Given the hip hop and garage genres that so influenced The Streets debut – the title of the second A Grand Don't Come For Free seems in keeping with their ostentatious displays of wealth and avarice. However, for those of you familiar with Original Pirate Material the cover of this album alone (Mike standing alone in a battered bus shelter) should be enough to convince you that with this follow up Mr. Skinner has not disappeared into a celebrity world of limousines, bitches and Crystal. Instead he has decided to stick to the winning formula that made his name – a charismatic, witty social commentary told in the first person.
So how does Mike Skinner follow the success Original Pirate Material, especially with the huge level of expectation from fans and critic alike? Surprisingly, using a staple of self indulgent rock stars whose creative juices are fast drying up – with a concept album. It's an ambitious project especially for the notoriously 'difficult' second album. However he manages to avoid the pratfalls and pulls off a pop album with real emotional depth.
Although not attempting to make a grand artistic statement musically in the way some concept albums do, what we do get is a much wider palette both musically and lyrically. Skinner has certainly broadened his sphere of influences, from the 70's glam rock of Fit but you know it to the string laden melody of Dry your eyes.
However it's lyrically Skinner makes the greatest leap. Whether possessing a greater confidence in his own voice or just grown tired of aping others, he is now less likely to rely on pre-packaged vernacular of the garage scene to deliver the message. More interestingly and maybe it's because he's playing a role (this is a concept album after all) Skinner is able to expose vulnerability in a way most men are unwilling or unable to do, while still making rhymes and rhythms from almost anything. It's especially surprising considering the testosterone fuelled genre that this album exists in. Try imagining So Solid Crew singing Dry Your Eyes.
The album charts the genesis and eventual break up of a relationship as told by the main protagonist Mike, with a sub plot concerning the disappearance of a grand of his savings. Whether based on past experiences or not Skinner is able to draw the listener into his world.
It opens with It Was supposed to be so easy setting the scene with our hero so down on his luck, he is unable to even return a dvd, make a call from his mobile or withdraw any money from a cash machine. He realises that “Today I have achieved absolutely nowt”. Even worse is to follow when he finds out “the savings” have gone missing from his house. It's a vivid portrayal of a geezer trying to make the most of things while living at the wrong end of Blair's Britain.
The mood elevates with Could Well Be In as our hero meets Simone. Over a slowly rising piano hook Mike realises that she is “not to bored with what I was saying” and 'playing her hair regularly' (a cue that women are interested that he saw on a TV documentary), so he's in with a shout with her.
“I Told her I though it was important, that you could get lost in conversationChatting shit, sitting in, oblivion, with that person who's your special one”.
Despite his internal dialogue sharing some crass thoughts, it's obvious what Mike is really enjoying is the unexpected chemistry.
Next track Not Addicted sees our hero protesting his ability to take or leave the temptations of gambling while simultaneously losing his shirt on a football game. However it all seems a little out of synch with the rest of the album, being somewhat irrelevant to the main story except perhaps to teach our hero another valuable lesson about money.
”I need to rethink the technique of my betting shitChange the parameters a little bitInstead of betting to win the footballI'll bet to lose the cricket”.
In Blinded By The Light Skinner goes electronic on us. Its dark pulsing is perfectly appropriate as it charts the disorientation of a narcoticaly fuelled night of clubbing – imagine the musical equivalent of the drunken bar scene from Mean Streets. After sneaking a bag of pills into a club, Mike's mates Dan and Simone fail to turn up. He gets increasingly paranoid at their absence, that is until the drugs kick in, after which point Mike's concerns disappear in a loved up haze.
It's followed by Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way, possibly the album's finest moment. It's an obvious single contender if it wasn't for the numerous drug references making it so radio unfriendly. The bouncy piano loop is at odds with the inertia gripping Mike as he sits monged out in front of the TV at his girl's place. He's so content in this waster lifestyle you know trouble with Simone can only be around the corner. The ending is hilarious where the spliff material littering the room is listed in an OTT soul style like Boyz to Men.
“I got one packet of Rizla over there but it's nearly run outI got bits of cigarette all over the placeThe ash tray need emptying, the clipper needs a shake but I wouldn't have it any other way”.