It's hard to make a case for The Streets mastermind Mike Skinner as a writer, because his transcribed lyrics look merely awkward and flat, when they're actually aggressively awkward and flat. His mode of speech has gotten him tagged as "humble" and "plain-spoken," but what can be made of an aesthetic that by nature goes out of its way to avoid appearing aesthetic?
On the third Streets album, The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living, Skinner throws up another distancing effect by focusing thematically on the pitfalls of celebrity life. It makes more sense in England, where The Streets are a certifiable chart force, but tropes are tropes: drugs, sleazy promiscuity, trashed hotel rooms, and so on. It all plays out as unpromisingly as it promises, but Skinner's honesty makes for moments too poignant to write off as stock signifiers. In the album-opening "Pranging Out," over portentous piano figures and a brittle boom-bap beat, he charts a coke-fueled paranoia jag in which he tries to convince himself that "with rational thought, it would seem that I need to be not doing the stuff that makes death seem like an easier option." Skinner applies that kind of stunted, word-drunk wryness to moments big and small, whether mourning the death of his dad in "Never Went To Church," striking out with girls more famous than him in "When You Wasn't Famous," or invoking (and gamely mispronouncing) a Latin phrase for the chorus of "Memento Mori."
The Hardest Way takes on a lot of sneaky weight once the skepticism it begs for wears off, but it's hard to imagine its dumbed-up strengths translating outside the context of the Streets project as a whole. The album lacks the cleverness and affability of Original Pirate Material and the novelistic 2004 hallmark A Grand Don't Come For Free, and it's the first that calls for more explanation than exclamation.