A Grand Don’t Come For Free
he second album from The Streets starts with a fanfare that gets quickly muddied by a clumsy drumbeat and Mike Skinner’s in-need-of-a-throat-lozenge voice, his Brummie accent finally coming through the Cockney lilt as he monotones something about achieving absolutely nowt; about forgetting a DVD; about the battery on his phone going dead; about the cash machine proclaiming ‘insufficient funds’; about losing a grand that he was sure was in a shoebox or on a mantelpiece or something. Two years ago on “Let’s Push Things Forward” Skinner claimed he made “bangers / not anthems”. “It Was Supposed To be So Easy” is neither; it’s an opening scene, an introduction to a story, the start of a post-garage, 20-something romantic tragic-comedy that owes more to Mike Leigh than two-step. Mike Skinner has cleverly, and possibly vaingloriously, sidestepped the difficulty of making a worthy follow-up to the astonishing, genre-busting dance elegy of his debut, Original Pirate Material, by changing the game completely, by not making a ‘normal’ album, by stringing a simple but compelling and well-observed narrative through eleven tracks so that, even if the individual songs don’t match up to any of the standout moments of his previous work, the cumulative affect is exceptional, powerful, and pretty much unprecedented in pop music.
The much-vaunted storyline is simple and full of holes; Skinner has admitted leaving out various details that would plug the narrative gaps because they made tracks overlong, and also, one suspects, because the exactitudes of the plot are less important than the melodies, the beats and the minutiae of the lyrical twists that he drops throughout every song. So precisely why the misplaced grand is in the shoebox in the first place pales into insignificance next to the delicately naïve chorus of “Could Well Be In”, where lyrics about a dating programme on ITV are underscored with a tiny, broken string melody and piano, pushing the trite (pathetic, even) into the realm of the affecting by eschewing pretension in favour of disarming honesty.
And so A Grand Don’t Come For Free guides us through what Mike Skinner’s life might be like if he was in a different, less fortunate and talented situation, documenting an existence wasted through gambling, clubbing and easy emotional atrophy. The reliance of the songs on the narrative that links them is such that, the Blur-esque “Fit But You Know It” aside, there are no obvious singles on first listen. Familiarity reveals though, that while there isn’t a “Weak Become Heroes” or “Has It Come To This” here, maybe half the tracks could stand alone even if none of them will be filling floors anywhere. In fact the only song to deal explicitly with Skinner’s beloved dance culture, the extraordinary “Blinded By The Light”, is such an uncomfortable and accurate evocation of an (unpleasant) ecstasy experience, from arriving at the club and dropping a pill (“ah that’s proper rank / that tastes like hairspray”) to the eventual rush of coming up (“I think I’m gonna fall down… that one noise is like… oh who cares… I’m mashed… this is fucking amazing…”), that you can’t imagine people wanting to listen to it that often, let alone dance to it.
We know that Skinner is sharp and strangely beguiling, his almost dissonant, anti-song voice cringe worthy and off-putting but so natural and honest (despite its clear affectation) and different that it’s hard to resist, even if at times his delivery is so deliberately stilted and broken that it almost seems like sabotage on his part. The frustration and pain in his voice as the signal cuts out during the mobile phone confessional of “Such A Twat” (“ah fucking phones, man!”) is as universal as the ominous string patterns and paranoid whisperings about his girlfriend’s philandering in “What Is He Thinking”. His ability to match words and music in order to achieve a level of dramatic irony or catharsis is unequalled, from the thoughtlessly comfortable emotional alacrity of “I Wouldn’t Have It Any Other Way” to the confused defensive of “Get Out Of My House”; whether he’s dropping jokes or scathing remarks about femme fatales (“I like her, d’ya know what I mean? I’m never gonna meet her”) he continually creates moments so delicious or affecting that they’ll stick with you for an age. The refracted repetition of certain moments adds another level of pathos, the “I think I’m going to fall over” line played for drunken laughs in “Fit But You Know It” and disconcerting headfuck in “Blinded By The Light”, two sides to every moment of every tale.
Like any story the momentum slowly builds to a climax, in this case the emotionally bare “Dry Your Eyes”, where a requiem of strings gives way to a sparse acoustic strum and Skinner’s lachrymose plea for a reconciliation, the too-familiar clichés of the chorus ringing truer than you could possibly imagine. And then, like any story, there is the denouement, what happens next and what might happen after that. “Empty Cans” comes in two alternate parts, bitter and beaten (“everyone’s a cunt in this life / no one’s there for me”) vs. bruised and hopeful (“something that was not meant to be is done / and this is the start of what was”), Skinner at first damned by his own failings and then redeemed by them, with the aid of a friend and a little good fortune. As strings and pianos slowly rise through the tune after it’s rewound itself in order to start again, and more positively, altering the mood magnificently, it develops the power to make (physically, if not emotionally) grown men weep in public. Like the whole album it’s flawed and clumsy, but it packs an amount of emotional clout that can’t be denied. It’s not perfect, but somehow… it is. Mike Skinner’s taken a big risk in doing this, but he’s found the bizarre and beautiful meeting point of The Specials, Danny Rampling and Serge Gainsbourg. A Grand Don’t Come For Free is a remarkable record.
STYLUSMAGAZINE.COM'S ALBUM OF THE WEEK - MAY 9 - MAY 15, 2004