Joining Nellie McKay and Trouble Everyday on my Truly Worthwhile Albums of 2004 list is A Grand Don't Come For Free by The Streets.
Yeah, that's right. I'm actually handing that title to an album from England (first since Clinic's Internal Wrangler and Radiohead's Kid A). Where Original Pirate Material struck me as stilted and monotonous (if not without wit), Grand's storyline (guy loses money, girl, friends, consciousness, cool, innocence) gives Mike Skinner's lyrical gifts a stronger sense of focus, inspiring him to new heights of descriptive detail. The chorus hooks are inspired, the verses move with purpose and there's little to none meta-boasting at all. At a time when everybody is announcing ON the record that the record is great, Skinner shows remarkable confidence by staying in character throughout.
While its best enjoyed as a whole, the album's standouts thankfully don't require you to know that Mr. Roboto is Kilroy or anything like that. I'm dying to play "You're Fit And You Know It" next time I DJ, as it delivers all the "Parklife" shtick that anglophiles go apeshit over (dude needs to sample "Step In Time" from Mary Poppins someday), but ups the energy and replaces Damon Albarn's wackass Davies-drollery with an acute description of internal hook-up prospect analysis. "Could Well Be In" and "Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way?" describe romantic curiousity and contentment so perfectly that the eventual heartbreak of "Dry Your Eyes" is made all the more arresting.
Jess Harvell complained on ILX about how nobody warned him about "Dry Your Eyes," and while I knew better than to experience to the track in public, there's no amount of warning that could prepare you for how gutwrenching and affecting the song is (if you've ever been dumped by someone you still loved, at least). Where most writers are content to merely emote, Skinner deftly leaps from confessions of emotional vulnerability to an objective description of body language, capturing the futility of his pleas without a trace of self-pity. Some will claim (especially if this gets released as a single) the song engages in maudlin emotional exploitation, but that probably says more about the critic's lack of empathy than Skinner's effort.
A lot of critics have been warning off folks who dislike Original Pirate Material from checking out Grand, claiming that the music is even more taxing and static. I really don't know what the hell they're talking about. Skinner's improved sense of dramatic timing takes one's focus away from any lack of musical drive, the choruses are less rote and you don't really get many chances to get bored with the song (not much extended instrumental fade-out hell). While people who ignore lyrics entirely should avoid Skinner, Grand is the superior listen for people who were being distracted by the musical mundanity rather than obsessing on it. I haven't the foggiest whether or not this still qualifies as garage, grime, eski or whatever, since A Grand Don't Come For Free sounds like the kind of album that transcends all that subcultural shit and winds up being pop. Chris Martin's on it, for chrissakes.