Yes, I guess technically every song tells a story. What we are interested in however are the songs that tell actual stories -stories about cowboys, and love and the day the music died. Songs are the smells of the ears, they can transport us places in an instant. All this week we are exploring these story songs and getting all Springsteen-y because it's winter now and all we want to do is stay inside and listen to music. - Dylan Wise
There was a point in my life when I spent way too much time worrying about the physical and mental health of Mike Skinner. I was actually concerned - I checked blogs bi-weekly to see if he had overdosed or got into some weird knife fight. I half expected to get a search result that read something like: "Cocaine-fueled bar fight/hostage situation ends in death of The Street's rapper/producer Mike Skinner". In defiance of his own lyrics, I DO give a crap about Mike.
For the unfamiliar: Mike Skinner is, or was, the driving force behind the UK garage group The Streets. In 2001 they released their debut album of garage-based hip-hop tracks (I guess that's what they call it... Pitchfork?), Original Pirate Material. The album is fantastic and was well reviewed but wasn't what you would call a "mainstream success", although, there were 5 singles from the album. Maybe the singles are what drove the group to think strategically about how to get people to buy an entire album in the age of singles. (reminder: copyright the TV show idea "Age of Singles")
Just two short years after the release of Original Pirate Material Skinner and gang released the much more experimental A Grand Don't Come for Free. The album tells the story of one protagonist's loss of $1,000, a crazy, drug-fueled weekend, the loss of love and the promise of a new. It's an absolute epic. From the opening track, "It Was Supposed To Be So Easy", Skinner carries listeners through the often mundane aspects of UK life - and somehow makes it all interesting. At one point we are listening in on his conversation with a young woman then we're around a table with his friends who are ogling a woman at a restaurant, but the common thread throughout the album was the loss of this $1,000.
In the album Skinner's character believes that his friends must have stolen the money from him. He obsesses about it, he throws his hands in the air and decides that "no one gives a crap about Mike!". In the final track, after the fights, and the drugs and his inevitable break up we find out where the missing money has gone to. It's the perfect ending to the album: redemption.
The only thing more perfect than the ending of A Grand Don't Come For Free is the end of The Streets career, that isn't supposed to sound like I'm psyched about it - I'm devastated. Their humble beginnings and the success of A Grand Don't Come For Free set the stage for their next 6 years as a group. After A Grand The Streets become a real "thing" and Mike Skinner seemed to have changed.
The touring and the press gave the band some legitimacy and during that time Mike became famous got addicted to something and dated pop stars. It was a different Skinner than we were used to and I was worried. Their next album, The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living, dealt with some of these new found struggles that the group were facing. The song "When You Wasn't Famous" shows this, the track features Skinner pre-song ranting about not being able to do "lines" anymore now that everyone around him has camera phones. He flat out admits that he is able to get girls that he would have never got two albums ago. It was after this album that Skinner decided to give up drugs and focus on music.
After the Hardest Way years (and the destruction they must have done on Skinner) The Streets' music seemed to cool down a bit. The next Streets album Everything is Borrowed seems to be represent a more positive outlook on life, like Skinner is now seeing things more clearly. Everything is Borrowed is a beautiful album full of some really great tracks including "On The Edge of a Cliff", wherein Skinner is contemplating jumping off a cliff. While waiting for the courage to jump a man happens along to offer the following:
"For billions of years since the outset of time
Every single one of your ancestors survived
Every single person on your mum and dad's side
Successfully looked after and passed onto you life
What are the chances of that like?"
After the encounter Skinner backs away and later on offers the same to men who also look like they are ready to jump. That album, and this song in particular, added a layer to The Streets that was never really there before. It added a humanity to Skinner.
Which leads us to the last and final Streets album, 2011's Computers and Blues - which may be the groups best. The production and the content seem to be the culmination of those past ten years of work. The arc of the group is beautiful and perhaps this was all planned by Skinner, or maybe I'm just romanticizing. The career of The Street's ends with the song "Lock The Locks" on Computers and Blues, a song that seems to be their last goodbye.
"I'm packing up my desk, I've put it into boxes.
Knock out the lights, lock the locks and leave."
At heart Skinner is a story teller and "Empty Cans" was only the beginning. The song is a pretty great representation of the career of The Streets. The song ends with a passage that could be about the band.
"The end of the something i did not want to end,
Beginning of hard times to come.
But something that was not meant to be is done,
And this is the start of what was."
[Dylan Wise is the creative director of TMSDOTORG as well as host, producer, writer and overall fancy-pants. He is on twitter because he is very important.]