I must admit it, on initial listening on the day of its release I was deeply disappointed in CSI: Ambleside, having fallen head over heels for the hook-laden charms of its predecessor, Achtung Bono. By comparison Half Man Half Biscuit’s 2008 magnum opus just didn’t seem to have as much to offer in the way of instant appeal, as there was seemingly nothing as amazingly catchy as “Joy Division Oven Gloves”, or as beautifully bitter-sweet as “For What is Chatteris…”.
A decade later I’m pleased to announce that, although CSI: Ambleside doesn’t quite have the same level of accessibility for the HMHB newcomer as its better known predecessor, it’s a success on the strength that it rewards repeated listens. Indeed, I’m not sure how you could not listen repeatedly to an album that opens with such a righteous call to arms against the fiscally wealthy but culturally destitute as “Evening of Swing (Has Been Cancelled)”, and from there the album is laden with all manner of references to the day to day drudgery of existence by way of subtly and not so subtly subversive lyrics. What is also evident is the fact that Blackwell and his cohorts are a shade more musically sophisticated on CSI: Ambleside than on previous HMHB albums, with the acoustic and electric guitar work through “Evening of Swing (Has Been Cancelled)” being particularly strong – sure they’re hardly adding string quartets or brass sections, but this is Half Man Half Biscuit, so any nod to musodom is most out of character.
As ever Blackwell’s writing remains the backbone of HMHB, and songs like “Bad Losers On Yahoo Chess” and “Took Problem Chimp To Ideal Home Show”, confirm that no one can title songs with quite the same amount of aplomb, and his funny bone remains very much intact. What is also present and correct throughout CSI: Ambleside is HMHB’s infinite capacity for self-deprecation, particularly on “Lord Hereford’s Knob”, which turns the perceived-wisdom that HMHB are the finest folk band that the UK now has to offer on its head by welding a slyly socio-political lyric onto a folk strum, which in turn morphs into a knowing nod to HMHB’s own musical limitations. Extra anti-folk establishment points are scored in the CD artwork for a well-aimed swing at ‘Shagger MacColl’.
Blackwell’s every-man observations remain a joy throughout CSI: Ambleside, with a newly divorced man taking vengeance on his ex-wife by pointing out the obvious flaws in her bleeding-heart eco-conscious lifestyle (“Totnes Bickering Fair”), narrowly-avoided altercations with steroid-enhanced hard men (“On the ‘Roids”), an song dedicated to the joys of bubblewrap (the surprisingly catchy “Give Us Bubblewrap”), and an ode to a woman whose under-appreciated name has meant that she’s not had any odes dedicated to her (“Ode to Joyce”). The album ends with what can only be described as an epic in HMHB terms, as “National Shite Day” stretches dangerously close to the six and a half minute mark, but it only takes a few listens to establish that it’s worth every second.
Sure, early listens might have suggested that CSI: Ambleside drags a little in it’s last quarter, as perhaps “Petty Sessions” and “Little In The Way Of Sunshine” initially don’t reveal themselves to be much more than good-humoured filler by Blackwell’s standards, but in time even these tracks cement themselves as miniature classics in their own right. Ultimately, CSI: Ambleside is a grower that reveals itself to be the perfect distillation of every day life (and it’s associated annoyances) for the working man or woman.