Obviously, he’s going to get slated either way – if he “keeps it real”, talking about “life on the streets, in the ghetto etc” he’s going to be badly reviewed for trying to remain in this persona which he isn’t anymore; so he writes an album about his life, just like the other two, and what does he get? Slated, for not being a “man of the people”!!
What’s important is how he tells the tales, whatever they’re about – I never listened to the Streets to connect with the people, but it’s like a good novel – his lyrics paint a picture, his music evokes the feel of the picture, it’s all about his total package.
On Hardest Way, his music has gone backwards, in theme, somehow: Original Pirate Material had tunes, had instrumentation, as well as beats (Let’s Push Things Forward is just as much about that one note blast of trumpets and keys as it is about the beat, frinstance), but A Grand… was all about the words and the story, with the barest of beats and the barest of actual tunes, which is why the few proper musical hooks stood out (Could Well Be In, Blinded By The Lights, Fit But You Know It).
So where do we stand? It a lot more musical – there are keyboards, guitars, horns, strings, and more complex beats, which serve to make the sound richer and fuller. The lyrics, yes, are all about celebrity culture (Memento Mori, probably the best song around about being a celebrity – it’s wry, not whingey or celebratory – pretty much the definition of The Streets), and is also a portrait of Skinner, it’s still about the man himself; the spread betting stories and the sex/drugs scandals are all spelled out here. By the way, I started writing this at around track three, so it’s all a bit sketchy, right now.
The opening salvo of Prangin’ Out (cocaine term, so I hear), and War Of The Sexes, push us into Original Pirate Material territory, sonically, with the latter advice to his future son about women (probably some of the best advice ever recorded about flirting, in the popular music genre). The title track, a reasonably subdued one, in the context, details how expensive it is to actually make a record like this – still, it leads to kind of wealth detailed on Memento Mori, so it can’t be that bad. All Goes Out The Window, a song which I couldn’t really follow, is, to my mind, the weakest track so far (and on editing, the weakest track of the whole album, I feel – it’s just not memorable at all.) (Ed – It’s actually bloody good, but more of a grower than the rest of the album, it takes a hell of a long time to comfortably fit in with the vibe; in that respect, it’s much like Could Well Be In, or Wouldn’t Have It Any Other Way, both on A Grand…)
I’m currently halfway through, and about to listen to the single, When You Wasn’t Famous. Unlike Fit But You Know It, it wasn’t released so far ahead of the album that it sounded so familiar that you didn’t quite feel it fitted. This is just like the preceding 5 tracks, in it’s general feel, with the extra vocals, the guests from his label, his improved beats (which I feel lift this from Grand…).
At under 40 minutes, it’s a very short album, more garage rock than garage – I think the tightness suits this kind of music, as sprawl can only work with a concept: Original Pirate Material was as long as it could be without getting boring, and Grand… was long as it had to be.
Never Went To Church opens with probably his best line ever – “Europe’s two greatest narcotics: alcohol and Christianity. I know which one I prefer.” About the death of his father, it’s a great song, Dry Your Eyes-esque, but a bit less syrupy, which makes it even more hard-hitting, the simplicity of saying “I miss you, Dad” is truly affecting. Regrets about not going to Church mix with his cynicism, his doubts about religion and deities and whether it’s all a good idea.
Hotel Expressionism reminds me of Too Much Brandy, with the hilarious posh intro, the way the music rolls out, and it also has vocals from the Mitchell Brothers, a sort of lesser version of the Streets, one of whom (I think) appears on What Is He Thinking, back on Grand…. By placing the big ballad a bit earlier in the running order, more like a rock album, it feels like the end of the album is building up to another plane, unlike the conclusion you could feel was imminent after Dry Your Eyes.
Two Nations is his comment on the cultural divide between the UK and the US, especially their knack for “killing off” their best stars (like Biggie and Pac). It’s a wry look at how British artists try and make it in America, and the main difference is the language (“we were the ones who invented the language”) – as a Brit, with a love hate relationship with US culture, it’s a great comment on how a lot of people feel.
Finishing up with Fake Streets Hats (his weirdest song title?), a sample of crowd noise leads into some very odd ideas (spoken interludes of “He’s got fucking moisturiser on his face” etc). It’s all about his tirade at an audience for wearing what he thought was fake merchandise. Like I said it’s a very odd way to end it off, but as a coda to the comment of Two Nations, and as a summation of the paranoia he expresses throughout the album, I suppose it works, although, as a song, it’s one of my favourites.
Once again, Skinner has pulled off a coup – he’s made a realistic album, about the most unrealistic of lives, that of the celebrity. At least his celebrity is of the old fashioned kind: his talent and his art have made him popular and successful, and he is describing the crazy world in which that has catapulted him.