The Streets and album archetypes.
We’re all familiar with a couple basic album archetypes. We talk as though there’s a difference between a concept album, a rock opera and a plain-jane album. There are differences between those three, but those three aren’t what I’m here to talk about today. I’m here today to talk about a few album archetypes you may not be familiar with, and to provide examples of such, I’m going to use the entire Streets catalogue. Mike Skinner has said that Computers and Blues will be his final album under the Streets moniker–whether that’s true or not, only time will tell. However, with Computers and Blues, he’s released five albums that together define the course of a career. Not his career–any career in music, from The Decemberists to The Beatles to Lil Wayne to Nirvana. I am confident that if there are artists alive and working who haven’t released albums fitting this archetypes (however loosely), they either lost the chance early on or will later on. So, no pussyfooting around–let’s do this thing!
The Indie Album: Original Pirate Material
I’m not familiar with how these albums were written, so you’re going to have to bear with me on a few things. Instead of talking about how he made them, which I could ascertain through research, I’m going to talk about how it sounds on the other end. And this album sounds rough as sandpaper on the loo roll. Every vocal is distorted through hell by way of poor mics turned far too far up and are all so harshly gated that words are cut off. The samples don’t match, the structure’s through the floor and scattered like twigs–it’s altogether hard to listen to on your first couple runs through. That’s because this is his first album, likely recorded on poor equipment with whatever money he had around to spare before he’d found his sound. It’s cheap, it’s quick, it’s dirty, and was made not because Mike Skinner wanted to show off how awesome he was at anything, but because he needed to make music.
You can see this done by a lot of bands who record an album before they get signed at a semi-professional level. Levels will be off, sounds won’t be polished, drums won’t be sample-replaced. If any of your favourite bands recorded an album before they were signed, it will likely fall under this category. Examples off the top of my head include Breaking Benjamin’s Saturate, Pretty Hate Machine by Nine Inch Nails, Green Day’s Kerplunk, Nirvana’s Bleach–even some classic albums I can’t be bothered to think of at ninety minutes to deadline. If I ever rewrite this with better examples, you’ll see what I mean. It’s an album recorded with what’s available for free because the artist needs it out there.
The Major Label Album: A Grand Don’t Come for Free
What happens next in Mike Skinner’s life is a big pay raise when the majors (or at least someone with a lot of dough) says that they’ll pay for his next album. Either that, or Skinner made enough from the sales of Original Pirate Material that he could finance a heavy amount of polish. And let me tell you, compared to Original Pirate Material, A Grand Don’t Come for Free exhibits a downright shameful amount of polish. Sure, the instruments in the beats still don’t fit together, his raps now approach an idea of harmony that will horrify any music major, but now it all sounds a lot cleaner. Vocals sound produced instead of spit, beats showcase a hidden subtlety, an interplay between foreground and background elements. Not to mention, the lyrics take a turn from slice of life ramblings into the territory of the concept album.
Two things come with a lot of money, but not a lot of fame: polish and big ideas. And Skinner’s sophomore effort is his most lyrically complex, telling the story of how he loses a thousand quid, tries to get it back and everything that happens until the album ends. It is the only concept album I’ve ever listened to with alternate endings, both built into different songs off of the same base. Because when you get a lot of money out of nowhere, all you can see is applications. Examples of this kind of album include Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Kanye West’s Late Registration, Daft Punk’s Discovery, other albums that see an expansion of the themes established in the artist’s earlier efforts. For instance, Daft Punk moving from house to house’s grandfather, disco.
The Fame and Fortune Album: The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living
This album gets a bad rap for being cynical, nihilistic and lyrically unpleasant in every way. What people forget to mention is why. With this album, Mike Skinner had moved up another fame bracket. The good will and money that his previous two albums brought him have manifested in his life as an influx of cocaine and people taking advantage of his wealth. They’ve also flushed out the large cast of friends of the previous two albums. Mike Skinner is famous now and has to deal with how all of that affects his daily life and effects his outlook on same. Lyrical themes include isolation, drug use, depression. It sounds better than previous efforts, but express darker, more urgent feelings of helplessness.
Skinner was and is always one thing above anything else: honest. And if his outlook on life takes a turn for the dark, cynical and lonely, so will his music. This turned off a lot of reviewers, but has the potential to be viewed with forgiveness in retrospect. This is what happened with Weezer’s Pinkerton, an album with the same dark themes of loneliness, heartbreak and hatred. Upon its initial release in 1996, it was vastly panned for not being enough like their previous efforts. But within the year, everyone gained a new respect for the courage on display by Rivers Cuomo in writing it. Other examples of this include Marilyn Manson’s Mechanical Animals, The Fragile by Nine Inch Nails and Eminem’s The Eminem Show.
The Acoustic Album: Everything is Borrowed
A funny thing happens after you get famous: you either get very dead or very responsible very quickly. Artists who continue after their fame and fortune usually go with responsibility instead of death. Mike Skinner, from the sounds of it, got bored with the endless stream of coke and cheap thrills, settled down and started thinking life and the world through. This influenced his next album, Everything is Borrowed, in many ways. First of all, his lyrics are the kind of philosophy you get talking to freshmen at your community college. Maybe some smart high school students. That isn’t a bad thing. Again, Skinner has always been honest, and if this is what he’s thinking about, I’m glad he can tell me in a way as engaging as song. Another thing that happened is that he moved away from the largely synth-based sound of previous albums.
It’s still as electric as hip hop is, with drum loops and such, but all of the instruments are recorded live. And not well, either. It’s a dark, intimate and close-sounding album with no reverb and very little crunch. And almost all of the instruments recorded for this album are acoustic: live drums, pianos, horns. His focus has returned to an unfinished sound. I’m unfamiliar with examples of these, so somebody’s gonna have to supplement this section. A few I can think of are the right disc of In Your Honor by the Foo Fighters, Downtime by the Kleptones, 808s & Heartbreak by Kanye West and Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen. All albums that take tempos down, take genre staples down to their barest, simplest elements and look on the inner side of life.
The Electric Album: Computers and Blues
Mike Skinner’s “final” album is the natural counterpart to Everything is Borrowed‘s mellow, acoustic nature. Computers and Blues is a digital wonderland, with beats made from audio glitches, sharp and crisp sounding instruments and a focus on modern life. It’s far more chaotic and active than its laid-back brother, with lyrics focused on how technology has infused every aspect of modern life. Production on albums like this can range from amps-up rock to all club tracks to glitch music, as the Streets have done here. The lyrics will stay introspective (as no one wants to hear a successful artist talk about cocaine) but will move from philosophy to application. Expect the sound of any album like this to be big, shiny and perfected, even if built on glitches. All in all, it’ll just focus on modern life, and its production will reflect that.
Albums like this include Bob Dylan’s infamous side one of Bringing It All Back Home, his first music backed by a hard rock band. This move alienated his fanbase and led his old folkie fans to hate him. There’s also Neil Young’s Trans, an electric album by another ex-folkie. There are also the Kleptones’ Uptime, Daft Punk’s Human After All, Year Zero by Nine Inch Nails (considerably more synth-based than previous effort With Teeth, which was focused on live instruments) and more. These albums are all recorded with the idea of modernity, of the future in mind. They don’t want to be shackled to what the artist was forced to do previously, and branch out with loud, electronic based sounds.
And that’s the end of this mega-article. I’d like to thank any of the diehard Streets fans who read through this, and also to tell you that this article has inspired me. And within the month of March, I will be submitting all of these as tropes on TVTropes, as well as the Electric/Acoustic album–one that’s half and half of the last two. Thanks again for reading!