Review Summary: Mike Skinner's third album sees him improve musically, but lyrically it's a disappointing, confusing essay on fame that leaves the listener crying out for the good old days.
When a famously observational songwriter prone to high-concept output becomes famous, there can only be one logical outcome. And evidently, it's called "When You Wasn't Famous". Welcome to Mike Skinner's concept album about being famous.
The trappings, problems, and discrepancies of fame permeate Skinner's every utterance across this album. You'll probably have already heard "When You Wasn't Famous", which is all about being able to pull any girl you want when you're famous, unless she's famous too. It also kicks off with a petulant, immature swipe about not being able to do cocaine in public any more now that everybody has a camera phone. Gee, I really feel for you, Mike. "The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living" sees him outright complaining about how hard it is to be famous. "Can't Con An Honest Jon" isn't as direct, but in this context, its convoluted tale seems like little more than a veiled allegory for record company dealings. And "Momento Mori" is an unfunny jibe at other celebrities embracing mysticism. In fact, a lot of this album is deeply unfunny - Skinner's sense of humour has gone completely awol this time out. The only laugh is provided on the otherwise unremarkable "Two Nations", where Skinner expounds on the difference between America and England like so -
'Biggy man, god bless America and that
But you lot keep killing all your best talent
We build up our stars and then papers sweep on them
And you build on stars and maniacs shoot them'
Before later noting -
'I'm proud we gave you people like John Lennon
....Even though you shot him as well'
The precise problem with this, of course, is that Mike Skinner became famous because he was a hero for legions of 16-35 males - he drank, he shagged, he went to clubs, he took coke, and he ***ed his life up doing it, all the while trying to keep a brave face on and laugh it off - ultimately, he was deeply human. One of us. Now that he's become famous, evidently he thinks he's untouchable. He's not one of us anymore. He's lost the very thing that made him such a hero, such a vital figure in British music.
Of course, Britain is unfortunately subject to a cultural climate obsessed with celebrity, so commercially, The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living is an astute move in the short-term. It'll probably be just as successful as his last two records. Would you bet against this killing his career, though? Who wants to hear the fourth Streets record, a concept album about how much critics hated his third one?
Which makes it frustrating that, musically, this is Skinner's most brilliant output yet. A good handful of tracks that should be ruined completely by shoddy lyrics and annoying vocal delivery aren't, because the music is so good. "Can't Con An Honest Jon"'s co-opting of a nursery rhyme amidst deep, heavy trance is quite brilliant, "Momento Mori" sounds like Kanye West's "Breathe In, Breathe Out" given a better melody, and the vaguely Indian melodies underpinning a lot of the album are as infectious and hypnotic as the best dance music should be. For the first time here, his music outclasses his lyrics effortlessly. It's also frustrating that "Never Went To Church", Skinner's response to his father's death, has to fight against every other shallow, hollow track on display here. It's the only moment of warmth and emotional weight here, and is far and away the best track (it only has "Pranging Out" for any real competition, mind). It proves that Skinner hasn't completely lost his ability to write a great song.
The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living is not devoid of joy, by any means. It is, however, an irritating, confusing, and disappointing listen. Let's just say, as meditations on the trappings of fame go, it sails far closer to Plastic Ono Band than The Wall. At least we now have Alex Turner to take his rightful place in our culture, because this album spells the beginning of Mike Skinner, the celebrity, and the end of Mike Skinner, the hero.