As I was sitting in the Pineapple prior to Half Man Half Biscuit last October, I realised there’s a generation gap between me and Mark Hibbett. Not in the general sense: if a generation is 30 years, then the gap is anything beyond 15 years either side, and much as I enjoy reminding Mark how much younger I am than him… I’m not that much younger. It’s a musical generation gap: Mark remembers indie in the 1980s, before Britpop. He knows people who once had a pint in Sheffield with Jarvis Cocker, when he was just some lanky guy managing dodgy bands in Sheffield when his own band wasn’t doing anything. It probably seems the most natural thing in the world to Mark.
This is a significant thing: there’s all manner of jangly 80s indie bands of which I’m barely aware. Only the Smiths have really stood the test of time. To people now in their twenties (sorry Mark), the impact of Suede’s first album in the dog days of Kingmaker and Mega City Four can’t really be comprehended – at least, when I finally heard it post-Britpop, it seemed like old hat to me.
So, context is everything. An important item of context for MJ Hibbett’s fourth album with the Validators – Regardez, Ecoutez et Repetez (from now on: RER) – is that producer (and drummer) Tim Pattison is also of the pre-Britpop era; indeed, he’s a massive fan of the Fall and Half Man Half Biscuit, and is ex of Prolapse. With all of this in mind, it’s maybe not surprising that RER sounds decidedly 80s much of the time. There is probably more distorted guitar than on any Validators record to date: a dense sound that’s a beefier version of what you’d find on many an 80s indie record.
It feels odd to be talking about an MJ Hibbett record in terms of the sound first, rather than the songs. But the songs are pretty much a constant these days. They are, as ever, acute, true, sometimes touching, often funny, and above all, VALID. Song titles like We’re Old and We’re Tired (and we want to go home) and Being Happy Doesn’t Make You Stupid give you the gist.
I said of this record’s predecessor, We Validate! that it was, “less an album, more a manual for life,” and much the same goes here. We Validate! featured the Validators playing with an impressive and coherent group sound for the first time, perhaps because it was recorded in less of a piecemeal fashion than the first two records. So I was slightly surprised to hear Mark suggest that the second album, This Is Not A Library (TINAL) remained his favourite (prior to this one), in preference to We Validate! I have a bit of a theory about this, actually. TINAL’s signature track, Easily Impressed, seems to me to be the first of Mark’s “here’s a good idea for how to live life” songs, which are his best. It has been followed by many more. The album overall was a mix of these and some of the more introspective or observational songs heard on his debut, Say It With Words. Perhaps it’s this, and the drawn-out recording sessions in Leicester, that lead Mark to prefer This Is Not A Library over We Valdate!; but for my money, We Validate! saw the blossoming of the post-Easily Impressed Hibbett, being a suite of the more reflective songs, and was all the more satisfying for it.
Another contrast between latterday Hibbett and earlier records is that Mark seems in much more confident voice on record these days: this must be a product of being in a recording studio, as the largely home-recorded All Around My House and A Million Ukeleles seemed to feature rather more quiet vocals, more like the performances on Say It With Words.
Mark’s confident vocals, plus the coherence of the sound brought by Producer Tim, carry this set of songs extremely well. My favourite moments include the unconventional arrangement of Do More, Eat Less (also a particularly brilliant lyric, with Mark using weight loss as a metaphor for taking responsibility for one’s fate, of which, oddly, Margaret Thatcher would probably approve) and the classic pop arrangement of My Boss Was In An Indie Band Once, which comes out sounding like Breakaway. The sonorous yet jangly guitar of Leicester’s Trying To Tell Me Something, as well as Emma’s floaty vocals sound particularly early ’90s, even verging on – dare I say? – shoegazing… I do wonder if the everything-including-the-kitchen-sink backing doesn’t occasionally compete with the songs a bit – All the Good Men in particular seemed to work even better in Totally Acoustic mode to me.
It’s shaping up to be a busy year for Mark: even now he is writing his one-man rock opera (sic) for this year’s Edinburgh Festival, and I’m looking forward to that immensely. I hope it doesn’t overshadow Regardez, Ecoutez et Repetez, however, as it is BLOODY GRATE and you should buy it.