So what happens when all your dreams come true? It was a dilemma that tested Noel Gallagher after he was forced to stop writing songs about wanting to be a rock’n'roll star, and no doubt it’s one taxing Alex Turner at the moment (can Arctic Monkeys ever convincingly write about riding in a taxi to High Green via Hillsborough again?).
In the case of Mike Skinner, a man whose songs have always been borne of personal experience, you get mashed off your face on drugs, make a play for supposedly squeaky-clean pop stars, generally behave like a bit of a prick to all and sundry, and then write a record about it. The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living is miles away from the idealistic garage beats of Original Pirate Material, and pretty far removed from the gloriously ambitious concept of A Grand Don’t Come For Free. Against all the odds though – can the self-pity of a millionaire rock star ever be listenable? – it’s still a compelling record.
If there’s one thing to be gleaned here, it’s that the cheeky, self-confident swagger of Mike Skinner hides a whole bag of issues. Paranoia, self-loathing, jealousy and self-pity are all amongst the emotions on display here, yet Skinner uses his usual devices of humour and pathos to stop the listener from wanting to give him a good slap and tell him to get back to his day job if he’s so unhappy.
The single When You Wasn’t Famous has already had the gossips abuzz with its tale of a crack-smoking pop star who Skinner had a failed relationship with, but beneath the tabloid-friendly shock lyrics such as “considering the amount of prang you had, you looked amazing on CD:UK”, lies some telling observations about the pressure of pop stars to live idealised lifestyles (“I knew that when the people who thought they knew you, when they found out, I would’ve been mocked/Which is ironic, �cos in reality, standing next to you I look fucking soft”).
When You Wasn’t Famous is also one of the few songs on the album that has a commercial appeal – a lot of the tracks here are harsh and raw, with opener Prangin’ Out being a case in point. It’s brilliantly put together, with backing vocals designed to sound like paranoid voices in Skinner’s coked-up head, but it’s not easy listening. Can’t Con An Honest John is similarly abrasive, but this time Skinner just sounds like he’s rambling and the results soon become boring.
It’s the moments where Skinner moves away from celebrity strife and touches upon more personal moments that he really strikes gold. Out Of The Window is a beautifully written analysis on male infidelity that will have many a man sheepishly nodding their head in embarrassed recognition, but the standout track of the album is Never Went To Church.
An epic ballad in the style of Dry Your Eyes, Never Went To Church is both a poignant tribute to Mike Skinner’s late father and an examination of the meaning of religion in people’s lives. Its gentle melody meanders through the verses until a huge chorus swoops in and knocks you sideways. Married to lyrics that are amongst Skinner’s finest yet, it’s a wonderful track that will have many people holding back the tears.
There’s also the soulful Two Nations, once rejected for a Notorious BIG duets album, a witty take on US-British culture relations (“I’m proud we gave you people like John Lennon…even though you shot him as well”) although there’s also some filler in the shape of the irritating Memento Mori.
The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living is, at times, self-obsessed, whiney and doesn’t quite live up to the extraordinary masterpiece that was Skinner’s last album. Yet despite being hard to listen to at times, there are still moments of magic here that elevate it into something rather special. And let’s face it, if we have to have a pop star complaining about how tough his life is, then Mike Skinner is a far more entertaining host than Robbie Williams…