So Mike Skinner has traded his bus pass for a Rolls, the city nightlife for the country. We get it. But is there anyone you’d less rather see living the good life? After crafting the perfect everyman persona for himself, Skinner has screwed up big by playing the fame card. You can’t blame him, really; as countless stars before him have seen, writing about normal stuff becomes increasingly hard when you get shuttled to and from every event and you can’t go anywhere without being noticed. It’s all the more weird for us Yankees, who — aside from some Internet love and some mild M2 play for his videos — have yet to experience Skinner as a true star.
But it’s not all bad for the Streets, who still demonstrates his talent on this wildly uneven third LP. “Pranging Out” demonstrates a lot of what gave him notoriety in the first place, with big, brittle beats that sound slightly off, simple yet unrecognizable. It’s a killer track, as is the title track. (It’s about making music; get it?) But lyrically, both have been done before in far superior forms, and by moving away ever-so-slightly from his man-of-the-people persona (okay, maybe he’s just doing regular-guy-makes-it-big, but I don’t know many who have), he just comes off as, well, average. Songs such as “The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living” make the Ray Davies comparisons that have been tossed at him before all the stronger, only listening to “Top of the Pops” or “The Moneygoround” (which, mind you, come after the everyman union anthem “Back in the Line”) inevitably puts Skinner in a bad light.
Maybe the only fame-themed song that really succeeds on the record is the single “When You Wasn’t Famous,” which uses Skinner’s catchiest sing-song melodies to slowly claw away at any resistance until all that’s left is a bare mind, victim to its guilt-inducing pleasure. It’s certainly not “Hotel Expressionism,” which ends up annoying instead of satirical, or “Fake Street Hats,” an odd concoction of live recordings that ends the record on a dull note.
The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living is not a concept record, though, and not every song here is about fame. “War of the Sexes,” which is juvenile and awful, and “All Goes Out the Window,” which boasts what is probably Skinner’s best lyrical performance on the record, are vaguely similar to better songs on A Grand Don’t Come For Free and don’t hold up in the comparison. Too often during the record Skinner relies on the melodies of his beats to connect his lyrics to the music; gone is the awkward talk-rapping style that made him so successful in the first place, and in its place is the previously sparingly used half-singing, which works in moderation but gets old too quickly after even eleven songs.
Rounding out the record are “Memento Mori” and “Can’t Con an Honest Jon,” which both suffer from weak melodies; “Never Went to Church,” which is redeeming and intelligent but cannot approach Skinner’s best emotional work; and “Two Nations.” The latter track is fairly successful and definitely amusing, with his sly dig at American culture: “But the differences in language/ are just the bits you got wrong/ ’cause we are the ones who invented the language.” Thanks, Mike, but guess who invented rock ‘n’ roll and hip-hop?
With about half the tracks on this record falling short, Skinner would seem to be teetering on the edge of irrelevance. But even the failed tracks here sound interesting, and if he’s lost his way somewhat thematically, it’s all in the name of searching for his new voice. The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living, then, is the appropriately titled quest for that voice, and though it doesn’t end in success, it’s still worth hanging on until he gets it right.
Prefix review: The Streets [Original Pirate Material]
Prefix review: The Streets [All Got Our Runnins]