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Grand Adventure

 

The Streets: A Grand Don't Come for Free

Atlantic, 2004

Rating: 4.5

 

 

Posted: May 20, 2004

By Laurence Station

Mike Skinner made quite a splash in 2002 with his debut release Original Pirate Material. Under his moniker The Streets, Skinner deftly mixed UK garage beats with spoken-word tales of a "day in the life of a geezer." A Grand Don't Come for Free, the highly anticipated sequel, follows a similar template. This time out, however, Skinner has tightened his lyrical delivery, focusing on a single narrative involving his first serious relationship, and framing it around the loss and ultimate recovery of the titular thousand quid. The garage beats have been toned down in favor of Skinner's expressively amusing vocal performance, but musical constancy isn't the point.

Grand opens with "It Was Supposed to Be So Easy," relating a bungled DVD rental return, an "insufficient funds" cash machine rebuff and the cold realization that a thousand pounds he left at home and meant to deposit in the bank is missing. Good fortune comes Skinner's way, however, when he goes on a first date with Simone ("Could Well Be In"). Here Skinner manages to capture tiny details (from fidgeting nervously with an ashtray to Simone idly twirling her hair around a finger -- which he takes as a good sign she's comfortable with his company) that help flesh out the courtship. The appropriately ramped-up "Not Addicted" detours from the romance to examine his gambling problem ("I don't know the first thing about football / But my instincts tell me this is my windfall"), while "Blinded by the Lights" tackles club-life apathy and serves as an edgier companion piece to Original Pirate Material's "Weak Become Heroes."

But Grand fast proves that lyrically, Skinner's put almost all his eggs in one basket. He further fleshes out this sort-of concept album with the couple's first major fight (the frenetic, garage-beat dominated "Get Out of My House") and a spot of infidelity ("Fit But You Know It," which despite Skinner's public consternation does sport a catchy guitar riff similar to Blur's "Parklife"). Following his tryst, Skinner is consumed with the idea that his girlfriend's being unfaithful as well, a paranoia that reaches its crescendo on "What Is He Thinking?" with Skinner grilling one of his mates about Simone's fidelity. The ensuing breakup is, of course, inevitable -- except to Skinner, who spends the ballad "Dry Your Eyes" coming to terms with his heartbreak, floored by just how much the relationship has meant to him. It's a nakedly direct moment, and Skinner pulls it off with aplomb, displaying an impressive depth of emotional honesty.

But Skinner the songwriter knows that his character's journey isn't over yet just because he's had his heart broken: "Empty Cans" resolves the mystery of the missing grand, and Skinner employs a false ending before revealing his story's actual conclusion. The bait-and-switch drives home Grand's central point, which lies not in detailing the minutiae of a love affair but in learning to rely ultimately only on oneself, instead of opening oneself up to betrayal by others. It's not the most upbeat (or healthy) outlook, but it's more honest than Skinner contriving a happy ending in which he reconciles with the girl. Having survived his first adult relationship, Skinner learns something valuable about himself; he may still lie on his mother's couch, smoking dope and spacing out to mindless BBC programming, but he's wiser and perhaps stronger for his experiences.

That epiphany isn't unique to Skinner, but it doesn't matter: A Grand Don't Come for Free represents another chapter in the utterly mundane but curiously fascinating life of Mike Skinner, British "geezer." He's not a rapper, nor is he a programming whiz, but what he offers is a window into the life of a middle-class bloke struggling to find his place in the world. What could be utterly pedestrian, so-what material in the hands of a lesser talent is instead imbued with cheeky mythic significance by Skinner -- blessed with an uninhibited gift for gab and a willingness to reveal all facets of his character, grotty warts included.

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