Listening to The Streets, one gets a clear indication that Mike Skinner is a punk. He’s the kind of guy who’d borrow your car and probably bring it back with a ding, having somehow managed to get ketchup all over the passenger seat. He’s a boyfriend who’d show up 45 minutes late to meet your parents; a friend who’d forget your birthday until the next day, or week; an employee who might take a liquid lunch and then nap through the rest of the day. But Skinner wears these flaws on his sleeve, along with his huge, bleeding heart and his frustrated love/hate relationship with his culture and social circles. It’s the dramatic clash between these layers that betrays Skinner’s true colors, an element which injects the manic beats of his music with an almost core-shaking humanity. Folks compare the British twentysomething to Eminem because he’s a white rapper, but his likeness to Marshall Mathers is much more than skin deep: both possess weather-worn, steeled exteriors which shield their feral souls and wounded psyches.
Such a complicated persona can make for an unpredictable experience once translated into the live setting. Attending a Streets show is little like inviting a friend with Multiple Personality Disorder to a dinner party: one can’t be sure who exactly will show up. Not to mention that, in addition to all of this emotional complexity, The Streets is fun. Part of the curious and somewhat twisted joy of The Streets is that Skinner can keep danceable beat flowing underneath lyrics about breakups or partying, fighting or social satire, desperation or celebration. He passes his schizophrenia along to us by keeping us constantly jamming through his violent mood swings, even as tears fall or fists raise.
So perhaps the most depressing part of The Streets show was how one dimensional everything felt.
The promise of something more multifaceted was certainly there, however. Warmed up by fellow UK garagehopper Dizzee Rascal, the crowd that stuffed itself into Irving Plaza was divergent enough: club kids, ballers, drunken revelers and groupies (male and female) cramming themselves closest to the stage and grooving spastically; a second layer comprised of less animated dancers, MTV aficionados, press and industry folks, and college radio nerds forming a halo around them; the typical scenester/ hipster types standing, motionless and sweat-free, near the back of the club against the bar. The appeal of Skinner to all of these subgroups made absolute sense, but that doesn’t make servicing them any easier. Rascal found himself only penetrating the first third of the throng, and his call to them was to raise their hands, chug their beers, and get ready to give it up.
When Skinner appeared—looking every part the rail-thin, pea-headed, inebriated smartass you’d expect—instead of topping his talented but (let’s admit it) less developed opener, he followed Rascal’s lead. It was simplest to tap into the room’s party vibe—which, it is worth noting, amped up considerably once Skinner took the stage; however, this left levels of experience untouched. In the heat of the venue, with the guys jumping and the girls jiggling, something about Skinner’s playful machismo and pissed revelry took on a disturbing and vaguely threatening air. It’s one thing to flow about pending substance-charged violence and dubious sexual antics when it’s blazing through headphones; it’s another thing to be steeped in the possible manifestation of their presence, without a shred of humility or irony to take it down a notch. Maybe I should have been drunk.
Skinner certainly was, as was his sidekick who backed him up with crooning and danced with abandon that Skinner could only feign. Though he was certainly reckless in his own way, not that it disrupted his performance, which by all assessments was markedly ace. He pleased the crowd by pulling, almost in equal parts from his smash debut Original Pirate Material and the new stunner, A Grand Don’t Come For Free. “Let’s Push Things Forward”, the closest thing he’s had to a conventional hit, seared as Skinner ambled about, goofing off and poking fun at himself. “Geezers Need Excitement” was also ablaze, Skinner delivering with an able calm.
But a song like “Blinded By The Lights” lost its eerie sadness, maintaining the ebullience of clubbing but losing the commentary on loneliness that makes the song so brutally chilling. The in-between show banter also made the show something more foul—Skinner at one point seeming to challenge a group of hecklers to prove their manhood, and at another point asking a girl in the crowd if she was the girl from his hotel room last night. Both of these commentaries could have and probably were just for show. Still, to me it demonstrated the person Skinner who showed up as the Streets that night—a fragile boy puffing up like a man in order to prove he’s hard.
Perhaps we are drawn to Skinner precisely because you never know what you might get; perhaps because we want to watch the accidents, want to be put off by him, only to fall in love with him again on his next arrival. Plenty of artists—Dylan, Badly Drawn Boy, and yes, our dear Eminem—gain part of their notoriety by being tempermental, psychologically testy performers who are prone to lashing out in one way or another. Still, in a room of his devotees, what did Mike Skinner really have to prove? That he can be tough, drunk, and boorish? We already knew—and tough, drunk boors are a dime a dozen. I’m not asking for tears, but I am asking for a smidgen of recognition that what he offers is something more difficult—and ultimately, more satisfying—than a party.