There are times when the lowly court jester is the wisest man in the kingdom. Released just weeks before the lingering-fart that was Be Here Now confirmed that the Britpop bubble had burst, at a time when every record label, regardless of how much major label backing they received, tried to convince you that any four or five piece featuring at least one guitar player was ‘indie’, Voyage to the Bottom of the Road saw genuine independent stalwarts Half Man Half Biscuit survey the pop-culture landscape with incredulity. While the music scene had a voracious appetite for all things labelled indie, they barely received a passing mention from anyone in the media who wasn’t John Peel. Not that it mattered to Blackwell. He was just too invested in daytime TV to give a toss.
Given Blackwell’s skill for making (British) cultural references in the majority of his songs, you’d probably expect that each HMHB album be very much of it’s time. This is only true to a certain extent, as listening back to this two decade old album now, “Eno Collaboration” is still a wickedly funny take down of pompous and patronising pop stars and “Monmore, Hare’s Running” is Voyage to the Bottom of the Road’s trojan horse. When you first listen to it, it really does seem to be one of the album’s lesser numbers until you decipher it’s references to Weller-grams and flirting with brass, then you can just revel in the lyrics regarding sub-standard adhesive tape, before coming to terms with the fact that you are in the company of rare genius. Yeah, it is of its time, but it is still relevant. Perhaps even more relevant, especially to those who write or read websites such as Backseat Mafia, is “Bad Review”, the tale of a local band whose self confidence far outweighs their talent getting a bit a bit uppity at negative feedback. Trust me, as a reviewer who has had a local act kick off at them for a negative review that didn’t even mention them by name, it’s a song that is painfully close to the truth for some acts.
What drags Voyage to the Bottom of the Road down slightly is the fact that there are a clutch of songs on it which just aren’t quite on the same level as the rest of the album. “Song of Encouragement for the Orme Ascent” is one of the album’s weakest moment, while “He Who Would Valium Take” and “ITMA” just aren’t up to HMHB’s usual high standards. On the upside you get a great opener in the shape of “A Shropshire Lad”, the hilariously honest “Dead Men Don’t Need Season Tickets”, “CAMRA Man” (a song so true that it hurts) and the killer closing track “Paintball’s Coming Home”. While it’s true that Voyage to the Bottom of the Road may not be the most cohesive Half Man Half Biscuit album, at least half of the songs on it teeter on the (soft) verges of genius, remaining resolutely un-produced, studiously avoiding playing the fame game, while simultaneously pointing out life’s absurdities.
Released at a time when a ubiquitous and needlessly self-congratulatory music scene was just about to consume itself, Voyage to the Bottom of the Road is an album for those of us smart enough not to look for messages of wide-eyed hope, optimism and unrealistic expectations of what life was going to hand to us if we were bullish and over-confident enough. This was music for those of us who felt disenfranchised by such needless displays of self-confidence, backing up a world view of those grounded in the nitty gritty of real life, yet still able to laugh at how stupid that life can be sometimes, and reminding you that you’re not the only person in this universe who feels like you do.
Half Man Half Biscuit have always made their fans feel like they belong. Perhaps more than any other act in the UK in the last three decades, they ‘keep it real’ in a way that the rest of us can understand, and for that I will be eternally grateful. Twenty years later, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Road still makes more sense than almost any other album released in 1997.