Mike Skinner just won’t shut the fuck up. You’d think that after conquering drug abuse (now demoted from drug abuser to simply drug user), having a childhood friend expose him as a phony, getting over the girl at the gates, getting over the girl who was whoring it up with Dan, losing a small fortune and then finding it inside his T.V., and becoming a darling here in the States and downright hero back home, Skinner would finally look at his ATM receipt (insufficient funds no longer) and finally smile. No dice.
Playing the tortured celebrity is a tough sell—you can complain all you want, but we normal folk find it hard to believe that the more money you come across the more problems you see. At least Biggie had some perspective; he really did come from nothing. Skinner, however, has had his legitimacy questioned from the very beginning of attention thrown at Original Pirate Material. Oddly, the typically cynical music media wasn’t the source—a friend of Skinner’s prepared a lengthy written rant exposing lots of tidbits on his personal life that would’ve probably been embarrassing had it not consisted of mostly high-school gossip material like the ugly shirt Mike used to wear out to clubs. Music critics fell in love with Pirate‘s obsession with dingy British urban life and its dangers, whether the words were born of experience or passive observation didn’t seem to enter into the equation. We’ve had lots of experience hearing people complain about their shitty upbringings, so that didn’t bother anyone in particular. And besides, no one had expressed their hardships like that. You know, like that. We even gave Skinner a second pass—in fact, called him a genius—when he spent the entirety of A Grand Don’t Come For Free spilling his heart amidst a pile of empty cans. We’ve all had our hearts stomped on, and there was still that way of storytelling and delivery that made his first album so enthralling. But, really, what would Skinner complain about on his third album? I hoped he’d find something.
See, unlike other famous whiners, Skinner’s got a way of juxtaposing his misery with a wry sense of humor. After all, he set us up for a majority of Grand to stand firmly by his side before hypocritically pursuing some other chica on holiday. This type of comic constant relief and self-deprecating humor keeps The Streets material from being a total fucking bummer, and serves to emphasize the few times he really does want to stop and get sentimental. In the history of American pop culture we’ve had our fair share of gloomsters, but Skinner’s perennial sourpuss is similar to Woody Allen’s in particular—Allen could cause a rousing laugh with the simplest of expressions (specifically, his normal one, which is too pathetic not to laugh at). Skinner doesn’t have the advantage of employing visuals, but has done an excellent job so far of providing as vivid an imagery as his medium will allow—working laughs by presenting Skinner’s constant failures in complete detail. The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living avoids this method in favor of a more generalized style of lyricism.
I’ll stop short of deifying Skinner for the detail of his past accounts and crafty story-telling, but the one-man show approaches songwriting in a unique sense. And though the original hip-hop label slapped upon him was quickly dismissed in favor of U.K. garage and two-step (terms that the production certainly agrees with), the vocal arrhythmia so undeniably his disagrees with club-goers of any locale.
It’s one thing to be a famous musician playing the tortured everyman on record, Skinner’s formula through two albums. Easy Living cuts the thin veil that separated the fictional and non- Skinner and finds him spending 11 tracks bitching about what it’s like having two great albums under your belt and global adoration. Even this might be a little too much to bear. He’s got the same unmistakable voice, thankfully, but let’s be honest—we’ve given him the benefit of the doubt knowing that there wasn’t very much keeping Skinner from over-indulging and tainting his odd charm. The tracks are catchy enough, believe me—as a matter of fact, they’re almost effortlessly so. Part of the fun in liking The Streets is the work that you have to put in before the initially off-putting palette of peculiar choruses and minimalist production become addictive. Except here, Skinner seems to have quantized his voice and even manages to hit the right key during some uncharacteristically song-y passages. Hearing about advances and showcases is sort of boring, so the obvious choice was to counteract that by softening the landing. He does fit in some laugh-out-loud moments—”The thing that’s got it all fucked up now is camera phones. How am I supposed to be able to do a line around complete strangers when I know they’ve all got cameras?” (mp3) for one—but much of Skinner’s wordplay is unremarkable. This might have been obvious to even Skinner, who lets his accent obfuscate his lyrics to the greatest extent yet and goes on to further bury the near-indecipherable vocals under radically bombastic production. Easy Living reflects the larger-than-life persona Skinner discusses with an equally mammoth soundtrack—the two-dimensional tracks of his earlier days sound amateurish compared to the barrage of synth-bombs that cascade everywhere. These songs are built for the dance floor and not the headphones—a concession that success in the States does matter some to Skinner now that he’s conquered England. “Dry Your Eyes” just didn’t cut it here, no matter how much I would have hoped, and now it’s time to go the opposite route. Sadly these beats, being the new territory for Skinner that they are, sound interchangeable and limit their effectiveness over the course of the album, but he hits the nail on the head with one—”Can’t Con an Honest Jon” stammers in a jerky fashion that mimics Skinner’s vocal style while still bringing the heat.
Honestly, I’m not sure anyone would have expected Skinner to make it three albums deep with a shred of dignity. Though many applauded his originality upon Pirate‘s release, many more questioned his audacity and exactly how long it would take for him to become the punch-line to some joke by Kathy-fucking-Griffin on a VH1 show about the ‘aughts. With Skinner releasing The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living, we might be one step closer to that becoming a sad reality. The arguments Streets detractors have used against Skinner in their battle against fans are now becoming tougher and tougher to deny—The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living may not see Skinner’s perspective on life changed any, but if there’s a joke to be had this time around I’m certainly not in on it.