This review is fortunate enough to share a double-page with Dave Toulson’s opinions on the new Kings of Leon record, an entirely coincidental juxtaposition that got me thinking. The Streets and Kings of Leon: musical stratospheres apart, surely. One, a lisping Brummie with UK garage-redefining mockney pretensions and a penchant for Reebok Classics and Fred Perry; the other, four southern-fried, groupie-snorting ne’er-do-wells from Tennessee, playing sweat-flavoured, country-fucking garage rock. Yes, commercial success and bad drugs have clung to both artists like compound-adjectives to modern-day music journalism, but that’s where the similarities end. Surely.
Well no, actually. Because when the gaping genre-gulf between two of the noughties most prominent – and, indeed, influential – acts is put aside for one moment, a startling parallel begins to become apparent, in terms of the manner in which their albums can be considered, together, as a deeply sequential body of work. There is a linearity, a symmetry and, above all, a biographical intensity to both the Kings’ and Mike Skinner’s respective back-catalogues, that reflects the highs and lows (and rather similar highs and lows they are too) of both artists’ creative and emotional journeys with staggering clarity – and that Everything Is Borrowed fits into with an almost mathematical precision
Indeed, the route that Skinner has taken, from 2002’s Original Pirate Material to this, the penultimate LP he will release under his rather drab nom de plume, has a lot in common with the narrative-frameworks on which his albums generally rest – or, indeed, absolutely rely upon, as was the case with his wildly successful “story-record”, A Grand Don’t Come For Free. His debut, brash and upbeat, full of confidence and everyday observation, set a ball rolling – or perhaps bowling would be the more appropriate verb – that reached its swaggering, wide-boy peak with the aforementioned, triple platinum-selling concept album, and the ubiquitous ‘Fit But You Know It’ – albeit a peak in which cracks were beginning to show: remember ‘Dry Your Eyes’? Of course you bloody do.
And then, of course, came the capitulation. That The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living was a mess of suicidal, year-long-comedown-infused “rich and successful pop star moaning about how terrible it is being a rich and successful pop star” (thank you, the Guardian) sentiments surprised very few; what shocked almost everybody, though, was that said sentiments were wrapped up in such a bland bricolage of rock-star cliché and self-indulgent negativity. And so it’s up to Chapter Four – the post-depression, Existential Rebirth Bit (see ‘Empty Cans’ on AGDCFF and ‘Stay Positive’ on OPM) – not only to save the life of Mike Skinner the character, the musical construction, but also to resuscitate the reputation of Mike Skinner the musician.
Hell of a weight on its shoulders then. Which probably explains why it feels, in many respects, like a record constructed from big old stabs in the dark; from eleven track-sized attempts by Skinner not so much to rediscover a ‘lost’ voice – indeed, his desire not to “reference modern life” in Everything Is Borrowed has been well-publicised – as to settle on a new one that actually suits him. And it’ll come as no surprise to anybody, then, that as well as varying enormously stylistically, the results are also remarkable for their inconsistency in terms of quality.
These attempts manifest themselves, principally, in the reformed garage geezer trying a range of very different narrative personas on for size. And so on ‘Heaven For The Weather’ and the dreadful ‘Alleged Legends’, we get Theology Mike, who poses questions like “Could it be so, what we think to be right, is simply the opinion that’s survived?”; so on ‘Everything Is Borrowed’ and ‘Strongest Person I Know’ we get Lovesick Mike, who’s come to the conclusion that he “came to the world with nothing” and he’ll “leave with nothing but love” because “everything else is just borrowed”; and on ‘On The Flip Of A Coin’ and ‘On The Edge Of A Cliff’, we even get Pseudo-Philosophy Mike, who spins stories about, well, coin-flipping and the edges of cliffs with an approach to sentence construction so archaic – “but you said you wanted to get with people and places, ever new” a case in point – that he sounds, at times, a tad like Mr Miyagi from The Karate Kid
That these amateur dramatics result in some of the worst Streets songs ever committed to compact disk is as unsurprising as the fact Guy Ritchie is incapable of making intelligent films; indeed, there is a weariness – not to mention pretentiousness – to the likes of ‘Alleged Legends’ and ‘On The Flip Of A Coin’, which makes it no longer possible to enjoy those little lyrical inelegancies which were so much a part of the charm of Skinner’s early singles: his frequently appalling choices of rhyme, for example, or the fact that he always falls back upon the idiomatic and the clichéd. And I’m not even going to deem the ill-judged embarrassment on every imaginable level that is ‘The Way Of The Dodo’ worthy of comment. All of which is a shame, because Everything Is Borrowed also probably simultaneously represents the most musically accomplished Streets offering yet. The sampling and chorus fragments which hold together, say, ‘Heaven For The Weather’, or ‘Everything Is Borrowed, are masterpieces of traditional pop-instinct. And get this: ‘Strongest Person I Know’ features a clarinet. A clarinet!
But alas, the all-too-predictable reality of this truly mixed record, is that the only times it truly hits its stride come when Skinner reverts back to what Skinner does best: funny, self-deprecating storytelling which, at its heart, celebrates both the wonderful extremes, and the gleeful impossibilities of language. Entire songs are saved by little brushstrokes of humour, which dilute the over-earnest into the appealing honest: “There’s something in the sun this day I feel it, or maybe it’s just my hayfever” he considers on ‘Heaven For The Weather’, before suggesting that “I learnt a lot about myself drawing all morning. It was absolutely shit: I’m awful at drawing” on ‘I Love You More (Than You Like Me)’. And then just when you begin to think that perhaps this rather British understatement ultimately represents the limit of what the Streets have to offer the world in 2008, Everything Is Borrowed goes and knocks you sideways with ‘The Sherry Ends’, Skinner’s tribute to the joy of “inventing words” and “crazy-paving sayings” for his “fine brothers in slang”, which serves as an emphatic reminder of his, at times, remarkable lyrical gifts.
Potentially the most interesting thing about this, the penultimate Streets record, though, is that it feels so much like an ending, a conclusion, the final piece in a four-part puzzle. The aforementioned Existential Rebirth Bit of a Mike Skinner LP almost always represents its final statement – the message he wants to leave you with until he reappears again – and in ‘The Escapist’, Everything Is Borrowed’s final track, he’s written the wrapping-up point to end all wrapping-up points (and, indeed, the only song on the album completely successful in its efforts to find a ‘deeper’ voice that sits comfortably alongside the musical blueprint which will always be at the heart of what the Streets represent). Indeed, ‘The Escapist’ sounds like the perfect song with which to mark both the death of the Streets, and the beginning of something new. That Mike Skinner As We Know Him still has one more incarnation-twist up his sleeve, is simultaneously both the most intriguing and the most alarming fact in modern popular music.