Thursday, April 4, 2013

Empathy Don't Come For Free

Around mid-January, when I was in the grip of a literal month long illness (a cold that evolved, Pokémon-style, into a horrible cough and sinus infection), I, for whatever reason, bought the discography of U.K. garage/hip-hop artist The Streets, né Mike Skinner, and then proceeded to listen to the whole thing in the worst way possible, which was in a giant playlist that for whatever reason was arranged by album track number. In other words, the first tracks of each album would play, then the second, then the third, etc.

As a technique for immersing yourself in one dude's voice it has a lot to recommend it, but the thing about each of The Street's albums is (I learned later, doing things the proper way, i.e. listening to each album separately at work) that each one has its own character. We may now be living in the era of the single, where the other nine tracks on the album aren't nearly as important as the one that's going to get the radio play, but Skinner didn't play like that. Original Pirate Material is minimalistic, The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living and Everything is Borrowed are like the Dark and Light sides of the Force, one brutal, knife-edged lightning and rage and the other subtle and positive while leaving almost no impression in the mind, and Computer and Blues harnesses everything Skinner had learned through the previous four albums and creates a deft picture of the modern world while managing an elegiac tone befitting his retirement from The Streets project. Each album is of a piece, and almost demands a certain mindset (I still have trouble listening to Hardest outside of the goofy, aggro-yet-sweet relationship post-mortem "When You Wasn't Famous,"). And none of these albums suffers more from not being listened to continuously, beginning to end, than the second album, A Grand Don't Come For Free.

My first exposure to concept albums was Dream Theater's Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory, a title that certainly doesn't sound like it belongs on this blog. Metropolis is an epic of love, lust, betrayal, addiction, murder, past lives, reincarnation and spirituality, with majestic rock instrumentation to match its subject matter. It's an album I can listen to on loop over and over (outside of "Through Her Eyes," a song which can be forgiven its existence only if looked at as a chance for the band to take a break during concerts, and "The Dance of Eternity," a technically impressive instrumental number that I mainly enjoy for about thirty seconds of hilarious, out-of-nowhere old-timey piano).

Grand, as a concept album, is as small-scale as Metropolis is large for much of its length. It follows a young man through his days as a youth in England (possibly Brixton, where Skinner moved from Birmingham, although I don't believe the location is ever specified). I don't know to what degree the album is auto-biographical. At one point Skinner, as the main character, makes reference to having to pick up his epilepsy medication, and Skinner himself suffers from epilepsy; in addition, I believe someone refers to him as Mike at one point. Skinner renders the day-to-day of the character so well it feels real, so whether the album was keenly observed or felt is immaterial except to someone like me, a story archeologist always searching for origins and hidden connections and sucking the marrow (and fun) out of the bones.

Grand starts with the protagonist losing the titular grand, a thousand quid (about $1,500 US), which he had saved with the intention of putting in the bank. He finds this out at the end of a long, deeply shitty day, where nothing goes right, each verse beginning with an iteration of what he has yet to do and what's already gone wrong ("So I failed at the DVD, couldn't withdraw any money/but I still had to call mum, get the savings, and then hurry,"). Also his TV breaks, which actually becomes important later.

From there he meets a girl named Simone, hits it off with her, tries to win some money betting on football (and is prevented from losing his shirt by happenstance) and goes to a nightclub, where he takes ecstasy and thinks he sees Simone kissing his friend Dan, with whom she works. He's, "fucked and he don't care," so he makes nothing of it, and soon he moves in with Simone.

After an argument where she kicks him out, he goes on holiday, tries to impress a girl and then immediately regrets it the next day when he realizes he wants to be with Simone. If you read the previous paragraph you probably have an idea that this ends badly, and indeed it does; he finds out from his friend Scott that Simone has been cheating on him with Dan (Scott knew about this but didn't say anything because he didn't want to betray either friendship). Simone breaks up with Mike, and we come to the last track on the album, "Empty Cans."

The first time through it, listening to it in the midst of all the other track tens from the complete discography, I skipped ahead after a few minutes, and that's because it's really two similar songs in one. In the first, Mike is sitting alone in his apartment, feeling sorry for himself. Scott reaches out to try and make things right and Mike tells him to, "fuck right off chap," then finds a TV repairman in the phone book to finally try and get his TV fixed. The guy comes, takes the TV away, and then comes back later, saying he's found something in the back of the TV. Mike immediately assumes that the repairman is trying to him up for more money and gets in an argument that turns physical and ends with the repairman wrestling Mike to the ground, bashing his head into his fridge, and then running out of the apartment shouting. The chorus for this part of the song is, "No one gives a crap about Mike that's why I'm acting nasty/You know what you can do with your life introduce it up your jacksie," and once he went into that for the second time I thought, "what a miserable piece of shit," and skipped to the next track.

Context is, of course, everything, and when you listen to the tracks from the album like I did you have no idea that they're all of a piece, that they're sketching a life and a character and leading him to this moment; not the moment where he's sitting drinking beer on his settee with a bashed-up head, but the moment where Scott texts him. If I had waited just a few more seconds, I would have heard the song reset itself back to the beginning, where Mike is once again bemoaning his fate, surrounded by empty cans, feeling sorry for himself and like no one has his back. However, the second time around, he doesn't tell Scott to fuck off, but accepts his apology and says he can fix the TV as payment, to which Scott agrees. Scott comes over, starts rooting around in the back of the TV, and then discovers something that fell in the back of it, which turns out to be, amazingly enough, the thousand quid from the beginning that Mike thought was lost (or that, in darker moments, his friends had stolen).

This is a nice bit of symmetry, but it actually isn't what, in my mind, the album was building to, although it is an amazing moment. The important bit is after, and here I'll quote the song extensively:

"... i realized that it is true;
No-ones really there fighting for you in the last garrison.
No-one except yourself that is, no-one except you.
You are the one who's got your back 'til the last deeds done.
Scott can't have my back til the absolute end,
Coz hes got to look out for what over his horizon.
He's gotta to make sure he's not lonely, not broke.
It's enough to worry about keeping his own head above."
Initially this looks cynical and borderline narcissistic, especially if you only take the first part into account, but I don't see it that way. Mike has, to this point, been self-pitying and self-centered, viewing many of his problems as caused, if not by his "mates," then at least by their inaction; if only they would 'have his back' he wouldn't be in the position he's in, wouldn't have lost the grand, wouldn't have lost Simone, none of it. What this realization is is that no one has it out for them as much as they have their own lives and problems. "It's enough to worry about keeping his own head above."

Most people agree that empathy is a positive force, that having an understanding of others and what they're going through can help everyone tremendously as we all make our way through this world; that it's easier to stand together than alone, that loving your neighbor as yourself is something to strive for. But you don't often hear songs showing how you get there from zero; more often you get things like, "Imagine," which, however much you agree with the sentiment, is not likely to be a song that changes anyone's mind. Either you agree or you don't; Lennon isn't walking you down a path so much as he's throwing down a gauntlet, since, "imagine there's no heaven," is already distasteful enough to some people that they're simply not going to hear what comes next, much less understand it.

Skinner takes, with the back half of, "Empty Cans," and the album as a whole, that first step towards a larger understanding of the world. The protagonist goes from demanding that the world help him, and shouting that if you're not with him you're against him, to realizing that he has to help himself, and from there it's not hard to imagine that he could one day come to the realization that he has the ability to help others. Even better, he isn't preaching, or telling; he's showing, in the manner of all great storytellers, showing the dark, fenced-in world of a Mike that rejects friendship and then showing the flip side and letting us feel which one is better through the music (I like to imagine that the Mike from the first part of, "Empty Cans," is the Mike that went on to write The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living, while the Mike from Earth-2 wrote Everything is Borrowed. I'm not sure if Computer and Blues required some sort of Crisis on Infinite Streets). In a way, even though I was exposed to the album and the last track in particular in the worst way, I'm glad I did it the way I did, because the moment of impact was that much stronger for me when I finally realized what Skinner was doing. It may not be as epic or bombastic as Metropolis, but in its own way it's no less philosophical, or as brilliant, and in its own way it may be the more insightful of the two. Not that anyone's counting.

This is dedicated, in my own small, strange way, to Roger Ebert, who passed away today at the age of 70. Ebert was many things, but to me, he was someone who showed that examining the things that we love can be valuable. He was not critic as destroyer, but critic as enthusiastic participant, trying (and succeeding) to explain just what about the movies he was seeing had affected him, and trying to share those things he loved with the world. Thank you, Roger.

1 comment:

  1. i found this page by searching for "mike skinner the streets pretentious twat"