It’s a tale as old as time. Artists create art that explore the poorer end of life, revealing themselves to a world that might not have known life was how they sing/rap/show in the music they created. They get famous, make money and their life isn’t like that anymore. The content of their songs change, and thus a career rubicon has been crossed. There’s no turning back. It’s how the artist handles this change in circumstances that ensures longevity.
The Streets’ real-life alter-ego Mike Skinner went through the fictional story route on his second album ‘A Grand Don’t Come For Free’. For his third, he returns to himself and his life as his subject matter, but his life as changed. As ‘The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living’ began its album cycle, the lead single ‘When You Wasn’t Famous’ begins with Skinner moaning about not doing a line of coke because of camera phones. The song then unfolds in a tongue-in-cheek description of how it’s easier to “pull women” when famous, but it’s just like pre-fame when they’re famous, too.
Relateability is not quite the case with this album. There’s a few songs that talk about the pressures of fame, and others about relationships. But it’s generally about a new phase in Skinner’s life. There’s the odd moments where it feels that we’re back to early-Streets, but it’s very much a slightly new direction for Skinner. The opening track ‘Prangin’ Out’ starts with Skinner talking about touring and trying to continue with the drug-taking lifestyle alongside dealing with managers and wanting to still do the things he did in the past.
But ‘When You Wasn’t Famous’ reminds you that he still can be funny in his unique way, despite the subject matter. ‘Hotel Expressionism’ is probably the song that highlights the disconnect between Skinner and his previous subject matter. There’s the trademark wit, but the rockstar life of trashing hotels is not a slice of life of his audience. But what it does do is throw a parodic view of a rockstar cliche that Skinner finds himself experiencing.
There are moments where Skinner reigns himself in with the problems that everyone universally deals with. ‘Never Went To Church’ is the Sad Serious Song that follows in the vein of the previous album’s ‘Dry Your Eyes’, but on about grief. The song contains Skinner’s usual ability to quickly craft visuals that you can relate to, this time being about the death of his father. Never afraid to open up, it’s the emotional lynchpin of the album that reminds you just how powerful Skinner can get with his lyrics.
The production feels like it sounds more polished than ‘Original Pirate Material‘. That album’s lo-fi bedroom recording did give it an underground vibe that helped with the subject matter. ‘The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living’ sees Skinner having a much improved production which actually works with the album’s themes of dealing with fame and success.
If anything, ‘The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living’ offers the opportunity to see what would happen if the working class lad from ‘Original Pirate Material’ reached success in the same way as N.W.A. did all those years ago. Having to deal with fame and apparent whiplash that it provides. It just about avoids cliches and sometimes turns them on their head, yet there’s some of the original pirate magic lost in the process.