In a provincial shopping park – it doesn’t matter where, it could be anywhere that B&Q, Halfords and Comet have chosen to congregate in one formation or another – a modded Escort Mk IV (with the ‘Escort’ logo rearranged so that it reads ‘sorted’) sits in the car park, its bodykit rattling in time to the hip-hop beats emanating from the bass bin that occupies most of the boot. The engine is revved and the reverse lights come on. Then a new track comes on, and so the occupants wait a while. The driver, a young man in a baseball cap, looks at his girlfriend. They nod with approval and wait until the track finishes before driving off. The track is ‘Fit But You Know It’, the first single from ‘A Grand Don’t Come For Free’. An Audi TT driver pulls into the vacant space and tuts derisorily at its previous occupants.
Here we are in 2004 in a society as divided, under a Labour government, as it was under the Conservative rule of Thatcher and Major. The casual snobbery of the late-1980s – when champagne-quaffing hoorays would shout “peasants” or “townies” at Kappa-clad pedestrians from the windows of their Suzuki Vitaras and Porsche 944s – is back in all its nastiness (and if you don’t believe that, check out chavscum.co.uk). The divisions today, however, are less clear-cut. It’s not a north/south divide, it’s a tale of two hot sandwiches: a Zinger Tower Burger or seared tuna on sundried tomato ciabatta? It’s about the divide between living in a highbrow fantasy land or what Skinner calls “normal England”.
Mike Skinner, the man who is [a]The Streets[/a], bridges the north/south divide and looks down on this England with the wisdom of someone who’s experienced the urban and suburban, the provincial and the cosmopolitan. Born in London, raised in Birmingham and now back in the smoke, his Cockney-Brummie hybrid delivery ends up sounding for all the world like it’s from the East Midlands.
Back in 2002 ‘Original Pirate Material’, [a]The Streets[/a]’ debut, was a phenomenon. Admired by the kids, lauded by the sillier broadsheet critics who compared Skinner to Philip Larkin and William Blake, it motivated dozens of bedroom studio imitators to lay off the spliff for 30 seconds and do it for themselves. Now, in the wake of [a]Dizzee Rascal[/a]’s Mercury win, the pressure is on for Mike Skinner to produce the magnum opus of the genre they call ‘not-really-rapping-just-sort-of-talking-about-shit-over-some-beat-or-other’. And he not-really-raps-just-sort-of-talks-about-shit like a good’un.
It’s a not-so-difficult second album. ‘A Grand Don’t Come For Free’ isn’t a rap odyssey fusing Prokofiev with free jazz, dancing bears and the works of Proust on ice. It’s ‘Original Pirate Material’ part two. But better. A sorry, but occasionally celebratory, life-in-an-album tale of a stoned loser called Mike, his broken TV, and the mystery of a missing £1,000. You could call it a “concept album” but that would suggest some eyebrow-raising arty agenda. But this is a story, not some attempt for Skinner to portray himself as an intellectual giant to his cowering, mortal fans.
On first listen, ‘Fit But You Know It’ is the obvious single. Nothing else is as immediate as ‘Don’t Mug Yourself’ or ‘Weak Become Heroes’ from his debut. A great first single, it takes a guitar chug and a boozy rant and combines them to joyous effect. Close your eyes, put four moptops in suits in the picture, and you could easily imagine it as an early Beatles song. It captures the naivety of tunes like ‘She Loves You’ or ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ but transplants it to an era when ‘innocent’ means not yet having your brown wings.
Repeated listens reap rewards. Skinner’s vocals are so high up in the mix that it’s easy to forget there’s some music underneath. And he certainly hides his thingy under a whatsit. He plays with a broader musical palette than the just-thrown-together feel suggests: from the Hammer horror strings and brass stabs of ‘What Is He Thinking’ and the acoustic guitar on the beautiful heartbreak-balm of ‘Dry Your Eyes’ to the sweet soul vocals that punctuate the tale of sofa-bound inertia that is ‘I Wouldn’t Have It Any Other Way’, where the lyric “The ashtray needs emptying and the Clipper needs a shake” is delivered with the kind of heartfelt conviction usually reserved for love songs.
Album opener ‘It Was Supposed To Be So Easy’ is an everyday tale of taking a DVD back to the shop, only to find the disc’s still back at home and then queuing for ages at a cash machine only to find you have insufficient funds. It’s a mundane epic, the everyday drama elevated with a flourish of horns and a lolloping beat.
Just as happy tackling more serious social issues as he is with everyday minutiae, Skinner takes on gambling addiction (how un-rock’n’roll: not heroin, not cocaine, but gambling) on ‘Not Addicted’. His hapless narrator sings “I don’t the first thing about football/But my instincts tell me this is my windfall” over an ominous bassline.
Some critics have compared the music of [a]The Streets[/a] to the films of Ken Loach, a director who has made a career out of selling working-class misery as a form of redemption for middle-class viewers. But what makes humans human is our ability to triumph over adversity. The humour within everyday life (the reason why Coronation Street will always be better than EastEnders, no arguments at the back) is apparent within Skinner’s craft. It’s happened to all of us. “Yeah, I think we got cut off/Yeah, I got crap reception in my house/I have to stand in a certain spot in my kitchen or it cuts out”, as Skinner not-really-raps-just-sort of talks on ‘Such A Twat’, a mobile phone-call confession of the holiday infidelity of ‘Fit But You Know It’.
But comparisons with drama aren’t too far off the mark. ‘Get Out Of My House’ is as much an audio drama as it is a song. A thrilling argument between girlfriend and boyfriend, Skinner reveals with a dramatist’s cunning that Mike’s contentious stash of pills isn’t ecstasy but medication for his epilepsy.
The epic ‘Empty Cans’ closes the album with hair-raising effect. Mike, hating himself and blaming the world for his problems, sits in a lounge full of empty cans of Tennents Super. He’s angry and snarling. Then a rewind and a reflection: the revelation that he has the power to change the situation. In come the pianos. The anger becomes celebration. He can get the television fixed. Hell, he might even solve who nicked the missing grand, but we can’t tell you if he does or not because that’d be like revealing that the twist in Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap is the policeman did it.
‘A Grand Don’t Come For Free’ is proof that ‘Original Pirate Material’ wasn’t a happy fluke. It doesn’s matter if continued success distances Skinner from ‘the streets’. His talent is as an observer, a chronicler, and – oh bollocks, the broadsheets were right – a poet. In his wry commentary, Skinner proves far more effective than any doomsayer. In normal England, life’s (a little bit) shit. And don’t we know it?