So this is it then. After five albums and 10 years, Mike Skinner is calling time on The Streets and moving on to pastures new. What that will be is anybody’s guess, but for now the self-proclaimed “Pablo Picasso of geezer garage” says he’s wrung his creative flannel dry and had enough.
Coinciding with the final Streets album – and return to top form – Computers and Blues, this was both a goodbye to fans and a victory lap for this most unlikeliest of stars. He’s a rapper who can’t quite rap and a singer who can’t sing but has been hugely influential over the past decade preparing the way for a new generation of British MCs such as Dizzee Rascal and Plan B. Think of him more then as a kind of performance poet without the pretentiousness and better clothes – he’d probably be happy with that.
Bringing The Streets’ story full circle, old sparring partner Mark Lewis Trail who appeared on Skinner’s debut album Original Pirate Material is back in the touring band alongside Rob Harvey, the latter best known as frontman of Verve soundalikes The Music. Harvey is a key contributor to Computers and Blues and impressed here as a fully-fledged rhythm and lead guitarist as well as a third co-vocalist.
Two new songs opened proceedings, Outside Inside and Trust Me, but it was the classic pogo anthem Don’t Mug Yourself which whipped the mosh pit up into the first frenzy of the night. Old favourite – and personal Skinner mantra – Let’s Push Things Forward came newly polished up with a dirty drum and bass coda before we dropped down a few gears for the quizzical Puzzled By People.
You’d think that Skinner would have had enough of crowd surfing by now but you’d be wrong. Two years ago, over-eager fans nearly ruptured an old hernia scar when they got a little too hands-on with the star after he decided to get up close and personal with his admirers. But nipping off stage to change into a shirt, tie and jacket, he once again dived headlong into the first few rows before being carried aloft around the Academy. This time he made it back unscathed as Trail cooed a version of Bill Withers’ Ain’t No Sunshine to mark time.
Skinner was then back in charge for a perky Weak Become Heroes. One wag in the crowd gave his own ironic comment on the song by heartily waving his crutches in the air. Yes, music can heal the infirm, folks.
The well-judged setlist made the best of two new songs, We Can Never Be Friends and Soldiers, before Skinner staged his trademark “go low” routine by asking the crowd to sit down for Blinded By The Lights before jumping to their feet in unison when the chorus kicked in. No matter how many times you see 2,000 people playing along, it never fails to raise a smile and inject yet more momentum into the show.
Lighters were waved aloft for Skinner’s emotive tribute to his late father, Never Went To Church, before a cracking encore sealed the deal. The punky Fit But You Know It has always been a guaranteed crowd-pleaser and the freshly-minted Going Through Hell stood shoulder to shoulder with anything from his back catalogue.
After a heartfelt speech thanking his fans for a decade of support, Skinner was gone. Or to swipe a few choice words from Dry Your Eyes, “it’s time to walk away now, it’s ohhhh-verrr…”
So it’s the end of the road for the self-proclaimed “Picasso of geezer garage.”
Mike Skinner claims he’s knocking The Streets on the head with this fifth studio album after wringing his creative flannel dry. His next move is to spend more time on his Beat Stevie web TV channel and blog. Meanwhile, his musical destiny remains up in the air.
It’s been an eventful eight years for Skinner. His 2002 debut Original Pirate Material announced a very singular talent who provided an almighty kick up the arse to the UK hip-hop and garage scene. It still remains his most diverse, tune-laden effort although OPM’s successor, the concept album A Grand Don’t Come For Free was the one that really connected with a huge mainstream audience.
For a while, Skinner was absolutely everywhere. Broadsheet scribes gushed that he was the spokesman for a new generation of disenfranchised youth in Broken Britain. And you had to agree they had a point. Skinner’s defiantly UK-centric approach meant that for the first time ever, MCs began to talk about their own culture rather than toss off weak versions of hip-hop from across the Atlantic.
And then the wheels rather fell off. The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living was self-conscious navel-gazing and almost tune-free. Two steps forward and three steps back.
Suitably chastened, Skinner pulled his socks up for Everything Is Borrowed, a far more consistent affair which showed more than a few glimpses of his gift for killer hooks and laugh-out-loud lyrics.
Apart from the tinnitus–inducing first half-minute of opener Outside Inside, Computers and Blues sees Skinner sign off in style.
Outside Inside skips along with a wriggling riff where Vampire Weekend meet the theme tune from Cagney and Lacey. The Music’s bellower Rob Harvey collaborates on Going Through Hell, an instantly memorable radio-friendly monster. “At the end of the tunnel there is always light. It just might be a train,” adds Skinner waggishly. But ultimately, this is a track filled with optimism, a metaphorically blokey arm around the shoulder “If you’re going through hell , keep going!” rings the chorus.
Roof of Your Car marries a Top Shop r’n’b tune to a charmingly rudimentary plinky plonky Casio keyboard backing, as a lemon bifta-enhanced wide-eyed Skinner ponders the wonders of the sky at night.
No Streets album would be complete without the odd tip of the hat to great nights out on the lash. The spiralling Without Thinking sees Mike celebrate his social side – he’s ageing gracefully but still can’t resist the odd bender (and we don’t mean Antony Hegarty). Forget about some of the pre-release quotes from Skinner that Computers and Blues is his ravey album, it’s a little more restrained than that.
A quirky crossword metaphor runs through the gentle shrug of Puzzled By People which finds our hero chewing on a biro and musing: “I’m puzzled by people, loving isn’t easy; you can’t Google the solutions to people’s feelings.”
Those That Don’t Know is a cheeky little disco rumpshaker complete with Chic guitars and wailing soul divas on the BVs. The 70-second burst of dubstep on ABC that follows is a bit underdeveloped and doesn’t quite fit the rest of the album. Think of it as one of those old school hip-hop skits and it makes more sense as a palette cleanser.
There’s plenty of light and shade, too. The touching Blip On A Screen finds Skinner singing to an ultrasound image of his unborn child in the womb. It’s time to grow up and his adult responsibilities weigh heavy on his shoulders.
Adult concerns also run through the ode to insomnia Trying To Kill M.E. and We Can Never Be Friends deals with yet more relationship angst. A sequel to Dry Your Eyes perhaps? OMG is similarly crestfallen and another affecting break-up ballad.
The self-referencing Trust Me kicks in with a horn section riff that’s a dead ringer for the intro to A Grand Don’t Come For Free’s opener It Was Supposed To Be So Easy. It’s a funky little thing and pairs up well with the aforementioned Those Who Don’t Know.
And he leaves us in no doubt that it’s the end of the line for The Streets with Lock The Locks, a swaying and jazzy closer. Incidentally, his female collaborator here is Claire Maguire; a much-touted new UK talent who you’ll be hearing a lot more of in 2011.
“I handed in my notice…I’m packing up my desk, put it into boxes, knock out the lights, lock the locks and leave.”
Skinner’s handing on the baton and shutting up shop. It’s time to walk away now, it’s ohhhh-verrr…
Released: February 7
Scores on the Doors: 8/10