Review: Half Man Half Biscuit — The Voltarol Years
Nigel Blackwell, The Bard of Birkenhead (and his cohort), returns. Nearly four years after No One Cares About Your Creative Hub, So Get Your Fucking Hedge Cut (NOCAYCH) comes HMHB album number fifteen. And, let’s be honest, quite a lot has happened since then, but we’ll come to that later.
The most obvious thing to notice looking at the initial tracklisting is the apparent lack of a much longer obvious centrepiece song like those that have appeared on the last few albums¹, though as things turn out, that’s not quite how things are. In fact, there are several songs with a faint whiff of looking backwards to childhood and adolesence generally, and some pointed ruminations on mortality.
How else could you start an album than with a rollocking little number about a serial killer? Alright, lots of ways, but this one (I’m Getting Buried in the Morning) is a very, very good way of doing it indeed. And you know that you’re in safe hands when inside the first two minutes of an album you get couplets of the quality of:
“See ya later, undertaker, In a while, necrophile”
“I’m getting frazzled in the morning, So get me to the chair on time”
lobbed in almost insouciantly. But that’s one of Half Man Half Biscuit’s true wonders, to be slightly wanky about it: the sheer density and quality of the intertextual references. Already in there in song 1 we have My Fair Lady, Bill Haley, as well as all those “such a loner” tabloid headlines.
Next Up is Rogation Sunday²’s Here Again. Thankfully you don’t need an in-depth knowledge of the liturgical calendar to appreciate the song, though a nodding acquaintance with horticulture might not go amiss. and it pelts along at a fair old lick, which makes you think that’s going to be a crowd singalong favourite³.
Awkward Sean, sounds like the tale of the weird old school mate, begins with more intertextual larks: a little whistled blast of the Skye Boat Song along a couple of cheeky mentions of Haverfordwest and chemtrails. It’s immediately followed by Tess of the Dormobiles, a tale of a mismatched, but seemingly not unfondly remembered relationship, “I was Betamax, you were VHS”, he sings, with the merest hint of longing.
Grafting Haddock in the George starts almost feeling like a successor to CSI: Ambleside’s National Shite Day but again it has a faintly elegiac tone, at least at first. I don’t suppose you can get terribly Proustian with lines like , ”…it’s for the custard, dickhead.” though. There’s another one for the audience at gigs to savour. Another new feeling thing is that there are hints of brass scattered through this album. Here’s it’s some understated oompah⁴ style parping, sidling in casually towards the track’s close, almost under radar.
Big Man Up Front is an example of another type of thing that has started to crop up in Blackwell’s songs, like NOCAYCH’s The Announcement: a more serious song with a sense of mounting dread that unfolds as the song goes on. It’s a queasily uncomfortable tale of an drunk, angry man that ends in what sounds very like him killing a woman in a hit and run incident, again underpinned with slightly surprising, almost Ron Geesin inflected brass sound.
When I Look At My Baby is a cod-drunken lament for an unfaithful partner and her fascination for Richie Stevens, with his “weird uneven eyebrows, and his snidey little mouth”, indulged in the Coach and Horses. Perfect for the sniggering slurred indigation that “there was never any Garstang, and there’s no Amanda Warhurst.”
Beneath This Broken Headstone muses on all those anonymous churchyard graves filled with people with lives lived, that no one seems to visit any more.“Beneath this broken headstone there likes a broken heart”, he sings. There’s apparently a Roman phrase to describe a person’s life as being from the moment of birth through to the death of the last person with a living memory of them; I only wish I could remember its name because this song made me think of that.
Then we get to In a Suffolk Ditch. It’s nice that Nigel would like Kelvin Mackenzie (in a second hand hessian sack too) and the Poisoned Carrot himself, Nicholas Witchell, to end up in one. I approve of this message. Next comes Persian Rug Sale at the URC. At this early juncture of only hearing the album a handful times, it’s the song that leaves the least impact on me at this point, so I’ll move on.
It wouldn’t be a HMHB album without something football tinged, so we have Midnight Mass Murder, a glammy chanty stomp, mixed with Bread of Heaven, bemoaning Superdry-clad opposition fans, and part-timers. “Take your chips and fuck off home” is never bad advice.
And of course there has to be a Token Covid Song. In amongst the communal spirit and togetherness there were the inevitable social media twats, getting their Insta mugs all over the media. There’s “no show without Punch, and Lockdown Luke on the regional news”. Nicely random Dad’s Army throwaway line in there as well.
Slipping the Escort is again more downbeat, reminiscent of NOCAYCH’ s Terminus. It’s a song about decay, and growing older, nursing an ailing partner. It hints at an older woman looking after someone with dementia, most likely a husband, and the strains of the everyday travails and emotional labour of care all of that. It’s hugely touching. That reflective tone continues in the album’s closer, Oblong of Dreams which starts in a related vein, seemingly talking about a dying man’s last moments, including the all too prosaic “Janet from accounts banging on about turmeric”. It’s the longest track on the album. And contrary to the first thoughts, this turns out to be the album’s emotional centre for me. There’s something affecting about the voices singing out “clouds part, show time; cowslips and celandine” towards the song’s close. It feels like a nostalgic paean to those patches of green space where you hung around as kids if you lived on that kind of estate; it’s a contrast to the album’s title, which is a reminder of the transience of it all: the creeping age, and the aches and pains of middle-age and beyond.
As a whole, it’s an album that feels as low-key and relfective as the earlier (and wonderful) This Leaden Pall, but in a slightly different way. TLP was full of a much younger form of Weltschmerz⁵, of flat roofed pubs and benefit offices, and unemployment. This is much more about those concerns of mid-life and the fact the clock is ticking now. There are gags aplenty, and the laughs are reliably deadpan and mordant, but there are also intense moments of introspection; it’s quite bleak in places. Maybe that’s what the last couple of years have done for us all. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it; it wouldn’t be the first time, I suppose. No matter, the world is a better place for having more Half Man Half Biscuit in it, and that’s a fact. Right now, I’ll take that.
¹ So, from Four Lads Who Shook The Wirral on, which has A Country Practice, there’s usually a standout song that feels like it centres the album. CSI: Ambleside has National Shite Day, 90 Bisodol has ‘Bad Wools’, NOCAYCH has ‘Every Time a Bell Rings’.
² Fifth Sunday after Easter, apparently.
³ Hopefully to be confirmed in the flesh again at the end of April
⁴ Not mantra-filled, I hasten to add.
⁵ Yes. I know “What is this, the NME or something?” I’m a totally pretentious twat. So shoot me.