighted Blackwell and his band mates. They get barely any mention in the music press, HMV did not feature 90 Bisodol (Crimond) in their ‘new releases’ display at the time, instead deciding to dedicate it to the needless re-releases of the Pink Floyd and The Jesus and Mary Chain back catalogues, as well as the much ballyhooed special addition of Nevermind. Oddly enough Half Man Half Biscuit seem to thrive on this lack of attention. They are just four blokes who occasionally get together to record music and sell just enough albums to keep up with the mortgage and rent payments. Half Man Half Biscuit albums do not need promoting, as their tiny, but unswervingly loyal fanbase will inevitably purchase any new album within the first week of release, leaving the bands sales negligible until the next new release. I get the feeling that after a quarter of a century and a dozen albums, they really wouldn’t want it any other way.
The last three albums have found Half Man Half Biscuit at something of a creative peak, so 90 Bisodol (Crimond) had a lot to live up to in that respect. On initial listen it’s a much less accessible listen, with fewer moments of laugh out loud humour. However, by the third or fourth listen you start to realise that this is a very dark album indeed, far darker than even long-time listeners of the band may have been prepared for. Murder, suicide and death are touched upon time and time again throughout the album and the whole album has a much more sinister tone than anything the band has done previously and its suffused with a feeling of melancholy that is almost impossible to shake off. The artwork for the album features what looks like the chalk outline of a murder victim, which effectively sets the tone for the music contained within, however as this chalk outline has been drawn on what appears to be a faux-granite flooring tile, it indicates that Blackwell’s tongue is still planted in his cheek.
This blend of despair and black humour is woven through this album and binds it together. Even then there are moments that are genuinely pretty, such as the start of “RSVP” where the guitar and fiddle blend together into one of the most beautiful melodies I’ve heard from the band. The fact that the song is sung from the point of view of a heartbroken bloke who by a cruel twist of fate finds himself as the caterer at the wedding of the former love of his life, adds a bitter taste to the sweetness of the music. For a man who has spent the last twenty years specialising in such bittersweet reflections on life, Blackwell can still surprise me with a deeply affecting tune such as this, even if it is laced with unsettling pitch black humour.
I have to admit, that despite being a fan of Half Man Half Biscuit for a number of years now, I never expected them to release a whole album that could be described as unsettling, but with 90 Bisodol (Crimond), they have achieved just that. With its songs of a faded TV celebrities trying to relive their past glories anthropomorphically via a dolls house and songs of necrophilia (“Excavating Rita” anyone?), 90 Bisodol (Crimond) surprised me. Yes, it still couldn’t be anyone else except Half Man Half Biscuit, but they’ve managed to throw a curve-ball after a quarter of a century. All this, and it still spares a moment to give the ‘Gok Wan acolytes’ a raised eyebrow. Now how many bands can you say that about?
Despite the morose tone of the album, there are a couple of tunes which I could point to as being vaguely more accessible than the rest of the album. “Tommy Walsh’s Eco House” is a classic Half Man Half Biscuit deconstruction of soul-sapping daytime TV and small town life and the tune to “Left Lyrics in the Practice Room” is a “Joy Division Oven Gloves” soundalike, something which I have no doubt was intentional as Blackwell himself has confessed in song that ‘All of our songs sound the same’.
After living with this album for a couple of years I’ve come to realise that, in spite of its rather bleak outlook, 90 Bisodol (Crimond) boasts one of the highest concentrations of genuinely great Half Man Half Biscuit tunes. The aforementioned “RSVP”, “Tommy Walsh’s Eco House” and “Left Lyrics in the Practice Room” consolidate the heights they reached in the early part of the last decade, while “Fun Day in the Park” recalls their often overlooked album, Some Call it Godcore, and “Rock and Roll is Full of Bad Wools” maintains their tradition of killer closing tracks by giving rock stars who appear on chat shows a much needed kick up the derriere. While 90 Bisodol (Crimond) lacks the cheekiness which has been Half Man Half Biscuit’s hallmark in recent years, perhaps that’s a reflection on the state of the UK at the time of its release. The economy was in freefall, there’s mass unemployment and the children of the Thatcher government trying to prove that whatever she could do, they can do better. Yeah, the cheekiness has given way to despair, but this is because Half Man Half Biscuit are once again reflecting the mood of much of Northern England’s working class. They remain a unique musical proposition and have long cemented themselves as the unsung folk heroes of the last 25 years.