There are plenty of references to crossroads in the history of popular music. However, when the location in question is not the place to sell your soul but a motel in the suburbs of Birmingham, it is probably safe to assume that you have arrived in Half Man Half Biscuit territory.
There are those who would have you believe that Nigel Blackwell and his band share a frivolous area of the woods with The Rutles, Tenacious D and a thousand Free Fringe undergraduates who all want to be Tim Minchin but are actually destined to be Tim Lovejoy. If a quarter century of clever, idiosyncratic, deadpan songs has not been enough to convince you that such thoughts are some way wide of the mark, then a couple of listens to 90 Bisodol (Crimond), their obliquely-titled new album, might just do the trick.
It's true, the pillars of any Half Man Half Biscuit record – middle class comfort blankets, urbane British towns, po-faced musicians, a cast of pop culture also-rans – are still in place, although the songs they punctuate, every one dense with detail, are of the hue you might not expect from any group labelled a 'comedy band'. Varying forms of mental illness, the difficulties involved in disposing of a corpse, multiple suicide attempts, near-necrophilia, the sabotage of a wedding banquet – hardly the stuff of comedic gold, but all present here. Those hoping for jaunty tunes about snooker referees should leave their pre-conceptions at the door.
Musically, 90 Bisodol (Crimond) finds Half Man Half Biscuit at their most accomplished for the longest sustained period in their lineage. They have always written catchy post-punk dashes and tuneful folk-tinged songs, but not with this consistency and not with this elegance. 'Fix It So She Dreams Of Me' is built on a particularly lovely piece of Byrdsian melody and the strings and vocal harmonies on 'RSVP' add further wist to a wedding day lament full of well-observed couplets ('Not least 'cos John Byrne is much fitter, And the straightener to him holds no fears, So if the chocolate in the fountain tastes bitter, It's because it's been laced with my tears.') 'Descent of the Stiperstones', meanwhile, is backed by waling hammond organ and the typically muscular bass guitar of Neil Crossley.
Which is not to say that that Blackwell's lyrics are no longer the star attraction here – they remain wry, relevant and endlessly quotable. 'Tommy Walsh's Eco House' is a cut-up style assault on the attention span, containing in two-and-a-half minutes more ideas than an entire series of Dragon's Den. 'The Coroner's Footnote' is a finely-spun tale of despair and inconvenience, while 'Fun Day in the Park', the album's one and only throwaway track, is elevated by Blackwell's mischievous wordplay ('Soft play area with free bananas, Iguana Andy and his iguanas.')
It is the set-piece curios and the-state-we're-in songs that make Half Man Half Biscuit such a unique proposition and for 90 Bisodol (Crimond) this means 'Descent of the Stiperstones' and 'Rock and Roll is Full of Bad Wools', placed handily at the very middle and very end of the record. The former recounts a chance meeting with a rapidly-unravelling former soap actress in a chandler's store and ends with a Chris Morris-esque litany of unlikely items on show ('a pair of polo-necked jeans, a jar of language pills, a jigsaw of Nazi war criminals, post-apocalyptic Allen keys.') 'Rock and Roll is Full of Bad Wools', with its self-reflexive title and air of irate incredulity, targets the complacent and shoddy alliance of football, musicians and television. And emerges much the better.
When all around them is bland and invariably thicker than suet, it is invigorating to know that Half Man Half Biscuit are still prepared to take the path less trodden. If only everything in life moved with the times this gracefully.