Half Man Half Biscuit - CSI: Ambleside
The last time I reviewed a Half Man Half Biscuit album – 2005’s Achtung Bono – I was, it now appears in retrospect, perhaps a little hasty in declaring it to be just about the best record the band had ever released. It’s an absolutely terrific album, no doubt about that – but coming from a position where I was still unfamiliar with certain sections of the band’s back catalogue, I should have known better than to make such a bold claim when there are albums such as Macintyre Treadmore and Davitt, Cammell Laird Social Club and – my probable favourite – Four Lads Who Shook The Wirral around.
Not that this is hugely important in the great scheme of things, of course – but I just think it helps to provide a bit of context when discussing their new effort, CSI: Ambleside, both in relation to Bono and indeed to everything else that’s gone before. Of course, judging HMHB albums is largely a matter of personal preference anyway – there’s no great deviation in style or quality, and instead it’s usually a simple case of which album has the most songs that you engage with. (Incidentally, those of you less familiar with the Biscuit – so that’s all but one or two of you, then – and with my firmly held belief that singer Nigel Blackwell is England’s greatest living satirist, can expect a nice big detailed article coming soon to this very site picking apart the finest gems from the last quarter of a century of his songwriting.)
Certainly, the consistency that has been almost entirely present through those years of HMHB material is maintained by CSI: Ambleside. Blackwell’s lyrics remain as sharp as ever, packed with biting social observation, a vocabulary almost entirely constructed of cultural references-as-shorthand, and his unique brand of wordplay. A quite superb opening salvo confirms that his knack with tunes is still in full effect, too – we kick off with “Evening Of Swing (Has Been Cancelled)”, an energetic trip through a dream about the apocalypse, followed by the superb “Bad Losers On Yahoo Chess”, perhaps the first pop song ever to contain chess notation within its lyrics (“Nxe3”, if you were wondering), in addition to being a song clearly based on Blackwell’s own experiences of dealing with huffy opponents on the online game (you have to wonder if “Dennis Bell of Torquay” is real. I’m going to guess that he is).
Rounding off one of the strongest trios of opening tracks yet seen from the band is the first attempt in a while to do something genuinely different – launching in with a simple yet classy pounding bass line, “Took Problem Chimp To Ideal Home Show” features Nigel… dare we say it… rapping his way through the verses. It sounds strange, but his style of wordsmithery is perfectly suited to the almost metronomic delivery, and it’s balanced out by the launch into a storming, singalong, handclapper of a chorus (complete with bleepy noises to play off a lyric about Tetris). Every so often, a track somes along that you just can’t wait to hear (and sing along with) live at one of the band’s all-too-rare gigs, and this is certainly one of those.
Another such track, as it happens, is “Lord Hereford’s Knob”. Initially a fairly lightweight meander through Blackwell’s fondness for walking in the country, complete with puerile gags about place names (the titular “Knob” is a hill in South East Wales, also known as Twmpa), the final minute suddenly becomes a rousing chorus that not only adds OS grid references to Blackwell’s unique lyrical territory (“I’ll give you the grid ref – you might like to go – SO224350”), but also sees him metatextually referencing his own back catalogue. “All of our songs sound the same”, he sings in the background. “I’m keeping two chevrons apart / You’re the reason why Paradise lost”. To add to the list of firsts, is this the first time a songwriter has included a fan-pleasing reference of the sort usually found in Doctor Who?
The real pinnacle of the album, though – and it’s really one of the lyrical heights of Blackwell’s distinguished career so far – comes with the final track, the absolutely spellbinding “National Shite Day”. Spitting venom from his lips in a way not seen since 1998’s “A Country Practice” (a track to which this is something of a companion piece, spoken-word ranting and all), Blackwell takes us on a trip through early twenty-first century British town centre crapness. It’s a world of “fat kids with sausage rolls / poor sods conducting polls”, in which Blackwell waits for a “bus replacement service” and wonders to himself “whether or not it should actually be called a train replacement service”. Best of all, he says, “I tried to put everything into perspective, set it against the scale of human suffering. And I thought of the Mugabe government and the children of the Calcutta railways. This worked for a while – but then I encountered Primark FM”. Personally, I’m starting a campaign as soon as possible to get the song installed as our new national anthem. It might just be our only hope.
Elsewhere, “On The ‘Roids” is a marvellously tuneful cautionary tale warning against taking on massive hard blokes, while “Ode to Joyce” laments the paucity of songs addressed to that name as opposed to, say, Maria. “Totnes Bickering Fair” and “Blue Badge Abuser” are two tracks that have been around for a while, debuted in live performances – sadly, here, despite the lyrical excellence of “Totnes” in particular (“I’m gonna feed our children non-organic food”, sings the bitter ex-spouse of a Green-freak, “and with the money saved take them to the zoo”), the album versions feel a bit slow and plodding compared to earlier recordings. Of course, one of Blackwell’s old standards – taking a trad tune and putting daft lyrics to it – is in evidence with “Petty Sessions”, which sets a few brief examples of, well, pettiness to the tune of the “Hokey Cokey”. “I ring up Dial-a-Pizza,” he proudly states, “and say ‘That’s not how I would spell Hawaiian’”.
As with all Biscuit albums, there are a number of tracks that feel more like they blend into the background. But then, that’s always been a characteristic of their material – you can listen to an album for weeks or even months, and it’s only when a line like “From the east Brokeback Mountain to the west Benny Hill” or “His paranoia is absurd / ‘Are you thinkin’ ‘bout my bird?’” suddenly jumps out at you that you realise you should have been paying closer attention and you’ve got a new favourite. Even after almost a fortnight of near-constant listening, I know that my opinion on CSI isn’t yet fully formed – because Blackwell’s songs just don’t work like that. All I can say, really, is that the old magic is one hundred per cent still in evidence – and while it may be hard to judge in the context of the band’s entire back catalogue, it’s hard to describe it as anything other than “unmissable”. There is absolutely nobody else in the world making records like this –although of course we wouldn’t want it any other way – and they’re a band who absolutely demand hearing if you’ve ever felt an iota of dissatisfaction with the mundane aspects of modern life. Write them off as a “novelty” or “comedy” band if you will – you’re only missing out on devastating satire that every single one of us can relate to on some level. Even if you don’t remember “the rubber-faced irritant Phil Cool”.