Well, no one can, with justice, claim that they didn’t know this was coming. Mike Skinner has been promising for a while now that his retirement of The Streets was imminent, and stating quite clearly and definitely that this, album number 5, would be the last. How much more poignant, then, that his bowing-out should see a glorious return to the sort of form that made Original Pirate Material and A Grand Don’t Come For Free such deservedly acclaimed and adored albums.
Although this is certainly not a fully-fledged “concept album” like the aforementioned, there are nevertheless several distinct themes and threads running through it. Neatly, many of these these intersect with those from Skinner’s back catalogue: with concerns that have always been key to The Streets. So, several tracks describe, debate or evoke the kind of drug-dabbling rave environs captured so superlatively by Weak Become Heroes (on Original Pirate Material) and Blinded By The Lights (from A Grand Don’t Come For Free). While not quite reaching those heights, the cocky, laddy, aggressive-sounding Going Through Hell nicely captures “the joy of the fight”, while Soldiers – with one of the hookiest, catchiest choruses on the album – sings of the joy of “80,000 people in a state of rowdy fever / There will never be a sequel to this evening”.
The best of the “drug songs” though is undoubtedly Roof Of Your Car. Here, we’re at the mellowed-out, post-rave, watching-the-stars stage of the evening. Much gentle philosophising takes place on a cosmic high: sensing “echoes of the creation of this universe”, while simultaneously relishing “a fat lemon bifta”; or musing that “One day they’re going to make electrical implants for the brain / That simulate raving sensations, Wayne”. Skinner’s rhymes – always wonderful – here sometimes border on the superlative, with poetic couplets that perfectly describe a time and a place, like “Pull out the glove box, blanket in the boot / Yesterday’s sweets, a hankering for some fruit”. Elsewhere darker times are hinted at, but not overly dwelled on, as in Outside Inside’s admission that “weed makes me want to not be in new places: fight it”; or admonishment in ABC to be “careful with the K”.
Also heavily featured are songs about love. With that every-lad articulacy still intact, Skinner again pulls of the feat of bringing a tear to the eye with a tale that is told in such prosaic, everyday language that it never actually seems mawkish or soppy, despite (arguably) being exactly that. OMG is the tale of a courtship seemingly derailed, the protagonist devastated to find that the woman he’d been slowly falling for had all of a sudden changed her Facebook status to “in a relationship”. The heartwarming twist / pay-off at the end of the track makes for one of the album’s loveliest moments, a genuine feel-good ending. We Can Never Be Friends describes the ending of a relationship, the soulful female vocal adding to the sense of regret and melancholy; while Puzzled By People uses crosswords as an extended metaphor for another break-up, and the difficulty of understanding others – “You can’t google the solution to people’s feelings”, Skinner states, ruefully.
This is, of course, an album about endings. Last track Lock The Locks again uses metaphor, describing someone quitting a dull office job when really it is in fact Skinner’s goodbye to The Streets. Elsewhere references to “my exit strategies”, or there “never [being] a sequel”, or how he “wants it to end” stand out like signposts towards The End. There is also a sense of growing up, moving on and new beginnings, though, which stops it from becoming depressing. Blip On A Screen is a serenade to an unborn child – quite the most beautiful piece of language on the album. Honest about his fears: “For the first time in my adulthood, the ‘worst that could happen’ is utterly unthinkable”, but also optimistic, excited about the imminent arrival. As he puts it: “I love you / You’re only 100 pixels on a scan”. Later, Skinner assures us “I’ll never let go of what makes me create” (on Trying To Kill M.E.), and then seems to seek to reassure himself on Trust Me, by saying “The future is not evil”.
What a swansong, then! Marvellously, yet frustratingly too, Mike Skinner seems to have produced a funny, sad, emotional, honest album to rank up there with his very finest work, making us fall in love with him all over again, just as he leaves us. Now that almost sounds like the subject for a song by The Streets…