The closest pop cousin to Mike Skinner might be Kevin Rowland – both Midlands-born anatomists of the heart, both deep in love with Black American pop, both wrestling their own voices into shapes that could stand in awkward but honest imitation of it. Skinner doesn’t sound like any other British rapper, mostly because nobody else who spins out chat like he does calls it rapping at all. If he’d surfaced two decades earlier on the post-punk fringe, or two later rubbing shoulders with Dry Cleaning or Yard Act, what he does as a vocalist might make more sense: lock down your aerials, you’re listening to the sprechgesange.

But Skinner emerged into UK garage, and he had the beats to prove it. Original Pirate Material is a wordy album but it’s very much a garage album too, a storyteller’s meditation on place, youth, raving which you could fit happily at either end of a night out. One of Skinner’s most famous boasts was a straight fib – he wasn’t making bangers or anthems. But his shrewd, restless observations were carried by beats that at least made you think he could.

And then he did make an anthem, of a different kind. “Dry Your Eyes” owes some of its success and fame to its easy fit with the emotional-industrial complex that was 00s sports media, especially the rolling circus around the England mens’ football team, a regular presence in Popular. The team, the tabloids, the TV channels and the watching nation had a grotesque, theatrical relationship of a cyclical kind: hugely inflated expectations, immense pressure, predictable disappointment as the Lions once again performed broadly as their FIFA ranking predicted.

In the moment after defeat this vastly profitable spectacle was at its most vulnerable, and here was a role for pop music: to act as a ward against any outbreaks of realism. The right tune allied to the right highlights reel could alchemise a shabby or frustrating loss into a poignant, almost tragic narrative, anointing it with a sense not just of closure, but of bittersweet fate. Done well it was an artform all its own. England’s boys might never bring home the trophy, but their closing montages? Those were surely the envy of the world.

But think about what those montages were. A slow motion replay of a crushing loss; every what-if and but-wait magnified; an indulgence of despair and a ritual of acceptance; a solemn, self-serious attempt at closure in the wake of sudden defeat – “Dry Your Eyes” was perfect for a losing highlight reel because it is a losing highlight reel masquerading as a song.

Though not masquerading well – “Dry Your Eyes” is the strangest No.1 in years. With its baggily flow-less verses bridged by a poignant sung chorus, the prior chart-topper it owes the most to is “Stan”. It’s an unflattering comparison. “Stan”’s hesitant, then furious, then apologetic verses are deceptive, the work of a rapper technically gifted enough to disguise coolly precise flow as spontaneity. Skinner’s delivery is wonky at the best of times, a tangle of odd stresses and unexpected enjambments, naturalistic speech cutting into a style which sounds like he’s reading his own lyrics for the first time on a karaoke machine. “Dry Your Eyes”’ stately tempo at least gives him a broad, easy canvas to work on.

And “Stan”’s cuts to a sung chorus work on multiple levels – an ironic then bittersweet counterpoint; a way of marking breaks in narrative time; a radio hook in a song which otherwise has to avoid them. That last is true of “Dry Your Eyes” too, but otherwise the chorus is serving a much more basic role – trying to defuse the tension and despair of the verses with the bathos of blokey banality: dry your eyes mate.

Let’s be honest, though, saying “Dry Your Eyes” comes off worse in a comparison to the formalist masterpiece of a generation’s most technically gifted rapper isn’t actually telling you much about “Dry Your Eyes”. The fact a comparison with “Stan” even makes sense suggests “Dry Your Eyes” is trying something unusually ambitious. It’s worth thinking about what.

The broad sweep of the song – its pitch to the public – isn’t novel. It’s a ballad, marinated in strings-y sentiment, but trying to appeal directly to young men, not their grans. Westlife for lads; hug rock; territories being claimed at the time by the wave of post-Oasis, post-Radiohead British bands like Coldplay and Snow Patrol, poets of that zone of muddled male feeling where sorrow and inspiration and catharsis and repression all mix. “Dry Your Eyes” kinship with that music is what made it successful – what got it onto those highlights montages. But it’s not what makes it strange, or special.

The thing “Dry Your Eyes” does which is entirely its own, the thing which makes it work, happens in the second verse. “She brings her hand up towards where my hands rested / She wraps her fingers ’round mine with the softness she’s blessed with / She peels away my fingers, looks at me and then gestures / By pushing my hand away to my chest /  From hers” All through the song Skinner’s been describing “Mike”’s final meeting with Simone, the girl he’s breaking up with, detailing their body language as he makes his pathetic plea for her not to end it. And here, at the critical moment, he moves the song into slow motion. He turns a gesture of two seconds into a verse ten times that long, then lets his rhyme slip backwards in the final line to end that line early and force a last pause at the moment Mike’s been dreading.

A Grand Don’t Come For Free, “Dry Your Eyes”’ parent album, is an attempt to expand the kinds of narrative words and music can create. One element of that are these odd bits of sonic cinema: close descriptions of scenes and body language, married to the kind of emotional cues we’re familiar with from film scores. The album is a concept piece, and “Dry Your Eyes” gains some power in that context – it reverses Mike and Simone’s first meeting on “Could Well Be In”, where the couple lose hours of time in seconds of song as Mike sits enraptured. That song uses the described choreography technique too, and so does the closing song after “Dry Your Eyes”, recounting a vicious, shabby brawl in Mike’s living room.

I think it’s a fascinating, startling technique, and what’s more I think it’s one that could only work with the kind of half-spoken delivery and careful sound design The Streets use. It creates a sense of physical identification with ‘Mike’ which makes the third verse, where he grabs Simone to try and bodily prevent her from leaving, feel more visceral, ugly and desperate. (Fortunately, as with most of the moments on A Grand… where you feel like Mike’s crossing a line, he steps back)

For all that, I’m far from ready to say “Dry Your Eyes” is a good single – especially away from its LP, which itself is a very strange and only partial success. The gallons of syrup Skinner pours onto the song – found on an uncredited CD of free orchestral samples – fit the character’s oblivious, self-pitying mood in the song’s moment, but they also drown the track, especially as it grinds to a halt completely mid-way. The odd brilliance of what Skinner is doing in the verses goes to waste emotionally, its impact lost in the chorus’ matey swell. Plenty more fish in the sea. But for a moment there, I was hooked.

Score: 5

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