The Streets' (ostensibly Mike Skinner) 2002 debut album 'Original Pirate Material' had already made a splash and garnered critical acclaim through its by detailing what daily life in the inner city was all about via an eclectic mix of contemporary garage, hip hop and grime with a scattershot of fast talking lyrical raps that hit hard as nails yet retained a darkly humorous streak that made their shady violence accessible and somehow acceptable.* Follow up album 'A Grand Don't Come For Free' was on one hand more of the same but expanded on the "this is a day in the life of a geezer" lyric from that debut (off 'Who Got The Funk?) to create a unified theme that charted........well, the day in the life of a geezer from dawn to dusk. Whether a garage based take on ''Ulysses' crossed with a prog rock concept album was what the world was waiting for I'll leave for another day,** suffice it to say here that the above introduction sets the scene for 'Dry Your Eyes', the penultimate song on 'A Grand' that highlights the lowest point of the geezer's day (getting dumped by his girlfriend) and its place within the framework of Skinner's usual output.
Or, rather, its out of place-ness; the edgy skitter and nervous glances of 'Original Pirate Material' gives way to a pedestrian, common time beat heralded by a lush, string overture that borrows cheekily from the overture that introduced The Beach Boys' 'God Only Knows', with the latter's "I may not always love you" opening line providing an unspoken, scene setting introduction of its own. And that's just one of the (many) things I enjoy about 'Dry Your Eyes', a little trait below the surface that makes you work to discover its secret. Or maybe it's just me. A more obvious pleasure is its internal structure - Skinner's verses are a spoken prose poem monologue that hammers a nail squarely into the point where Kübler-Ross' 'Five stages of grief' intersect on the Venn diagram describing feelings generated by the unilateral end of a relationship. Over the course of 'Dry Your Eyes', Skinner's emotions veer from: (1) Anger' ("I'm not gonna fuckin', just fuckin' leave it all now, 'cause you said it'd be forever and that was your vow"), (2) Denial ("Put my arms around her tryin' to change what she's saying"), (3) Bargaining ("Please let me show you where we could only just be, for us.... We can even have an open relationship, if you must"), (4) Depression ("World feels like it's caved in - proper sorry frown") to finally a kind of (5) Acceptance as he watches her walk away for good - "Turns around so she's now got her back to my face. Takes one step forward, looks back, and then walks away". And by this stage, Skinner's previous would be gangster persona has been shredded to lay bare a lock-up wideboy not too tough to cry.
And it's because that image is put through the shredder that makes 'Dry Your Eyes' so affecting. I'm tempted to draw parallels with Anthony Quinn's boorish, bullying circus stuntman Zampanò in Fellini's 'La Strada' reduced to howling into the sea at learning of the death of the trusting, simple minded woman ( Giulietta Masina's 'Gelsomina') he'd abused and abandoned years previously, but 'Dry Your Eyes' is more self contained and stand alone in its four and a half minutes running time. You don't need a back story or character development to find it hard not to sympathise with Skinner's pain, particularly as the woman he's addressing has all the presence in the song of Banquo's ghost. Stubborn in her silence and existing only in blank description ("I look at her she stares almost straight back at me, but her eyes glaze over like she's looking straight through me"), she offers no rationale for her decision and no explanation or regret. Or maybe Skinner just isn't listening (again, maybe). In fact, the only other 'voice' in the song comes on the chorus where Skinner adopts the persona of a friend in waiting offering a simple arm around his shoulder ("Dry your eyes mate") and a tiresome line in pithy cliché ("There's plenty more fish in the sea") that no one in that position wants to hear and which in their own way serve to annoy as much as the woman's silence.***
Speaking of annoyance, it's at the 'mates' chorus that 'Dry Your Eyes' threatens to derail the steady momentum of emotion it had been building. Not a 'singer' in any traditional sense, Skinner handles the mood swings of his monologue well enough, but his phrasing on the chorus is awkward enough to threaten a descent into pantomime ("It's oh-oh-oh-vuh"). But, thankfully, it doesn't matter. And it doesn't matter because, in another clever 'below the surface' trait, just as Skinner isn't listening to the platitudes his mate is offering up, we the listeners aren't either. Well I'm not anyway - my ears ignore those "you've got to walk away now, it's over"s with the same indifference as Skinner; no matter how many times I hear 'Dry Your Eyes', I'm always keen to get back to 'his' story and the expression of 'his' emotions, and the complete lack of sympathy or empathy off anybody (within the song) adds a layer of poignancy to the honesty of what he's saying that short circuits any accusations of whiny self pity that could be more fairly levelled at it if they weren't there - in the microcosm of such a heartless environment, who couldn't feel sorry for him?
Which is another reason I'm hesitant to stress that 'La Strada' connection - at the end of that film, my sympathy doesn't lie with Zampanò when his heart of stone finally cracks and he realises it's too late to put right what a bastard he's been, but with Gelsomina, whose own death provides the catalyst for the affection and humanity she should have received in life. Quirky without being irritating, heartfelt without being mawkish, 'Dry Your Eyes' pitches perfectly at the junction between pity and pathos. It's not the sound of the streets, it's the sound of anyone who ever had their heart broken. All of which is a roundabout way of saying I find 'Dry Your Eyes' personally affecting, probably more than any other number one to date, and that's what I like about it most.
* Sample lyric - "So you tell your mates you could have him anyway, to look 'geez'. But he's a shady fuck, beamer three series, lock, stock and two fat fucks backing him up" from 'Geezers Need Excitement' - the coarse threat of violence has never made me smile so much.
** For a 'punk' attempt at the same, see Sham 69's 'That's Life'. Or rather, don't.
*** Jonathan Richman had such 'friends' down pat in his 'There's Something About Mary' (from the soundtrack of that film). It's another song I'm incredibly fond of too, and as a natural off-shoot to my analysis of 'Dry Your Eyes', I'll indulge myself by setting out the lyrics here in full -
"His friends say stop whining, they've had enough of that.
His friends would say stop pining, there's others girls to look at.
They've tried to set him up with Tiffany and Indigo, but there's something about Mary that they don't know."
"Well, his friends say, look life's no fairy tale, that he should have some fun, he's suffered long enough.
Well, they may now about domestic and imported ale, but they don't know a thing about love".
"Well, his friends would say he's dreaming and living in the past,
but they've never fallen in love, so his friends need not be asked.
His friends would say be reasonable, his friends would say just let go,
But there's something about Mary that they don't know."