Computers And Blues

17.02.11 Words by: Charlie Jones

The Streets are over. Mike Skinner’s done what he set out to do, so he knows it’s time to finish his drink, say his “Later’s” and do his Houdini impression. ‘Computers And Blues’, then, is his goodbye letter, his leaving speech. It’s such a final album. Looking back over his last decade, he deals with ending relationships, becoming a dad for the first time and leaving his job over 14 tracks, sounding rueful, daydreamy, at ease. Like all poets and drinkers, Mike’s a sentimentalist, and though his final speech is delivered well and you’re proud of him for departing with dignity, it does go on a bit.

One of the greatest pleasures of following The Streets has been watching Skinner grow into the man he is now. The tension that wracked every previous record has faded like yesterday’s hangover. From the insecure swagger of ‘Original Pirate Material’ to the is-this–as-good-as-it-gets? of ‘The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living,’ he’s spent four albums asking, doubting, questioning the world around him. On ‘Computers And Blues’, he starts to answer these questions. Without A Blink is about how quickly he heads out for a night out, and also the way you look at yourself when you know the way you are. He throws down advice like ‘Any hesitation, anything tying you to that bed where you sleep, you’re dead on your feet’ to a younger man. Or maybe a younger him. “Grow up,” he’s saying to the guy that wrote Pranging Out and Blinded By The Lights. “It’s not always pretty out there, but what else are you going to do? Stay in?”

There’s a symmetry about this record, and the way it fits with the last four – in 2006, on Never Went To Church, he takes his father’s passing to wonder how a son turns into his father. On Blip On A Screen, about seeing his firstborn a few pixels high, he’s worked it out. Breakups, too, are handled with a firmer hand – the man that wrote Dry Your Eyes is now telling the ex We Can Never Be Friends. ‘A Grand Don’t Come For Free’ is a whole record about how confusing other people are, but when he says ‘You can’t google the solution to people’s feelings … Sometimes you need to find out for yourself, sometimes you need to be told’ on Puzzled By People, it’s with a shrug, not a shout. Going Through Hell, with its second line ‘Keep going’, isn’t about falling down, it’s about getting back up, and it’s delivered by a man with enough battle scars to take a tumble.

The problem with this record is that the curiosity and the uncertainty is what made The Streets so compelling all along. Lyrically, there are moments of brilliance, with Blip On A Screen’s combination of directness and spend-all-day-unpacking-them lines like ‘Growing to an adult is learning the language of explaining with words what you were as a baby’ and Puzzled By People’s grandstanding entwining of crosswords and working out people’s feelings. But there are too many points where inertia comes to him, something he deals with bravely on Trying To Kill ME. Concerned with his battle with chronic fatigue, it’s one of the saddest lyrics he has ever written, but it’s not enough to shift the idea that his heart is elsewhere. He’s got other things on the go: there’s his filmed vignettes, the grime mixtape he produced, ‘Cyberspace and Reds,’ and Chandler to keep up with.

This distraction is not just there in the lyrics or his Youtube page – you can hear it in his beats. Template-wise, it’s the same Streets story of 30 years of British music processed through the brain of a garage fan, but this record’s sound is more rooted in the comfier ends of the ska, Northern soul, pub rock that he loves, while the alien bits of grime, film music and house are missing totally. Moreover, these songs lack the sheer extremity and ambition of earlier works – even the speed garage track ABC sounds retro. At more than one point he flirts with Britrock, recruiting The Music’s Rob Harvey to sing Going Through Hell’s curiously flat chorus. The beats on this album are a shrug, leaving his combination of dancefloor romanticism, widescreen ambition and sonic invention to youngsters like Jamie XX. It’s not without lovely moments – OMG’s pretty 2step skip, Lock The Locks’ grand, brass-band meander, Trying To Kill ME’s piano-led stoicism – but the overall tone is rather workmanlike: it’s telling that on Lock The Locks he links the end of The Streets with the end of an office job, not a love affair. The best Streets tracks sound crafted from dark nights in the depths of a studio – Mike obsessively tweaking, driving each track to be harsher, more emotional, more melodic, newer, harder, softer, faster, slower. Here, he’s facing the screen with his eyes on the door. ‘Computers And Blues’ is too complex a record and he’s too likeable a guy to begrudge him this, but you can tell he’s working out his notice.

6/10

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