When Mike Skinner’s The Streets called it a day in 2011 it was with a whimper rather than a bang. One classic album (Original Pirate Material) and one great album (A Grand Don’t Come For Free) exhausted a sound that’s been much emulated ever since. Then, the release of a deliberately ‘boring’ (Skinner’s own description) third LP – 2006’s (slightly) underrated The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living – left The Streets’ next two albums facing an uphill challenge to re-establish Skinner in the affections of the record-buying public.
Neither record – the musically strong, lyrically weak Everything Is Borrowed and the patchily good Computers And Blues – was quite up to the task. As a result, his latest project, The D.O.T., has been met with interest that’s most generously described as ‘mild’. For The D.O.T., Skinner has teamed up with Rob Harvey, the singer from The Music – another noughties act who suffered a sharp decline in critical and commercial success.
On Diary – the swift follow-up to last year’s self-released debut And That – Skinner and Harvey’s vocal duties aren’t shared evenly: Harvey takes the lead on most of the album’s 12 tracks, while the talk-rapping that Skinner deployed during on The Streets’ records is entirely absent. That’s not necessarily problematic: Harvey has a decent rock voice, high on lung capacity and retaining a distinctive Yorkshire burr. And on Diary’s more laidback cuts Don’t Look At The Road and How Hard Can It Be? he’s able to dial back the histrionics to produce something approaching a soulful croon.
On three tracks, Skinner sings. Not even Skinner’s own mother could argue that the noises his voice makes on Under A Ladder, Wherever You May Be and What Am I Supposed To Do? are particularly pleasant, but they at least provide some welcome respite from the occasionally overbearing smoothness of the rest of the album.
While there’s nothing actively bad on Diary, not a single track holds a candle to even the weakest moments off the first two Streets albums. Given that Skinner appears to be taking a back seat concertedly for much of the album, that’s perhaps an unfair comparison to make. His production work on Diary is good: it’s subtle yet clearly worked-over, and there are some nice musical touches scattered around: the brass on Under A Ladder and Left At The Lights, the polite disco sway of Left Alone, and the vaguely Wu Tang Clan-esque strut of What Am I Supposed to Do?
Trouble is, Skinner’s easy-on-the-ears music is all-too-frequently applied to melodies that are equally demure. And the words are an even bigger let-down. Skinner used to be a gifted storyteller, one capable of pulling off an album-long overarching narrative (as he did on A Grand Don’t Come For Free).
On Diary, however, the introspection and candour promised by the title fails to materialise; in its stead are depictions of emotional epiphanies, declarations of love and low-level angst – all frustratingly short on specific details and, in turn, any real charm or wit. Occasionally Diary’s lyrics just feel tossed-off – the chorus refrain of What Am I Supposed To Do? being the worst offender: “I stand there a minute, just staring at the ground / ‘Cause it’s just laziness, really / To just stand there, staring at the ground”.
The result is an album that is, for the most part, merely pleasant. Given that it’s co-authored by a man who made some of the best, most distinctive music of the last decade, that’s a sizable shame.