Album review: Half Man Half Biscuit – Urge for Offal for the Quietus

Urge for Offal cover art
If Half Man Half Biscuit did not exist, it would be imperative to invent them. Since their formation nearly 30 years ago, their presence has been a necessity. In essence the vehicle for the observations, ramblings and creations of frontman Nigel Blackwell, they are a counterblast to the processes of modern life. Throughout changing times they have spanned the decades, released 12 full-length albums and dropped a thousand-and-one pop culture references; from BBC Radio’s Charles Nove to former England cricketer Fred Titmus.

Their approach to promoting their music is famously non-existent – a handful of UK gigs each year is normal. Even rarer are interviews of any kind. Blackwell himself states his biggest achievement, as “creating a situation for myself whereby I can get up of a morning and decide to go and tackle Bwlch Pen Barras on the bike, […] rather than report to a superior to await orders”. Their existence is somehow outside of the modern world, yet also a reaction to it. Merely by continuing to release and perform, Half Man Half Biscuit serve a greater purpose – to rally against the crap that life throws up with a wry smile, and also to take joy in life’s small and simple pleasures.

Perhaps the least surprising thing about their thirteenth album is the lack of surprises. Urge For Offal does not represent a new or even vaguely modified HMHB. Nor are there any unexpected turns or diversions of musical style. I’d bet a vast sum that nobody still listening at this point really cares about that, though. Musically, things continue where 2011’s 90 Bisodol (Crimond) left us. It is fundamentally rocky and occasionally loud, with prominent bass aplenty. There are almost all of the elements you would expect to find in a HMHB album. Various football references, the odd improbably surreal yarn, and some mentions of cycling, too.

Although you would be hard pressed to label any of their work as bona-fide “love songs”, they do exist. These romantic tales are usually full of sardonic wit and there are a few opportunities here to revel in Blackwell’s skill in making the genuinely tragically romantic appear comical. ‘My Outstretched Arms’ is the prime example of this. Similarly, ‘The Unfortunate Gwatkin’ is one more to add to the numerous off-kilter spoken-word tales, whilst ‘Stuck Up A Hornbeam’ is a jolly guitar-led 12-bar blues jaunt with a peppering of the aforementioned pop culture references.

There have always been lessons to be learned from Blackwell’s timeless wit and wisdom. Some remain relevant after all these years. For views on pedestrian etiquette, see ‘National Shite Day’ and ‘L’enfer C’est Les Autres’. For a creepily accurate character assassination of Jimmy Savile see ‘I Left My Heart In Papworth General’, released all the way back in 1985. A few pearls can be found in these 13 tracks, too. The stand-out line this time is the following from ‘This One’s For Now’: “The greatest surface under foot is springy turf / Why does the winner of Mr Universe always come from earth?”. There are too many challengers to mention many more.

Going through their career in a box – incorrectly – labelled “comedy” has meant that HMHB have been often misunderstood and under-appreciated. There are, naturally, comedic elements but this is far from music for the sake of laughs and the humour is almost always dark. Satire is a strong word, but what they practice is, in a way, a satirical look at life – of the everyday, the mundane, mildly irritating and outright absurd. Though Urge For Offal may feel a bit like Half Man Half Biscuit by-numbers, it acts as a reminder of what they represent. And that is something that be celebrated, albeit quietly.

Originally published on the Quietus, November 2014.