The Streets - A Grand Don't Come For Free
Listening to Original Pirate Material, with its tales of wild weekends in Amsterdam, kebab-shop fights and ecstasy-muddled nights out, who would have believed that a couple of years later The Streets would be playlisted by Radio 2? The single in question is Dry Your Eyes, one of A Grand Don't Come For Free's finer moments. Give or take a couple of swears, which, showing Mike Skinner's appreciation for the rhythms of everyday speech, are brilliantly placed in close-proximity to one another, this is essentially All Saints' Never Ever for blokes, the soundtrack to dumped geezers everywhere weeping into their beer. One suspects it will climb high up the charts, widen The Streets' audience, and, who knows, maybe even convert many people who previously thought they were crap. (It's a long time since an act last provoked such divided opinion.)
However, despite the impression given by Dry Your Eyes and first single, the Parklife-ish Fit But You Know It, not much seems to have changed. Okay, so this time round the tracks are tied to a loose narrative, concerning the titular (missing) grand and the birth, life and death of a relationship, but there's only a subtle shift in the emphasis of the lyrical content and, if anything, A Grand Don't Come For Free is less musically diverse than its predecessor.
Most of the tracks here revolve around slow beats with a repeated sample on top. It Was Supposed To Be So Easy and Blinded By The Lights are good examples of simple yet effective production, the former with its mocking fanfare as Mike endures minor tragedy after minor tragedy, and the latter evoking the inside of a club with choice electronic noise. Get Out Of My House sticks out as a Dizzee Rascal-ish garage duet with female rapper C-Mone, on this evidence not a girl you'd mess around, and Fit But You Know It works succesfully in context to break up the album. Otherwise the pace is occasionally monotonous.
Original Pirate Material's lyrics varied in quality enough to make claims such as "Shakespeare for clubbers" a little overstated. Sure it had the marvellous pro-weed argument The Irony Of It All, but it also had the trite It's Too Late. The good news is A Grand Don't Come For Free is more consistent in this respect, while Skinner continues to hit on experiences we can all relate to.
A darker sequel to Weak Become Heroes, Blinded By The Lights is not just another ode to E, again with the sort of detail that should have pill-poppers smiling and nodding their heads in recognition, but also a document of common club annoyances (losing your mates, long toilet queues, mobile phone reception going dead). Still on the hedonism front, Fit But You Know It and Such A Twat describe package holiday fun and regrets. It should also be noted that this reviewer lost count of the number of spliffs smoked, although here weed is kept to a fact of life rather than the subject of debate.
Three tracks reveal a more sensitive side to The Streets: Could Well Be In captures that butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling of falling in love, and Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way is the point where you'd rather stay in with your partner than go out with your mates. (That this is followed immediately by Get Out Of My House maybe says something about the state of relationships in the modern world.) Then, of course, there's the aforementioned Dry Your Eyes.
Where A Grand Don't Come For Free sacrifices its universality is in Skinner's decision to tie the songs to a narrative, meaning a couple of tracks, including the eight minute Empty Cans, won't make much sense unless you've been paying close attention to what went before.
To these ears, A Grand Don't Come For Free maintains the quality of Original Pirate Material rather than being the huge step forward some claim. There's no shock of the new this time round, but this is still a brave, well-observed and, most importantly, likeable album, which will no doubt feature heavily in end of year polls. As was the case with its predecessor, the question of "Where next, Mike?" now hangs in the air.