The Streets – ‘Computers And Blues’
The world is a very different place now than the one Mike Skinner eloquently depicted in his wildly inventive and distinctive 2002 debut, Original Pirate Material. Since then we’ve had recession, terrorist attacks, wars, a new Tory government and the inexorable rise of the internet and social networking. It’s no wonder then, that one of the best social commentators of his generation has now decided his time as a compelling and unique social voice is over. After all, how can the man who so gloriously changed the course of British rap with his witty observations about getting drunk, stoned and laid possibly seem relevant to today’s mobile device and app obsessed youth?
This is obviously a question weighing heavily on Skinner’s mind, as he devotes most of Computers And Blues – his final album as The Streets – wrestling with it. Even the album cover seems like a more modern, grown-up version of the iconic block of flats used on the cover of his debut.
As the album title suggests, Skinner uses the rapid development of technology, and in particular the way social networking dominates our lives, as a metaphor for the gradual loss of the society he was once so deeply entrenched in.
The album opens with strong paranoia-evoking electro sonics, before ‘Outside Inside’ kicks things off properly, with its lyrics hinting at a creeping sense of agoraphobia: “The world is outside / But inside warm / Inside informal / Outside stormy / Inside normal”. ‘Roof Of Your Car’ continues this suspicious view of the technological world we live in, describing it as a ‘Ballardian nightmare.’ While ‘Puzzled By People’ exposes the inherent faults of relying on social networking and the internet as the convenient replacement for human interaction: “I’m puzzled by people / Loving isn’t easy / You can’t Google the solution to peoples feelings… / Sometimes you have to find out for yourself”.
As is already apparent, Computers And Blues is a much more mature and world-weary beast than Skinner’s previous albums. His spot-on social commentary is still as sharp and insightful, but the overall sentiment is tinged more with sadness and longing than the chest-out bravado of his earlier work. ‘Blip On A Screen’ is probably Skinner’s most melancholic and desperate song – lacking the hopefulness of previous ballads like ‘Dry Your Eyes’ – while ‘OMG’, with its attack on the futility of conducting meaningful relationships on Facebook, sounds like a man desperately searching for meaning in an increasingly insular society.
With all this unease and fretfulness appearing to engulf Skinner, it would be easy to view Computers And Blues as his resignation letter – waving the white flag to a world he doesn’t quite understand or belong in anymore. That would be the obvious suggestion, if the album wasn’t full of his best production work yet. ‘Without Thinking’ is up there with The Streets best pop tunes, melding delicious R and B style keys with the sort of pounding, euphoric rhythm that will have those lucky enough to see his final gigs getting very messy. While ‘Those That Don’t Know’ and ‘Soldiers’ are further proof that Skinner has left the bargain-bin bedsit production values well and truly behind, building soulful and emotional modern ballads out of simple drum loops and lush strings. The best, though, is ‘Trust Me’ – a ridiculously catchy disco stomper that suggests that while The Streets may be over, there is plenty of creativity left in Mike Skinner.
As the creator of some of the most engaging and cohesive concept albums in recent memory, it would be foolish not to suspect Computers And Blues is anything but another richly layered socially aware concept album – this time focused on our growing dependency on technology and its negative effects to basic human interaction. Whether it’s a genuine heart-felt goodbye, or a deeply textured and satirical concept album, Computers And Blues is an engaging, rewarding and fitting end to Mike Skinner’s career as The Streets.