Mike Skinner – the self-proclaimed “Picasso of geezer garage” – has always been a tough artist to get a handle on. Never sitting comfortably in one genre, the Birmingham-born producer/singer seems to straddle a line of his own creation.
Much too witty and intelligent to be lumped in with the current trend of mediocre chroniclers of suburban life, Skinner’s lazy, cultured delivery has never been seen as edgy enough to stand him alongside the blistering exponents of the grime scene like Kano and Sway.
His albums, too, seem to stay one step to the side of the chasing pack. His first, the Mercury-nominated Original Pirate Material, tore the moribund UK Garage scene to pieces and reconstructed it in Skinner’s own image – that of a young 20-something clubber disillusioned with the absolute bilge released by the likes of the Artful Dodger.
Then, just as his breakthrough second album, the month-in-the-life geezer concept album A Grand Don’t Come For Free, had the nascent East London rock scene desperately scrabbling for kitchen sink metaphors, he released The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living, a coruscating and at times thoroughly unpleasant look at his own tragic inability to deal with stardom.
And now – just as we’ve come to terms with the fact that he’s a coke-abusing, popstar-molesting failure climbing the walls of his own drug hell, Skinner turns in an album that eschews almost everything that he’s done before – a blissfully happy treatise on… atheism?
Since the long dark night of the soul of his last album, Skinner appears to have had a road to Damascus moment – quite literally if the video to the lead single The Escapist, which sees Skinner marching alone across France, is to be believed. Everything is Borrowed is a very introspective, personal acceptance that, well, God doesn’t exist, people are fallible but generally decent, and we should all just get along and have a dance before the inevitable conclusion.
And if all that sounds simplistic and patronising, it isn’t – Skinner doesn’t preach an anarchic form of atheism to his listener here (although the slightly clumsy Alleged Legends’ attempts at dumbing down the Bible to its base elements falls a little flat), rather a peaceful meditation on his own existence.
The titular opening track is a remarkably upbeat statement of intent, a fanfare of horns heralding in a drawl with the lines “Just when I discovered the meaning of life, they change it/ I came to this world with nothing/ And I leave with nothing but love”.
The album’s two other standout tracks both revolve around the same idea. Soon to be club-standard Heaven for the Weather is a gleeful throwback to happy hardcore, Skinner rapping “People are intricate/ People aren’t swines/ Let’s tear up the rulebook/ And rely on our minds” over a piano refrain that would be in anyone else’s hands would sound criminally out of date, but Skinner imbibes it with enough cheeky joy to have even the stalest raver reaching for the glowsticks.
Lead single The Escapist is a triumphant, strings-drenched epitaph, perhaps for the apparently soon-to-be-retiring Skinner himself, about letting worldly worries disappear with the promise of something better – not heaven, perhaps, but something like it. As he sings “All these walls were never really there/ Nor the ceiling or the chair… I’m not trapped in a box, so I’m glancing at rocks/ I’m dancing off docks” it’s a victorious, hopeful end to the record, in direct contrast to where we last left him, contemplating suicide in a bedsit.
The album also marks a maturing for Skinner – not just emotionally and thematically (you won’t hear a single mention of the club-bound geezers of his first three records) but also sonically. Everything is Borrowed is a huge step up from the claustrophobic two step of his last record – here there’s disco, funk, swinging French accordion and even a reasonable stab at smooth Jazz, on the Miles Davis-apeing I Love You More (Than You Like Me).
Not everything works – when Skinner deviates from his existential musings it can go horribly wrong, like the saccharine Strongest Person I Know, a lamentable attempt at tender balladeering that could easily have been jettisoned, but even a small mid-record slump is enlivened by Skinner’s constant invention – an imagined conversation between a would be suicide and an ancient philosopher on The Edge of A Cliff is a highlight. But more than anything it’s just a relief to see this rare talent back from the brink, still, as always, one step ahead of the game.