As noted in my other excessively verbose Streets review this week, Mike Skinner is a uniquely peerless talent, capable of capturing (in lucid, gnarly detail, no less) the debauched, drugged-out bliss of life in London’s concrete jungle in deadpan, grippingly earnest fashion, setting his tales of heartbreak and inebriation to beatscapes futuristic enough to rival any Stateside contemporaries. Having delivered an elaborate urban operetta with Original Pirate Material, Skinner thoroughly outdoes that monumental record with this masterpiece, a concept record that harnesses the lofty concepts and themes tackled on his premier opus, channeling them in a far more focussed, linear fashion.
While Original Pirate Material was largely a portrait of urban London and the gratuitous youth that inhabit its drug strewn pavements, A Grand Don’t Come For Free revolves around the exploits of a singular character, an ingeniously penned tale that unravels in A Prince Among Thieves-esque fashion. Skinner’s slang-heavy, quasi-spoken word delivery navigates us through a tragicomic story that explores the depths of longing, loss, betrayal and intoxication. The story itself is relatively simple- said hero awakens from a drunken stupor and discovers that he’s lost a thousand pounds. He proceeds to plunge headfirst in love, only to disassociate himself with said girl just as abruptly. Along the way he confronts extreme isolation in the bright lights of a nightclub, loses a grip of cash on football (or soccer to you Yanks) betting, exchanges stares with a flirtatious female at the kebab shop, loses his coat, experiences intense regret at the dissolution of his relationship and ultimately spouts vile, bitter, drunken diatribe at anyone and everyone (“everyone’s a cunt”) as he builds walls of empty beer cans. In classic Mike Skinner fashion, the melodrama is quelled in brisk, comic fashion- buy the record and find out.
Mike Skinner’s extraordinary ability to inject humour and insight into the everyday proceedings of a haplessly mundane concrete jungle, to create something so theatrical and involving from the grim realities that surround him places him among the finest storytellers music. Grand in both cinematic scope and in emotional depth, this record is a journey that, if you can surrender yourself to its Brit banter-heavy narrative, will thrust you through the seedy underbelly of loneliness, heartache, self-pity, misanthropy, lust, all observed through the bilious haze of hallucogenic substances. Skinner’s character is gloriously flawed- irritatingly wordy, yet completely incapable of communicating at crucial moments- “Get Out Of My House”, a fiery argument between him and his girlfriend, finds him struggling to express himself, a resounding argument about the fundamental fragments in communication.
Musically, the album feels much sparser than Original Pirate Material, which adorned itself with flourishes of deep Euro house, two-step/garage, grime, dub and splashes of jungle. “Dry Your Eyes”, one of the most striking standouts on the record, features nothing but a solitary acoustic guitar, the spaciousness of the track accentuating the gutwrenching post-breakup loneliness that the track examines. The rest of the compositions have a distinctly cinematic, soundtrack feel, complementing the dramatic events that unfold. Clearly, the record is, even more so than Original Pirate Material, not a collection of individual singles. Instead, it is a seamless whole that is meant to be digested as such. It is this dynamic that makes the issue of “Fit But You Know It” all the more confusing- while the issuing of a single makes perfect sense commercially, the single itself has no real meaning when taken out of the context of the record, requiring the continuity of the narrative to make any sense. While A Grand Don’t Come For Free in some senses isn’t quite as musically accomplished as its predecessor, which found Skinner peddling a fine variety of dancefloor ready beats, all forged by his intimate knowledge of a host of Euro electronic traditions, each beat on the record flawlessly serves the purpose that Skinner intends for it, taking the back seat to the heady topics that it supports.
Once again, the similarities between Skinner and bards like Morrissey invariably surface- like Morrissey, Skinner is unafraid to dissect the basic human need for belonging and acceptance, the need to assert some sort of direction in a life that is otherwise devoid of purpose by sharing it with someone. Without a partner, our protagonist is mired in doubt, passive, indecisive, utterly unable to escape the drunken, lonely maze that so many of us traverse daily. While such topics often result in whiney, self-indulgent rhetoric, Skinner’s endearingly dry sense of humour and deadpan delivery gives the work a candid, jet black comic feel that is consistently entertaining and listenable. Skinner invites us all to peer into the heart of our most crippling weaknesses and laugh, or indeed cry, about them.