I wasn’t at all impressed on first listen, but after a couple of spins, I love this now. It’s better than 90 Bisodol (Crimond), which I found somehow tiring; it seemed to have nothing new to offer. Urge for Offal, however, sounds fresher and more energetic. The music rocks harder, veering towards grunge in places. It’s a dense, complex stew, nourishing and rewarding. It lacks the usual trappings of a HMHB album i.e. no list song or spoken-word song (although The Unfortunate Gwatkin does sail close to that). Initial listens are disorientating, and sometimes the lyrics – all but drowned out by the roaring music in some places – are hard to make out. But eventually things become clearer, and the album grows in stature.
It’s also a much funnier album than 90 Bisodol (albeit not without its dark corners, of which more later). The aforementioned Unfortunate Gwatkin climaxes (sorry) with a chant of ‘Cresta! What the fuck were we drinking?’ At first I only found this mildly amusing, and cryptic. But when I realised that it was a comment on the lack of a comma in the 1970s Cresta ads – ‘Cresta: it’s frothy man’ – I got it. THIS is why Nigel Blackwell is a genius, and this is why his stuff needs more than a cursory listen. It’s like a cryptic crossword of trivia set to music. Or like he’s setting us homework. But fun homework. I’m discovering more on each listen – it’s the gift that keeps on giving.
Westward Ho! (Massive Letdown) is a great opener – it rocks, in a very Fall-esque manner, and tells a tale of romantic abandonment and simmering ire. Love the line about Frank Ifield jumping on a windmill – God knows what it means, though. Enlightenment will come, either from the HMHB Lyrics Project in which like-minded HMHB pedants pick over the bones of every song, or the HMHB website itself, which helpfully explains all the references.
This One’s For Now is the first of many songs here to evoke earlier HMHB tunes. This recalls Fun Day in the Park from the last album – and knowingly sees the return of the boil on the back of the cab driver’s neck from that song. Of course, all their songs sound the same, we know that, he knows that, we know he knows that, he knows we know that etc, we’re caught in what Doctor Who might call ‘a chronic hysteresis of self-referential wry recursion.’ Best line is the obvious yet hilarious ‘you’re so beige you probably think this song is about someone else.’ I also love the bit about working in DFS and not getting paid for five years.
Baguette Dilemma for the Booker Prize Guy is simply stunning. It staggers and swaggers and almost falls over itself in a rush of OTT riffs and an overwhelming barrage of bizarre imagery. Nigel uses his ‘angry’ voice which is always ace. ‘I’ve got a dead leg from kicking myself!’ he growls. The song appears to be about a writer ghoosk choosing between saving some civic dignitaries from drowning or buying his lunch, but the words are quite hard to make out in places, so the Lyrics Project will definitely come in handy here. I quite like the reference to the ‘lace of your mother’s mantilla’ and ‘Eat in or take away – your choice – what do you say?!’
My Outstretched Arms is perhaps the darkest song on the album, telling the story of a suicide over unrequited love. The music recalls the similarly dark Excavating Rita from the last album. I actually find this one genuinely moving – its lack of cynicism is refreshing. ‘My outstretched arms at quarter to three / As I lay prostrate on the floor.’
The Bane of Constance recalls, thematically, Them’s The Vagaries; it seems to be about a bloke (Vince) whose head is full of rubbish and trivia who is the ‘bane’ of his partner (Constance). The confusing lyrics (which, again, I can’t quite make out yet) merely represent the contents of said mind. The climax with its frantic drumming and chant of ‘Midge Ure looks like a milk thief!’ is one of the highlights of the album.
Theme Tune to Something or Other is a bit throwaway, but they do this sort of thing so well. It also makes for a nice break in the album.
False Grit is one of those songs that leaves no impression on first listen but worms its way into your mind. It appears to be about the false impression of the north of England fostered by ‘grim oop North’ TV cop shows (however good) like Happy Valley and Scott and Bailey. The latter is explicitly referenced: ‘Get the Haynes (not the car manual – but director Toby!) and call Suranne Jones.’ Musically it recalls Mate of the Bloke from Achtung Bono.
Old Age Killed My Teenage Bride is a rather twisted, yet somehow moving tale of long-lasting love. Again the music rumbles and roars. Lyrics again genius: ‘abseil for no-one.’ There is a continuity error though: the titular bride seems to die twice, once at age 100 and again at age 101!
Urge for Offal is a straightforward reminiscence about being in a HM band (though why they’re called that I dunno) set to mellow strummed guitars. The lyrics about spraying the band name on lorries appears to have inspired fans to do the same –likely to be the only promotion this album receives!
Stuck Up A Hornbeam is the best song on the album and is fast becoming one of my fave HMHB songs ever. The joyous rage against misery – the angry voice makes another appearance. Musically, it’s trad R and B and could almost pass for an amped-up Status Quo – again, they do this sort of thing really well. Though it’s extremely dark – about someone contemplating suicide from within the boughs of a tree – it’s also bloody funny. Live at the Apollo and DIY come under attack. ‘I’ve got a Mynah bird – it does nothing but moan’ – think about it! And the lines about meditation – ‘beats sitting round doing nothing, I suppose.’ Genius, genius, genius. I love this to bits.
No songs lambasting middle class ghoosks on this album – UNTIL! Adam Boyle Has Cast Lad Rock Aside. Like the title track, an area of calm on what is a very loud album. Some neat lines about discovering tweed and growing a beard and getting into music for which you’re ‘not geared.’
The Unfortunate Gwatkin is the National Shite Day, Ascending the Stiperstones etc of the album, only more concise. It appears to be about a chap called Gwatkin, a verger, being beaten up by various miscreants including a chap called Bridgedale who uses a hiking sock of that name on his fist. Gwatkin ends up in an institution and pleads to the narrator ‘help me.’ Quite disturbing, especially the line ‘Gwatkin as is does not represent Gwatkin as was.’ Of course, it’s all about the climactic chant of ‘Cresta! What the fuck were we drinking?’ about which I have already written.
Mileage Chart is very strange. Musically it sounds like a bit like New Order, and is a big departure from the full-on sound of the album, as were the title track and Adam Boyle, but in a different way. On first acquaintance it seems to be an ode of love to a mileage chart in a roadway atlas, whose ‘brutal numerals’ so ‘appal’ the narrator that it prevents him from leaving his comfort zone of ‘lower nowhere.’ Nigel Blackwell’s dislike of touring, and his love of staying at home (he once said you can’t beat your own bed and bog) is well-known, so Mileage Chart is his way of saying that he will never play the game and try to compete in that other chart, the pop chart.
Like Kate Bush, Nigel Blackwell remains totally true to his art, and will never, ever compromise. Like Kate Bush, HMHB’s live shows are well worth seeing, thought not as financially challenging; and somewhat more frequent, if largely restricted, as Mileage Chart affirms, to certain geographical areas. And like Kate Bush, the continued presence of Half Man Half Biscuit in the world is a wonderful thing.