It is the late 90s. The Britpop bubble has burst, its fans realising that the overwhelming majority of so called indie acts were now being dropped like stones through a wet paper bag by their major label paymasters, because their second or third albums haven’t sold in the same eye-watering numbers as their over-hyped debuts. Even the big hitters are suffering. Pulp have confused their audience by releasing the dark and malevolent This is Hardcore as a follow up to the pop-tastic Different Class, Blur have walked away from their cheeky faux-mockneyisms to become more interesting, Radiohead have exposed their British guitar-toting contemporaries as generally lacking in substance and Oasis are still the musical equivalent of a White Elephant. The album charts are stuffed with manufactured girl groups, veteran mainstream acts, flavour of the month drum’n’bass and The Corrs. We’re all hurtling towards the end of the century and no one seems quite certain what the future holds.
In all this confusion, a punningly titled album is released, resplendent in a reassuringly cheap cut and paste sleeve that confirms that while the Britpop party meant that there was briefly a large amount of cash sloshing around the UK music industry, none of it seems to have found its way into the coffers of the venerable Probe Plus Records. Four Lads Who Shook the Wirral will not be the most critically lauded album released in 1998, nor will it register much in the way of sales, what it is though, is one of the finest albums released by Half Man Half Biscuit, a band uniquely unaffected by the constantly shifting tides of fashion.
It starts with a squall of guitar noise, as Ken Hancock rattles his amplifier cabinet and Nigel Blackwell chips in with one of his most arresting opening lines – ‘I’d like to flush the demons from out of her mind’, and then proceeds to follow it with the even more oblique ‘I’d like to rescue her from unicyclists’. In just two lines Half Man Half Biscuit have provided more entertainment, insight and wry humour than Britpop’s finest wordsmiths could collectively create through their entire career, something driven home with unflinching accuracy on the album’s second song “Four Skinny Indie Kids” as they lampoon those that are ‘forever slagging off the majors, til’ they dangle us their wages’. Sure, over-hyped young things staggering around under the weight of their own-misplaced self belief, may be easy targets, but under the withering pop-culture tuned gaze of HMHB, they are no less deserving.
As the album progresses, it’s not just skinny indie kids who get short shrift, as “Moody Chops” picks apart songwriters who specialise in morose, self-pitying material, reminding them that they ‘have to join Jools for the jam sketch’ and questioning why their commercial success hasn’t made them any happier. It’s a fair question when you think about it, but it takes a songwriter of Blackwell’s unparalleled ability to pose it. While a song like “Turn a Blind Eye” may find Blackwell taking aim at some obvious targets, at least his aim is true and thoroughly deserved, as Nigel Crossley’s bass rumbles away beneath another spleen venting session.
While Blackwell’s songwriting has always been one of HMHB’s strengths, he hits a particularly rich vein of form throughout Four Lads Who Shook the Wirral, nowhere more so than “A Country Practice”. It’s an epic track by the band’s standards beneath which a relentless and oddly circular bass line walks up and down as Blackwell takes to task a country that would rather spend its money on end of the century celebrations instead of investing in the NHS, TV production companies, the cult of celebrity, opinionated weather forecasters (‘I quite like a bit of drizzle, so stick to the facts!’), the general tedium of life and laments the passing of an old age pensioner (‘and the last thing she sees in her life is Sting singing on the roof of the Barbican’). In a career bursting at the seems with utterly unique top class songwriting, “A Country Practice” stands out as one of Blackwell’s masterpieces, and one of the finest examples of why Half Man Half Biscuit are treasured by their loyal fans.
If “A Country Practice” surpasses expectations, then only a wild optimist would expect Half Man Half Biscuit to equal it on the same album. “Soft Verges” is another lengthy track, and one on which Half Man Half Biscuit tap into the very genre that they picked apart on “Moody Chops”. While morose naval-gazing may all too frequently be an exercise in self-obsession, again Blackwell raises the bar to demonstrate exactly what can be achieved with a downbeat song. Few songwriters can put into words the lives of the permanently luckless and downtrodden, however on “Soft Verges” Blackwell gives us a uniquely soul destroying take on the ordinary everyday life of the dispossessed that cling to the underside of society. Where so much of HMHB’s material can bring a wry smile to the face, “Soft Verges” reminds us that Blackwell’s lyrics can provide emotional devastation as well, absolutely nailing abject misery in a way that so few have ever achieved. The two longer tracks are split by “Secret Gig”, a moment of relative levity, which zooms along at a fair clip, ensuring that no momentum is lost and the whole album isn’t over-balanced by the two lengthy tunes.
The album closes with the singalong “Keeping Two Chevrons Apart”, a mind-bogglingly brilliant hymn to maintaining your distance from your ex following the disillusion of your relationship. Blackwell has always had a knack for penning strangely affecting songs of love gone sour, and “Keeping Two Chevrons Apart” with it’s obvious, yet clever, imagery is among his very best, as he manages to capture feelings that are so difficult to put into words, with the singalong nature of translating to an oddly uplifting number closing number.
As the wider music industry continues to slowly come to terms with the unerringly consistent brilliance of Half Man Half Biscuit, newcomers inevitably gravitate to their debut due to its heavily Peel-endorsed reputation, and 2005’s Achtung Bono due to it containing the gleefully notorious “Joy Division Oven Gloves”, Four Lads Who Shook the Wirral is an album which sometimes gets overlooked, which is something that we should all do something about in whatever way we can. While there were better received and better selling albums released during 1998, few remain as brilliantly potent and undimmed.