[14 September 2008]
Maybe the point of The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living was lost until now. Maybe Mike Skinner just needed to document the fall before the valiant return. Maybe the depressing, conceited, and sometimes downright misogynist musings on that album were simply a means to an end, that being a tale of redemption for an embattled, embittered artist.
Or, maybe the guy just doesn’t know how to filter his thoughts, for better or for worse, and Everything Is Borrowed is simply a statement of where he is right now.
Regardless of his motivations or the amount of premeditation that went into the Streets’ latest effort, it’s hard not to feel pretty good for Mike Skinner right now. It’s possible that, at a mere two months away from 30 years old, Skinner has simply conquered his bout with the return of Saturn, and he’s ready to get on with his life a happier, healthier man. Happy and healthy aren’t really adjectives normally associated with Skinner’s output as the Streets thus far, and perhaps that’s enough to make Everything Is Borrowed worth a listen. Unfortunately, a happy Mike Skinner simply starts to sound like Streets-lite after a while, a muzak-flavored approximation of an artist that we thought we’d come to know.
The first offense is radio pandering: “Heaven for the Weather” and “Way of the Dodo” sound as though they’re tailor-made for putting Skinner at the top of the same pop charts he conquered back in ‘04 when “Dry Your Eyes” was a tremendous hit. “Heaven for the Weather” is a club hit in waiting, a 2008 take on the old “all the cool people will be in Hell” cliché, while “Way of the Dodo” combines a little bit of the inconvenient truthing that’s so in vogue now with perhaps the only vocal delivery that can be clearly defined as “rapping”.
Interestingly, whoever is in charge of releasing Skinner’s singles eschewed those more radio-ready tracks in favor of album closer “The Escapist”, which is actually one of the strongest efforts on the disc. This is where Skinner’s new outlook seems utterly at home, in front of a backdrop of thick strings, a gospel choir, and the occasional trumpet. Skinner offers “I blink my eyes, this is reminding me / Life flies in the blink of an eye / We all die for reasons / New tides, four seasons,” as he muses contentedly on the inconsequentiality of his own life. The point is that to take yourself too seriously is to overestimate your importance, and it’s an interesting one coming from someone who so deviously dangled the tabloid fodder of his own life in front of us a mere album ago.
Still, the end result of Skinner’s newly established bent toward philosophizing is less insightful than it is platitudinal. “I came to this world with nothing / And I leave with nothing but love / Everything else is just borrowed,” goes the refrain of the title track, and we can’t help but wonder if we haven’t heard that somewhere before. “On the Edge of a Cliff” is a talkdown from suicide, and while you’d have to be utterly insensitive and cynical to question Skinner’s sincerity on such a topic, it’s done by asking the question of “what are the chances that you actually exist?” While it’s nice that such a question was so mind-expanding for Skinner, contemplation of it is hardly the revelation that the song builds up to.
None of this is even to mention that Skinner’s newfound sincerity and clear-headedness still hasn’t purged such cringe-inducing couplets as “Does she do or does she don’t / Love me true or fuck me won’t?” from his arsenal.
It is true that for as many winces as he may inspire, Skinner still has the power to conjure up smiles with his couplets as well. “The secret handshake of three mad mates / It makes me pleased to share traits” is an awfully nice way of saying the guy loves his friends, for instance. The problem is that the lines may be good, but the danger is gone. The music is largely calming and uplifting, there are lots of pianos, strings, and other forms of live instrumentation, and the urgency that used to permeate Skinner’s delivery feels more like lackadaisical stream-of-consciousness drivel. The good lines lose their power, while the clichés are magnified. While one would never want to wish anything but the best on another human being, it’s almost a little sad that, on Everything Is Borrowed, the Streets are no longer dangerous.