Mike Skinner may now have fame, cash, and his own vanity label, the Beats, but he hasn’t gone so big-time that he won’t admit to doing a terrible job managing his newly gotten gains. On his third album as the Streets, he proudly admits that “running the Beats is just getting people’s confidence and then taking their money,” then describes snorting his tour support, spending 15 grand on a dud video, and visiting Savile Row for a “pink-striped suit no man owns.” Where the first two Streets discs sketched out “a day in the life of a geezer” (per Skinner’s oft quoted catchphrase), The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living offers a fleeting glimpse into the mad world of a pop star—an alternate dimension in which cash, drugs, and sex flash by as quickly and as colorfully as the graphics in the PlayStation games Mikey likely hasn’t touched in the past year.
And yet I’ll gladly continue to fund this bastard’s misadventures if he keeps making records as terrific as this one. The early Internet buzz on Hardest Way implied that by turning his gaze away from the do-nothing demographic that brought him fame, Skinner has abandoned what made made him unique in English pop. But four years on from debut Original Pirate Material (in a market awash with commercially robust efforts by such post-Streets everymen as Hard-Fi and the Arctic Monkeys), focusing on the hollow glitz swirling around him is precisely what’s ensured that his uncommon voice remains intact.
Skinner is a storyteller, let’s not forget—and just like the geezers of OPM, stories need excitement. That he was once able to make smoking a spliff or standing in line at a fast-food joint sound as thrilling as he did seems in retrospect an even bigger accomplishment. These days he courts drama even when he’d prefer not to: “The thing that’s got it all fucked-up now is camera phones,” he whines on Living lead single “When You Wasn’t Famous.” “How the hell am I supposed to be able to do a line in front of complete strangers when I know they’ve all got cameras?” On first track “Pranging Out,” he gets home from tour and finds that “Suddenly it doesn’t seem like much fun to be off my face” before noon. Not that he’s resisting the ride, of course: In “Hotel Expressionism,” he giddily runs down room-destroying strategies that skirt “weak cliché,” and his joy in watching an unnamed pop tart smoke crack firsthand in “Famous” echoes the tabloid orgy caused by Kate Moss’s own camera phone-recorded indiscretions last year.
In fact, that ability to see the circus from the cheap seats suggests that, cover-art Rolls-Royce or no, Skinner hasn’t actually changed all that much. These tunes function like dispatches sent from the front lines back to chums stuck in Nowheresville; he’s updated his characters and settings, but Skinner’s working-class fascination with humanity’s endearing fallibility is still his thematic calling card.
Which is why his unlikely slow jams remain some of the most heartbreaking in pop. Here we get “All Goes Out the Window,” an interrogation of game-running; “Never Went to Church,” a reflection on Skinner’s dad’s recent death set to a budget-bin rendering of “Let It Be,” and “Two Nations,” a sober meditation on the U.S.-U.K. divide, which questions why we Americans can’t stop shooting our stars. (And, occasionally, theirs.) At the risk of discounting the fiercely considered party tunes that dominate Easy Living—a dilemma familiar to anyone who’s pondered the work of Eminem (Skinner’s first American analogue) and Kanye West (his latest)—it’s in these cuts that Skinner truly reveals himself. He’ll take our money, but it won’t fill his need.
The Streets plays Webster Hall June 27.