Everything is Borrowed
3.5 out of 5 Stars
Mike Skinner could probably be a big-name producer in the vein of Just Blaze or Kanye West. And if he were American, he probably would be. Several of the tracks on Everything is Borrowed — the fourth and penultimate album under Skinner’s The Streets moniker — prove his production prowess. But for better or worse, Skinner is an Englishman, and The Streets could never be a vehicle for the bravado-filled rhymes of his American counterparts. Not because of any sonic discrepancy, but because it’s hard to imagine The Streets conveying anything but Skinner’s own brand of uniquely British social commentary.
Critics have been comparing The Streets to the Kinks and the Jam since Original Pirate Material (2002), and Skinner has repaid this trust by painting a poignant urban landscape full of drug-fueled clubs, pot-smoking gamers and drunken louts. This critical faith in Skinner as a highly observant Cockney everyman has prompted two significant changes in his career.
First, it encouraged him to devote more attention to his own story in increasingly personal terms. So what was only hinted at in the swooning strings of “It’s Too Late” on the first album, gave way to the more emotional storytelling of “Dry Your Eyes” on the sophomore effort, which in turn culminated with “Never Went to Church,” the piano-driven, “Let it Be”-based ode to his late father a highlight of his third album. But it also led to the rest of his disappointing third effort, The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living, which proved to be as annoying and frustrating as it was honest in its tales of fame and excess.
There is little doubt that Everything is Borrowed is a direct response to its predecessor’s critical backlash. After two years, Skinner has matured, sobered up and suddenly turned philosophical. He raps about God (or the lack thereof), loving life and the importance of his family. Fans who are still stuck on the idea of Skinner as a gritty slacker may find this offputting, but it’s a welcome change from the self-centered and spoiled egomaniac persona on his previous release.
And besides, Skinner still finds the time to go over more familiar terrain. “Never Give In” is yet another in a long line of album cuts dealing with romantic rivalries, while “The Sherry End” uses a relatively traditional Streets beat to pay homage to his clubbing buddies. The two tracks are decent, but they’re largely uneventful compared to the album’s overarching theme of sunny and honest philosophical musings. On Everything is Borrowed, this theme ensures that sincerity is once again a part of Skinner’s appeal.
As usual, the worst moments on the album come precisely when Skinner overindulges in this sincerity. “The Strongest Person I Know” is downright sappy, and the simplistic tale behind “On the Edge of a Cliff” will be a tough pill for cynics to swallow. But for the most part, Skinner’s new tales are engaging, allowing him to flex his formidable intellect. (Among other things, he grapples with human morality, fundamentalist Christianity and environmentalism.)
But this record shouldn’t be taken that seriously. Everything is Borrowed is still a pop album; Skinner adopts a broad musical palette featuring everything from harps to guitars. The funky samples of earlier years are for the most part replaced by lush instrumentation and flourishes that only truly become apparent after repeated listens. And it’s this sonic diversification that makes the whole thing so much fun. How else would “Heaven for the Weather,” in which he crafts a feel-good club anthem out of a melody begging to be on Sesame Street, be described?
More than anything, Everything is Borrowed gives fans a Skinner they can once again empathize with. And if he occasionally stumbles in his efforts to execute his ambitions, perhaps they should forgive him for it. Skinner has said he plans to release just one more album as The Streets, so Everything is Borrowed could occupy a pivotal spot in his catalog. Does it help cement the act’s legacy? Does it prove that his career will be as enduring as it has been pioneering? Hard to say, but even if it falls short, it restores faith that it’s a goal well within his reach.