The Man in the Street

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Review of 'A Grand Don't Come for Free' by The Streets

As Socialist Review went to press, Mike Skinner, aka The Streets, was a hotly tipped favourite to capture the Mercury Music Prize, one of the British music industry's most prestigious awards. Either way, Skinner has enjoyed a meteoric rise since he first burst onto the scene in 2002. His first album, Original Pirate Material, also received a Mercury nomination, but was somewhat surprisingly pipped by Ms Dynamite. Subsequently he has been compared to Bob Dylan, Samuel Pepys, Dostoyevsky, Philip Larkin and 'Gil Scot Heron relocated to the [Birmingham] Bullring'. These are lofty claims indeed. More significantly, though, Skinner has racked up seven-figure sales, and attracted a huge and varied following.

Born and raised in Birmingham, Skinner delivers his lyrics in a twang that is part Midlands, part Mockney. He chronicles a certain 'meat and two veg' - or perhaps more accurately takeaway kebab and chips - reality of life in 21st century Britain. His songs are full of the trials, tribulations and very occasional triumphs of twentysomethings supposedly revelling in their pre-commitment freedom years. However, for many millions the bitter truth is a life of mind-numbing monotony and alienation in a society that stifles our individuality and creativity. Such boredom is punctuated by the escapism offered by drink, drugs, and the rare excitement - if you can afford it - of a package holiday.

A Grand Don't Come For Free is a musical soap opera in which we follow the artist's journey to exotic locations such as the betting shop, boozer, girlfriend's house and seaside resort. At times Skinner skilfully articulates the frequently forlorn pursuit of love, companionship or just straightforward, uncomplicated sex in songs such as 'Could Well Be In' and 'Fit But You Know It'. Elsewhere there is an almost shameful admission that he knows little about football, that great - and supposedly classless - national obsession of lads, and in recent years 'ladettes', everywhere. This is a remarkable confession, as it marginalises him from the widespread beer and testosterone fuelled 'camaraderie' we witness during major tournaments and at 'Pukka Pie and Sky Sports' holiday resorts. It also excludes him from the default conversation of millions of young men who struggle to share their true inner feelings.

A capacity to empathise with his peers and express himself is arguably the great gift of Mike Skinner, and has led to suggestions that his is the voice of the excluded. The overall feel of the album is one of vulnerability and simmering frustration that occasionally boils over into verbal outbursts or even physical violence. However, there is also genuine warmth and humour and moments of real poignancy, as on the number one hit 'Dry Your Eyes', a lament for lost love. It is telling that Skinner opts for a melodic string backing to this song rather than the DIY garage sound that is his trademark.

I'll admit that musically I am no great fan of The Streets, but there is clearly something authentic and challenging about his work. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for him. There is just a hint that Skinner is aware of the contradictory situation he finds himself in. In his opening lines he bemoans the loss of some money. After all, a grand don't come for free. There is, however, a happy conclusion when he finds the savings behind the TV set. After two hugely successful releases Skinner may have a pile of cash lying about in his flat, but how many of his listeners could say the same? As his own lifestyle moves further away from 'the streets', Skinner will face the challenge of striving to remain true to his origins or taking the easy route and becoming a parody of himself.