The Streets

Computers and Blues

You’ll have to meet us halfway on this, but Mike Skinner’s swansong plays like a cracking old wake – Skinner’s of course. Convenient, eh? Naturally, we’re talking about the Bostonian family saga, pitchers-to-the-heavens, Motown-finale type, not your… well… funereal wake, with the cucumber sandwiches, the concerted frowning, the ‘somebody please say something… anything’. There’ll be the quiet moments of reflection (‘We Can Never Be Friends’); teary smiles (‘Roof Of You Car’, ‘OMG’); a little boozy dancing (‘Without You’, ‘Trust Me’); some of Dad’s air guitar (‘Going Through Hell’); surprising revelations (‘Outside Inside’); the odd unwelcome appearance (‘Those That Don’t Know’) and after brushing over the mad Howard Hughes years at the end – a solemn toast goodbye, in the shape of ‘Lock the Locks’. Most of all there’ll be the glad memories of your best times together, when the man was in his prime. The self-produced Computers And Blues is such a surefooted return to the Skinner’s glory days that you wonder what he’s been at since A Grand Don’t Come For Free.

He lost his way in quite spectacular fashion on the shrill, cloying A Hard Way (two words: Pranging Out). While Everything is Borrowed regained some of that lost ground, it was a second consecutive album of cheap and flimsy build. The songwriting was sedentary and the barebones production both uninspired and half-hearted. Vindicating his worst critics, Skinner had become a caricature of the people he was smart enough to satirize, or worse – a tuneless novelty act of sorts, more Danny Dyer than Ian Dury. It was a confounding undoing of the man who introduced grand narratives, character arcs, and even some intertextuality to dance music, as best seen on the immensely fertile AGDCFF, arguably the greatest British concept album the pop charts could entertain since the 70s.

Computers, by comparison, shines. Despite the moody artwork and the title – vaguely suggestive of some type of techno alienation – it’s a hopeful album, golden and thankful (accounting for Skinner’s anxious introspection, that is) For the most part he stays commendably loyal to the organizing theme, occasionally sprinkling electronic nods to ones-and-zeroes and digi disorientation, evoking a kind of hip hop The Sophtware Slump and espousing the man-machine schtick without the usual embarrassing results. Ultimately, though, the concept is a Mcguffin. Computers is about Skinner’s future, which over the course of the album he resolves is going to be just fine, diamond, and so on.

With its immeasurably more intricate, substantial production, such as on ‘Computers And Blue’ it’s as if Skinner is finally ready to make an effort again, for old times sake; one for the road. He restores intensity to his sound with ‘Outside Inside’, and in dynamic, dramatic ebb and flow with his ruminations he incorporates a host of both narrative and abstract vocal cuts – mostly female. Pulse-quickening boosts of energy, they add big splodges of colour and dimension to ‘A Hard Way’’s rudimentary matrix and Cohen-esque air of one-man-and-his-troubles. There’s also, finally, some bass – sultry and satisfying on ‘Outside Inside’ and the brief ‘ABC’, re-injecting a bit of urban London into the equation. After plinky dreck like ‘Never Went to Church’, which was as if Peter Andre burst a slimy peck and out popped Gary Lightfoot, this is all extremely refreshing. Perhaps the nadir of his career, it was a firm example of Skinner’s weakness for grandiose aspirational moments getting the better of him, or to be cynical about it: his attempt at contriving another ‘Dry You Eyes’. The ‘meaningful’ bits can and do work (the "picking up to run" outro on ‘Empty Cans’ is a genuine lip-wobbler) but up until Computers the outcome was all-too-often inane, cod-profound melodrama. ‘Blip On A Screen’ and the acoustic ‘We Will Can Never Be Friends’ avoid the same fate by a hair’s length, but remain the weak moments here.

That said, it’s the passionate, euphoric songs that elevate the album – easy and bushy-tailed crowd-pleasers like the feel-good ‘Without Thinking’. The most addictive home-made chart-filler since Jamie T’s ‘Sticks And Stones’, it rivals any of his best singles, while ‘OMG’ ignites into the kind of sugared femme-garage Jaimeson and Sweet Female Attitude made in the early Noughties. Another corker, ‘Trust Me’ applies a gladdened Philly soul-disco backdrop to a brisk insight into a day in the life of Skinner: the homebound stoner. ‘Soldiers’ is either about poverty or metaphorically Skinner’s meditation on the Afghanistan conflict, which sounds about as advisable as Richard Bacon at a holocaust conference, but it’s another genuinely moving outing. Aged by Procol Harum-style Hammond organ, the bliss-infused ‘Roof Of Your Car’ has Mike stargazing in hot summer pastures. Skinner’s fame and riches excepting, it smacks of the type of scenario that crops up Ken Loach dramas like Sweet Sixteen or Spike Lee’s Clockers, in which an alert working-class figure in the Mark Renton vein adjourns to the countryside for a taste of life outside the urban prison. A clutch of deluxe Skinner-pop, these tracks serve to remind you that, firstly, that he can write a tune, but more acutely of how utterly likeable he is. Owning any kind of personality in pop is rare, but a wholly genuine, endearingly flawed charisma is precious, and he will be missed in quite the same way Jarvis Cocker was during is post-Pulp Parisian exile.

There’s nothing of the unassuming genius that informed ‘Blinded By The Lights’ and the epochal ‘Weak Become Heroes’, but Computers And Blues pips even AGDCF for tunes. Right down to ‘Puzzled By People’, beginning aptly with a sampled "Love Is The Answer!", it’s an extremely listenable parting gift. His last salute before passing the baton to anthem-maker Example, ‘Lock The Locks’ begins with elegiac horns. Explaining his decision to depart the airwaves, Skinner confesses with slight contrition that "Even though it looked random, my heart had left / I was just going in tandem". Computers And Blues is a fitting end to any act’s career; life-affirming, triumphant, reconciling and best of all, a novel turn from Mike Skinner. It genuinely marks him out as a true British original, a supreme purveyor of "dancing music to drink tea to". So, let’s put on our classics and have a little dance, shall we?

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