Around 2004, the rise of the digital download model for purchasing music was taking off. The start of the 00s saw an increased rise in file-sharing and peer-2-peer networks to distribute music illegally. Platforms such as Napster and Kazaa were popular and it caused alarm in the music industry. The effects are still arguably in effect to this day, particularly with the popularity of music streaming websites, which means that listeners can listen to practically anything they want to.
The key difference with this shift in the market and how consumers will listen to music is that there seems to be more of a focus on singles and songs. To get that 79p per track, or to get that song on to a playlist; which means that efforts are arguably on singles than albums more than ever. This was still the case at the turn of the millennium as well as the present day. Was the art of the album dying out?
With their sophomore album “A Grand Don’t Come For Free”, The Streets aimed to go for a concept album. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of a concept album (pun intended), it’s an album that’s unified with themes, story and characters that are intended to be taken as a whole. In terms of “A Grand Don’t Come For Free”, this means that the album tells you a story where every song fits within a certain narrative. It’s a bold decision that works in its favour, as it gives it a separate identity from its predecessor. Skinner himself said that at the time he was reading a lot about screenwriting and forming a narrative, and it shows through in the writing of the songs in this album.
As groundbreaking as “Original Pirate Material” still feels, fourteen years after its release: “A Don’t Come For Free” continues to have much to say. Re-listens of the album reveal more layers to the story and highlights just how much is packed into the eleven songs. The songs all feel like a strong cohesive unit that tell a small story, having something to say but still also pivotal to the overall narrative of the album. Following Skinner’s protagonist, the album covers the duration of his relationship with a woman called Simone, and touches on his friendships with two men: Scott and Dan. Throughout the album there’s a holiday, romantic moments watching TV, the possibility of infidelity and heartbreak. All whilst trying to get over the fact that he’s lost £1,000 recently that he had been saving.
So what exactly does Skinner want to explore with “A Grand Don’t Come For Free?” There’s a lot of room for the tracks to cover similar grounds to what we listened to on the debut, with a slice of working class life intercut with relationships, self-analysis and the monotony of life. But with the story being told, it feels a lot more relatable. There’s the nature of friendship in a few songs and the album even manages to hold a lot of focus on how to handle an outlook on life.
Opener “It Was Supposed to Be So Easy” shows us a day in the life of Skinner’s narrator; failing at the most mundane of tasks and setting up the macguffin of the album: the missing “grand” (British slang for £1000). Throughout the album we see the beginning of the relationship (“Could Well Be In”), the courtship (“Wouldn’t Have It Any Other Way”), the inevitable breakdown (“Get Out of My House”) and the fallout (“Dry Your Eyes”). Other songs flesh out Skinner’s role and his own failings (“Fit But You Know It”, “Such A Twat”) before finally he ends up having to come to a choice of reacting to events in two ways (“Empty Cans”).
Initial listens reveal a story of a guy who meets a girl, falls for girl, then gets dumped because girl was seeing boy’s friend whilst on holiday. But the album invites re-listening, as the connections and references to other parts of the album begin to make sense. “Blinded For The Lights”, for example, is a powerful recreation of the feeling of being on a night out after a few drinks in a club. It has a disorienting feel that matches Skinner’s wistful and distant delivery; but spoils the events of the album. It shows cracks in the relationship from the start and delves an extra layer into the album.
“A Grand Don’t Come For Free” in 2018 is still a powerful album to listen to. In an era where social equality is on the verge of blowing up and the male dominance in popular culture is under closer scrutiny, this album has moments that look like it’s also foreshadowing this. There’s a strong through line of deconstructing toxic masculinity in certain songs; with Skinner not afraid to show vulnerability yet deliberately overplays the machismo in other songs. The real arc of the album is not the exploration of a relationship, but the protagonist’s world view and how he relates to the people around him.
It’s the quest for empathy, and Skinner’s long way round to discovering it. You could argue the album has an unreliable narrator at the centre of it, as the protagonist’s behaviour can be questionable at times. We’re told of his world view early on, believing that he deserves true friends that are on his side; but by the album’s end he sees things are more complex than that. Simone’s described as being tough to trust, and Skinner’s actions in some songs don’t really help her trust him more. The missing £1,000 acting as a macguffin; the symbol of this world view. The duality of “Empty Cans” showing the consequences of seeing the wrong and right ways to have this perspective. His pessimism leaves him with no money, no friends and a beating from a TV repairman. The more optimistic ending sees him with fewer mates and no girlfriend, but an appreciation that everyone else has their own issues. With that, he gains a better outlook and the money that he’d lost.
As a cohesive whole, the album is brilliant, a genuine modern masterpiece. But taken out of context, the songs still stand up as stand alone singles. “Fit But You Know It” is a strong fun catchy song about holidays and those brief moments that will last in the memory. But the standout track is the number one single “Dry Your Eyes”, which is the immediate fallout of being dumped. It hits directly in the feels and manages to pack in a lot of imagery in four-and-a-half-minutes. It’s quite vivid in describing the process of the end of the relationship, and helps with a key strength of the previous album: relatability.
“Original Pirate Material” was Skinner using his wit to tell small stories of working class Britain. “A Grand Don’t Come For Free” is a hit TV show becoming a blockbuster movie in comparison. The storytelling expands and brings together a lot of themes and ideas and rewards multiple listens. It’s an album that you’d revisit as you would a film. It’s The Streets’ best album. If you were going to listen to one album by them, it would be this one.