The song that sparked the idea for this series was “Never Went to Church”. It’s one of several songs by Mike Skinner, aka, The Streets, whose lyrics I find popping into my mind probably as often as any other artist’s. Something he’s said will resonate in a particular situation and, even if I don’t agree, I’ll be drawn to the cogency and economy of some sentence or phrase or verse with which he’s captured and bottled a feeling or an idea.
In this case, I was listening to a discussion about the experience of losing a parent, one I’m fortunate not to have had. Maybe it was the fact that the song captures the particular ‘son grieves father’ scenario so lucidly, perhaps because the coping style Skinner describes conflicted slightly with the discussion, but for whatever reason there it was, front and centre of my mind, and me helpless in the face of the song’s rawness and stinging imagery.
The title is sung in the chorus:
“We never went to church,
Just get on with work and sometimes things will hurt,
But it’s hit me since you left us,
And it’s so hard not to search,
If you were still about, I’d ask you what I’m supposed to do now
I just get a bit scared, every now, hope I made you proud.”
I’ve never been certain if it means ‘we never went to church while you were alive, as a family, full-stop’ or ‘we never went to church to grieve when you passed away’. Because of the line ‘but it’s hit me since you left us’, I lean towards the interpretation that the family never were church-going and that we always found other ways to cope, but now thoughts of a life beyond this one are proliferating with the loss of his father. Though it could be that not grieving in church is now catching up with him at the time of writing.
The track is structured Chorus - Verse - Chorus - Versus - Chorus - Chorus with variation. There is a killer line at the end of Verse 2 which to me gives the entire thing its emotional depth. But all the way along, it’s replete with little shards of sadness. The wistful “hope I made you proud” just slides in as an aside at the end of the chorus, but is such a tender and boyish sentiment for a man to put out there. I compare the chorus both in musicality and construction to that of Puff Daddy’s “I’ll be Missing You” (which I’ve always found much more poignant than the original by The Police). There, how you process the line “every single day, every time I pray” is entirely conditioned and accorded its weight through the knowledge that the person being sung to (Biggy Smalls) won’t be there for any of those days. Just so, the use of the past tense “hope I made you proud” seems such a profound thing to address to a deceased father.
In Streets canon, this would be in the ‘soft suite’. When The Streets came onto the scene, Skinner’s popularity was fuelled by his honesty and by his realistic description of life as a young person in Britain: drinking, drugs, laddishness, regrettable dalliances (more of all of which later in the series). However, each of his five albums has at least one ‘ballad’, usually released a single, as in this case. These anthems to male emotion tend to hit all the harder for being flanked by the gritty and the comics. “Never went to Church” is from album three, “The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living”, most of which is Skinner’s reflection on fame. It opens with “Prangin Out”: “Never Went to Church” serves as a reprieve in between “When You Wasn’t Famous”, the story of a shortlived tabloid love affair, and “Hotel Expressionism”, the fine art of trashing your room. Skinner has described this as his most ambitious and misunderstood album. It took a while to grow on me, but I found the songs rewarded relistening as little nuances peaked out from between the lines. In the title track, he refers repeatedly to ‘telling Mum’ to ready her for stories in the tabloids or that his money might be about to run out. Connecting up the dots, it adds to the picture of the Mum left alone by his Dad’s passing, now fretting as her son’s life plays out in public. As it happens, there aren’t any more from this album in the queue for the next week, but I’d still say it’s worth a few whirls.
Mainly Skinner’s trade is rap-cum-spoken word, but he fears neither singing nor leaving in the takes with the bum notes. A sung chorus is one of the tropes of the ballads and it’s particularly effective on “Never Went to Church”. The chorus is high so forces him out of his natural range into falsetto. Yes, it’s in the mix with some much sturdier vocals, but the strained Skinner vocal helps link the chorus to the verses and maintain the slightly desperate and searching effect.
Verse 1 opens:
“You tidied your things into the bin the more poorly you grew,
So there’s nothing of yours to hold or to talk to”
He sets up the scenario whereby, in an effort to make grieving less painful, his father has overshot the runway while still alive. Instead of having mountains of possessions to painfully part with, all has been put aside as the end drew closer. This sets up the dilemma of the moment:
“I miss you Dad but I’ve got nothing to remind me of you.”
The first verse is about struggle and confusion. It’s about being without the one person who’s guidance you could most do with at that exact moment.
“You’d be scratching your head through the best advice you knew.”
The image of flailing around in empty space for some physical thing to hold onto and consult with seems to mesh with reaching for spiritual meaning. There’s a neat line in verse 2 about how “if God exists he’d pay me regard” for not turning to him just when things were tough.
We also get a sense of the man being mourned. As well as the organised and compassionate man packing up his things, there’s also the detail of how he’d “interrupt the conversation with a ‘but’”, a trait his son has inherited.
The line which turns the song It’s in those lines about not searching for God but putting the head down and dealing that balance starts to be restored in verse 2. There again there’s a stubbornness his mother thinks was bequeathed him. There’s even a payoff to the use of the phrased ‘tidied your things’ when he says how he “tidied my room like you so I could see things straight”.
“I guess then you did leave me something to remind me of you,
Every time I interrupt someone the way you used do,
When I do something like you, you’ll be on my mind too,
‘Cause I forgot you left me behind to remind me of you.”
Why am I doing this? In part, I was inspired by Joe Donnelly’s excellent Tins and Tunes podcast. Music is freakin great and we should all talk about it more and enjoy it more together. I’m also still a bit annoyed that more people I knew didn’t take The Streets project to heart and give it the attention it deserved. Around the time this album was out, I remember being party to a conversation about men and women and how they differ in their partnering strategies. I was sitting at a computer and had the album in the CD drive (God be with the days). I invited the folks I was conversing with to listen to “War of the Sexes”, track 2 on Hardest Way which makes some funny observations about male mating strategies.
“Nah man, leave that off, I fecking hate The Streets”.
Huh? I didn’t get it. Well I kinda did, but I didn’t get how I could spend a week getting acquainted with an album this dude hadn’t even heard yet and that he could all but say, nah, there’s nothing worth hearing outta this guy, and me, I should know better ways of spending my time and money.
That line about being left behind as the reminder of one who’s passed on floored me and it still floors me. I’ve reached for it while grieving, both as a way to help the tears along, and as a point of resolution: from here forth, part of what I am is part of this person’s legacy and here at this point our lives forever more shall intersect. In some ways I think that the most likely afterlife there is out there is for our energies to continue to ripple through those we’ve affected as they carry us forward and pass that love along.
I think an artist with the capacity to floor me like that deserves a little of my time to explain how and why.
On the final chorus, instead of the lines about how he’d ask his Dad what to do now and being scared, the ending changes to:
“But you used to tell me how you didn’t know what to even now
So now I’m not so scared
I know that you’d be proud”.
Next time, back to where it all began.