Published Jan 01, 2006Along with "comeback album" and "with accompaniment from the London Philharmonic Orchestra," the words "concept album" generally do a pretty good job of deterring anyone from buying your record. The concept album saw an already bloated Yes explode with self-importance in the mid-70s, and it made Gabriel-fronted Genesis, well, Gabriel-fronted Genesis. But can we ever truly be rid of the concept album? Thankfully not, as Mike Skinner (aka the Streets) proves with his new disc A Grand Don't Come for Free which, startlingly, is set to become the most essential and accomplished album of the year.
"I wasn't really thinking concept album, I was just thinking a group of songs all linking together. It just ended up how it was," the thoughtful 24-year-old Skinner says. "It is fictional. But when I hear it back, it is bits of my life rearranged. I don't think I could write about it if it hadn't happened to me."
It's a rather spare tale of finding out who your friends are, falling in and out of love and the horrible bout of acrimony that follows, but in the grand British narrative tradition, it's not the plot that does the work, it's the details. As evinced on the Streets' Mercury Prize-nominated 2002 debut, Original Pirate Material, Skinner is the champion of the geezer, a conduit of the quotidian who unabashedly documents the mundane hurdles that keep us from profound achievements such as, say, getting out of bed or returning a DVD rental.
Concurrently, many of Skinner's rhymes seem like brilliant exercises in blame-avoidance; the kind of ignorant devolvement of culpability that we're all guilty of. On his girlfriend: "It's you that's being selfish / It's you that don't give a shit." On betting: "He's not addicted / he can stop anytime." On drinking, "Can you rely on anyone in this world? No you can't / It's not my fault there's wall-to-wall cans." What renders this perspicacity even more salient is that Skinner manages to do it while making all of the right noises.
The spinning ashtrays, peeled beer bottle labels and shoddy cell-phone reception that fill his tracks come over life threatening bass-lines and intricately arranged melodies that can have you dancing and crying at a turn. His voice changes from sickly to lachrymose to downright angry, setting a near-cinematic ambience for each song. What all of this amounts to is Skinner capturing the pulse of Britain's youth and, in an allusion to his name, it sounds like he knows it.
"I think in England I do represent the streets," he said. "And I don't mean the grimy streets, I mean the streets that 26 million people in England walk down each day."
This despite the fact that Skinner grew up in Birmingham, which he describes as "hard" and "violent" saying the things that saved him from crime were "good parents and music."
While you'd be hard pressed to find evidence that he had good parents on A Grand Don't Come for Free, it is obvious that Skinner paid obsessive attention to music. Apart from programming otherworldly drums and synths on the album, he played guitar on "Fit But You Know It," the barmy first single about holiday infidelity and on "Dry Your Eyes," a painfully intimate look at a relationship's end. Luckily for other artists, Skinner is keen to lend out his production talents in the future.
"I'm concentrating on the grime scene [made famous by artists like Dizzee Rascal and Wiley] in England at the moment. Hopefully I'm going to be working with a lot of people coming out of that scene, producing or whatever, just to get involved."