ALBUM REVIEW: The Streets – Computers and Blues

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B+ | UNIVERSAL | 2.8.11 | MOG | AMAZON

The end of The Streets has been much chronicled – all across the internet you can find poignant reflections on Mike Skinner, his year-long break from technology, and his thoughts on the evolution of music. He has long said that The Streets would be a finite project, and here he is, delivering on that promise. Computers And Blues will almost certainly be the final salvo in the career of Skinner under The Streets moniker.

Some of the most interesting prose related to The Streets comes from Skinner himself, much of it drawn out in an interview he did with The Guardian early this year. "The most interesting element of anything is its death,” he told Caspar Llewellyn Smith. “So if you're going to talk about the Streets, ending the Streets is probably a good thing to talk about."

Well fine, let’s talk about it.

A quick history of The Streets, to catch you up: Original Pirate Material is awesome, skyrockets Skinner close to being known. A Grand Don’t Come For Free is a conceptual masterpiece, makes him famous. The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living is a misunderstood flop. Everything Is Borrowed rights the ship, but is largely superficial. That brings us here, to Computers And Blues, the end bracket on The Streets. It’s a fitting end.

Never one to beat around the bush, Skinner confronts the reality of the death of The Streets explicitly and head on. Computers And Blues’ final track is a trumpet-tinged look back at his career, complete with literal packing up of boxes and locking of locks. “I’m packing up my desk, put it into boxes, knock out the lights, lock the locks and leave.” He has been candid about his growing displeasure – or even distaste – for what The Streets represented, and he continues that on the track. “I knew very soon that the mug in the room was the mug, yours truly, ‘cause I never stood up for what I wanted to do.”

But reading that, you’d probably think that Computers And Blues is a phoned-in final album from an artist just ready to be done with it. In fact, reading most of Skinner’s commentary – or even judging by the fact that songs like “Trust Me” and “Roof Of Your Car” were created years ago – would indicate the same sort of detachment. The reality sounds far from that. Computers And Blues is a return to form for the genius who wrote A Grand Don’t Come For Free, and although it doesn’t match that album (perhaps that comparison is why Skinner has grown weary of The Streets?) it is a fitting send off for the enigmatic emcee’s rollercoaster career.

The album kicks off on an abrasive note, with a high pitched electronic shriek over the top of a backmasked Skinner saying “The world is outside.” The timbre soon descends to a smooth wash and a more familiar beat. “Wake up and smell the coffee,” Skinner invites us, laying the scene with a deft turn of phrase that is repeated throughout the track: “The world is outside, but inside warm, inside informal, outside stormy, inside normal.”

That sort of bifurcated world is omnipresent on Computers And Blues, as if Skinner believes we need to make a direct choice between asleep and awake, inside and outside, black and white. It’s often all or nothing; you’re either in a relationship or done with everything, there’s no in-between friendship. Really, that’s the beauty of this album – indeed, the beauty of The Streets. Nothing is halfhearted. Every commitment is complete, whether in the lyrics of a song or the trajectory of a musician.

On that note, briefly put, Skinner is a musician more than a rapper. He writes, produces, and mixes everything on these albums of his, and he’s got an ear for melodies as much as he does for rhymes. Many of his verses eschew rhyme entirely, opting instead for a singsong patter that focuses the final couplets on interior syllables, like an offhanded poet making clumsy stabs at a moving target. Even when he’s off, though, he never misses – that distinctive style has served him well for a decade, and continues to sound good here. The beats are heavy with guitars punched by blips and bleeps, and the hooks are almost all earworms. The lyrics are cogent, coherent, and comprehensible. At one point in his career, Skinner was a rapper with an ear for music; on this album, he’s a musician with a knack for rap. Computers And Blues may be the most sonically complete album Skinner has ever made.

Because this album takes something from each of its predecessors, and wraps those theses up in a record that is simultaneously tightly bound and sprawlingly off-handed. In Skinner’s mind, Computers And Blues is not a new direction. “It's all the directions I've already been down,” he says, “rehashed into something that's…quite nice on the ears.” I humbly disagree with the emcee here, because it is that rehashing and mixing that makes this a new, more whole direction for The Streets. There’s no cohesive plot line, per se, but the songs do somehow feel connected. Computers And Blues combines Skinner’s late-period forays into choruses and clichés with his formidable story-telling abilities and cheeky twists; the end result feels like the only album that could have ended this project without disappointment.

Skinner retains his greatest talent, in the ability to make the mundane – or at the very least, common – seem fascinating; “A Blip On A Screen” is a humble introspection on the meaning of a sonogram image, “only a hundred pixels on a scan.” Somehow, standout “Going Through Hell” makes “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the fight in the dog” sound downright fresh and profound. “Trying To Kill M.E.” is an autobiographical account of his struggle with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, a disease Skinner calls “yuppie flu.” He takes a single Facebook state update, on “OMG,” and spins it into either an indictment on how technology rules our emotions, or a look at Skinner’s self-doubting inner monologue, or a confusion-inducing mix up, depending on your approach.

Whereas Everything Is Borrowed intentionally avoided any references to modern life, Computers And Blues actively embraces it; the very title alone acknowledges Skinner’s tortured relationship with technology, while songs name-drop Google and reference social media. The album – and everything surrounding it – is a product of the digital age.

At times, Computers And Blues seems melancholic and world weary. That may be just my projection upon reflection on the end of The Streets, or perhaps I’m making a nonexistent connection between the album on wax and Skinner’s commentary online. You’ll have to listen for yourself, I guess – I’m having trouble separating my head and my heart. Still, I feel like I hear a sigh around every corner, sort of resignation permeating the album. The edge of Skinner’s voice is gone, replaced by a flow marked by malaise. It’s not that he’s not trying hard, or pushing himself – listen to the hook on “Those That Don’t Know” for evidence far to the contrary – it’s that he doesn’t have that same youthful exuberance or that complicated story that’s dying the break free. Instead of manifestos, we get musings. Instead of pontificating, he puzzles.

My apologies for being so long winded. But its rare that we get such a humble goodbye from a tortured master, and even rarer still that it’s lasting. Eminem and Jay-Z can retire a thousand times; with The Streets, though, I believe it. There’s no disappointment on my part regarding Skinner’s departure. By all counts, he has earned every right to step out whenever he wants. Computers And Blues may not be a perfect album, but that’s what makes it a perfect getaway. It’s doesn’t disappoint longtime fans, but neither does it brilliantly beg for a follow-up. There’s a sort of melancholy that makes it clear that there isn’t supposed to be anything else, that Skinner, in his own words, should go “out without a blink.” In a strange and sad way, it’s a relief.

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