Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Streets -- Everything Is Borrowed

The Streets -- Everything Is Borrowed (Vice/679)

If you didn’t already know that what makes Mike Skinner’s music is the words, not the music, this album only confirms this. Unfortunately, Everything Is Borrowed proves this by being yet another album that plays far away from Skinner’s strengths, with no compelling stories, just dull platitudes and hectoring.

The first two albums from The Streets offered spare grime influenced hip hop with Skinner’s yobbish accounts of a geezer’s life. What made the songs so fascinating was not the intricate wordplay, but how Skinner did such a great job of capturing the little travails and triumphs of real life and looked at the mundane with wit and empathy.

But on The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living, Skinner’s accounts of the life of stardom were, for the most part, neither that original nor witty. And now Skinner contemplates the larger questions of life, and, for the most part, his answers are a snooze.

The worst part about this is that Skinner set himself up for this. In addition to having live instrumentation throughout, which I‘ll discuss further later, he decided to eliminate all pop culture references in his lyrics. In so doing, he guaranteed that the subject matter would be dealt with in general terms. And Skinner’s skill in his dissection of specifics. But, more importantly, part of what made his specifics so fun was that there were no pretensions attached; Skinner guileless protagonists spoke in such a straightforward manner, that the poetry came from the truths that came out, not from a magical use of language.

At his worst, Skinner is strident. There’s the amateur environmental screed “The Way of the Dodo”, on which has a nagging refrain and Skinner’s biggest attempt at really rapping and establishing flow. Sure, the sentiment (we have to do something about climate change) is nice, but there is zero insight.

Skinner shows that he’s been brushing up on his Richard Dawkins on “Alleged Legends”. After a church organ intro, the backing track is oddly compelling, a weird crawling rhythm. But Skinner’s mumbly delivery makes his arguments against the existence of God seem rote. Granted, this is a tough area to tackle (as Andy Partridge once said, the reason he didn’t want to put “Dear God” on XTC’s Skylarking was because you could do a whole box set on religion and not scratch the surface of the subject), but it just doesn’t make for an inviting song.

The nadir of the album is the breezy and empty headed “Heaven For the Weather”. You see, you go there for the weather and to “hell for the company.” With gospel styled piano part and hand claps, the track is really bouncy. The lyrics are just the pits, as Skinner’s tale of negotiating for his soul with Satan is dunderheaded.

This is a shame, as Skinner is showing growth as a composer. There are some really nice tracks here, some which have a bit of jazzy feel to them, such as “On the Edge Of a Coin”. “The Sherry End” is an off-beat slice of ’70s L.A. funk, falling somewhere between War and Kool and the Gang. And “I Love You More (Than You Like Me)”, which probably would fit better on one of The Streets first two albums, is based on a bopping piano track.

All-in-all, this is a better listen than The Hardest Way, but Skinner need to play to his strengths as a lyricist. Since he has threatened to retire after one more LP, he has one last chance to get it right again.

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