Monday, May 15, 2006

Good artists misfire: new releases by The Streets and Philip Roth

I'm a sucker for albums that tell a story. The genre doesn't matter much. I have favorites like The Hold Steady's Separation Sunday and Neil Young's Greendale, but also appreciated Sufjan Stevens's Illinois, some of The Decemberists' releases (short story collections more than story albums) and swooned for a great release from May 2004, A Grand Don't Come for Free by The Streets.

That last album followed a day in the life of a working-class English guy who loses a chunk of cash. Attempting to figure out what happened to the money, the album is a witty and observant story about the day that followed, including some moving tracks about his friendships and romances. He thinks a friend might have swiped the money, and he yearns for a girl to replace a love affair that ended. The album's songs are sharp and surprising, each of them a stitch of life recounted in a working-class English idiom. It was a rewarding piece of work and one that pays off a careful listening the twentieth time around.

It's two years after A Grand Don't Come for Free, and The Streets returns with a very different Mike Skinner. The Hardest Way to Make An Easy Living is not an album that will grow on me. It may be one of the worst albums I own -- and I still have Big Willie Style as a reminder that bad purchases have consequences.

The biggest problem with The Hardest Way to Make An Easy Living isn't that Skinner opted to focus the album on the pratfalls and frustrations of fame; in theory, he's talented enough to pull of that conceit. It's that Skinner seems to have become humorless, and lost touch with the heart and emotion that made A Grand Don't Come for Free so satisfying. The new release is witless, whiny, and slow, so the narcissistic bitching about fame quickly wears thin. A song called "Two Nations" starts off as a successful enough take on the difference between Americans and Britons, then veers into this rambling:
Understated is how we prefer to be
That's why I've sold three million and you've never heard of me
The paparazzi shoot me the the girls all loot on me
But don't shoot hiders, we fight football rivalries
The work wack means to con back home
And I wrote the ten wack commandments on my own
Not funny, not fun, and pretty smug talk from a guy who once wanted nothing more than someone to rely on and talk to all night.

None of the music is memorable, and some of the tracks (particularly a piece called "Memento Mori") are unlistenable.

Mike Skinner is adrift, and it's a voice I miss.

* * *

Philip Roth's new book Everyman isn't a failure on par with the new Streets release. It's just a yawner that retraces themes that he exhausted in The Dying Animal, Patrimony, Sabbath's Theater and My Life As a Man.

Roth's recent political novels were an amazing renaissance. After spending much of his career occupied with the intimate details of sex and death, he tore off the doors by dropping those issues into aggressively political arguments. His whole body of work took a new power.

Here, he goes back to old form without any new insight. Everyman is well written and believable, but there's nothing to see here. It's a short chronicle of the life of an unnamed narrator. He is not an interesting person. Never mind that it contains some passages so over-the-top that they read like Roth parody:
For the first two days he was always diddling around her ass with his fingers while she went down on him, until finally she looked up and said, "If you like that little hole, why don't you use it?"

Someday, an earnest Ph.D candidate will write a dissertation on Philip Roth's views on anal sex. He's invented a world of assfucking. This passage will not be a highlight.

For all of its graphic content (not just sex, but surgeries, hernias, heart attacks, and appendicitis) the book is a boring and uninspired little story that tells us 1.) dying sucks, 2.) getting sick sucks, 3.) and people don't like it when you're mean to them.


Passion of the Weiss said...

Couldn't agree more about the Streets album. What a disappointment. I read a bunch of bad reviews about it but decided to see for myself just because the first two albums are stone-cold classics in my book. I'm planning on dealing with this in my blog in a few weeks when i see Streets in concert, but I think the problem with this album is coke. No one mentions this but he seems to be awfully coked up throughout the whole thing. Obviously. Now I'm no anti-drug person...and am prolly the furthest thing from it, but it seems like being coked up has never done any artist any good ever. Writer, rapper or musician. I think Mike Skinner was much better off on his diet of booze, weed and the ocassional ecstasy tab. He just sounds foolish and narcissistic on this album. And as for Big Willie Style, there was a period where I almost bought that (I think when I was in the 10th grade), and was deciding between buying that or the Beatnuts Stone Crazy, so I went up the record store clerk to ask for his advice: He looked at me like I was crazy and commanded me to buy the Beatnuts CD. Wherever he is now, I think him for that brilliant bit of wisdom.

CrimeNotes said...

Really sad, right? "War of the Sexes" is a terrible version of "Such a Twat" and "Get Out of My House." The title track -- massively boring. They're not even interesting failures. "Never Went to Church" is bearable, but that's the nicest thing I can say ...

The reviews I read were mixed. Maybe if they were terrible my expectations would have been lower.

Coke-wise, you're onto something. His lyrics make a bunch of references -- e.g., "snort more tour support and then have a drink" on "Prangin Out," others as explict and some more subtle -- but I'd attributed the creative problems to a combination of ego, burnout and complacency. He's playing NYC in June, but I couldn't bring myself to buy tickets after this one. It'd suck if he turns out to be a two-hit wonder.

CrimeNotes said...

... and I guess I legitimately like "When You Wasn't Famous," the one song where he sounds like his old self.

Passion of the Weiss said...

Yeah, that one got me really excited for the album...too bad it was prolly the best song on it.

CrimeNotes said...

The best song, and the only one where he doesn't take himself waaaaay too seriously.