Hey, you like Half Man Half Biscuit, right? I know, dead random name! They’ve got a song called ‘All I Want For Christmas Is A Dukla Prague Away Kit’. You probably mention the title a lot on the rivals.net messageboard you post to when it looks like your team are going into Europe. You’ll be happy to discover that CSI: Ambleside, HMHB’s eleventh studio album, contains plenty of wackiness, jokes about d-list celebrities (including a voiced desire to shoot Carols Vorderman and Smilie along with the boy Llewellyn-Bowen), and some wacky lines you can quote en masse to your friends out of context (“If you look carefully in the background of _The Scream / The couple on the bridge are both Robson Green”_). Go out and buy it now, you’ll eat it up for breakfast. I’ll be here when you come back.
Right, they’ve gone. Now I’m talking to the rest of you, those of you who either a) actually ‘get’ Nigel Blackwell’s career output to date or b) haven’t yet been introduced to the joys of Half Man. There’s an argument to be made that Half Man Half Biscuit are the best English band in history. This isn’t the place to make it. This is the place to explain to you that CSI: Ambleside is one of the peaks in an already unimpeachable back catalogue because it sticks to what makes HMHB such a great band. Not the crowd-pleasing stuff dude in the first paragraph is into, the reciting of song titles in funniest track names discussions or mainstream media articles based on the thesis that Hey, Dead John Peel liked some WEIRD music when he wasn’t hosting _Home Truths. No, _CSI: Ambleside is strictly one for the purists, based around what’s drawn me and hopefully you to this band over the past 20 years: a knack for appreciating and poeticising the mundanities of everyday modern British life, a knack for observation and characterisation, and above all a sense of intelligence. There’s no celebrity kufi-smackings like ‘Breaking News’ or ‘You’re Hard’ on this album, just compressed-as-haiku bursts of truth like “Not long now before lollipop men are called Darren”. It’s a lot more Bill Cosby than Perez Hilton, and infinitely the better for it.
‘Hardest man on the Isle of White Andy Kershaw once referred to HMHB as “the most authentic English folk act since The Clash”. Which is wrong of course, because HMHB are infinitely more authentic voices of folkdom than some Levi Jeans-shilling posh boys. But he was onto something. HMHB are a folk act in very much the same way that Leadbelly or Woody Guthrie was, every song is a piece of writing: an essay, a short story, a piece of invective. The music is there as canvas, so it’s kept simple: ‘Petty Sessions’ here is just ‘The Hokey Cokey’ with an added guitar solo, while ‘Lord Hereford’s Knob’ has a wonderfully meta ending where after Nigel shouts “All of our songs sound the same”, and he proves as much by singing the choruses to old-school HMHB tracks ‘Keeping Two Chevrons Apart’ and ‘(You’re The Reason Why) Paradise Lost’, without a beat being missed or changed.
So yeah, it’s about the words. And they’re great words: “Deep Blue, in 1997 I voted for you, as Sports Personality of The Year”._ “I gave up hope ironically for Lent”. It’s hard to think of anyone since Big Pun who has been so confident and comfortable at just stringing words together like this, and when paired up with characterisation you get the feeling the Nigel Blackwell is in a class of one when it comes to lyricists in this day and age. The painting of bored, boring small-town men throughout this album is perfect, from the man who rings Dial-A-Pizza to say “That’s not how I would spell Hawaiian”, to the protagonist of ‘Little In The Way Of Sunshine’, who apropos of nothing lets you know that _The Shawshank Redemption is on sale at HMV, figures instantly recognisable to anyone who’s lived in a town that isn’t on rail mainline.
Everything that makes HMHB great is here, from the sing-along chorus of ‘Bad Losers On Yahoo Chess’ to the ability to turn seemingly random lists of words into something pleasing to the ear (“Facebook Mum, Youtube Dad / Seabass, manbag, £50 to Chad”,_ “There’s a man with a mullet going mad with a mallet in Millets”). It all ends with ‘National Shite Day’, a seemingly deliberately hark back to HMHB’s masterpiece, ‘A Country Practice_’, a near-seven-minute descent into gradual and ongoing disgust at the world, as he walks into town and tries to cope with a world of bus replacement services and Primark FM, before contemplating an old friend who enjoyed harassing 1980s impressionist Phil Cool. This isn’t the greatest album of HMHB’s career, but it’s certainly the album that best illustrates what makes them great.
9Dom Passantino's Score