It’s been eight years since Ray Davies of the Kinks last put out an album, and half of that one was spoken, not sung. His follow-up took so long that his label dropped him before he could finish it. He seemed preoccupied with other projects: a book of short stories, a choral piece, an unfinished musical. Finally, in 2004, he chased a purse-snatcher down a New Orleans street and was repaid with a bullet in the leg. Fade to black.
Or not. Just when it looked like he’d disappeared entirely, Davies has re-emerged with Other People’s Lives, his best album in at least 22 years. Its musical palette is diverse and appealing, ranging from flamenco-rock to Staxy soul. And the lyrics offer more of the carefully detailed character sketches that made Davies’ reputation. There’s an unstable neighbor who “threw the telly through the window.” A suicide’s exit letter taunts her lover, “Now you’re free to make your play for that big Australian barmaid.” A man with a hangover cries out, “Is there life after breakfast?”
Other songs are written in the first person. Maybe they’re about Davies himself; maybe he’s merely creating more masks — maybe there isn’t a difference. But two in particular approach some familiar Kinks themes from a more self-censuring perspective.
One is “The Tourist,” a crafty, catchy track about affluent outsiders in New Orleans, written by a rich Englishman who just happens to have spent a lot of time in New Orleans. In earlier songs — “Holiday,” “Holiday in Waikiki” — Davies adopted the voice of the traveler who finds his destination disappointing (“The sea’s an open sewer but I really couldn’t care/I’m breathing through my mouth so I don’t have to sniff the air”) if not completely phony (“Even all the grass skirts were PVC”). Now it’s the narrator who’s the villain, drifting through a foreign landscape without leaving his privileged bubble: “I’m just another tourist, checking out the slums/With my plastic Visa, drinking with my chums.”
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“Stand-Up Comic” is even more corrosive. Davies’ songs have always praised the rooted and the old, celebrating “little shops, china cups and virginity” or complaining that today “There’s no quality and there ain’t no style.” Meanwhile, he’s made millions playing loud, crude music in basketball arenas. I don’t demand consistency from songwriters — I like loud, crude music, and I like those nostalgic odes to the old ways, too — but I’ve never been sure how the same fellow could spend a noisy concert quaffing beers onstage and then compose a little ballad in the morning about the coarsening of the culture. You can curse modernity all you want, but what’s more modern than a rock star?
Interviewed in the March Mojo, Davies assigned “that relentless, inappropriate behaviour” to an alter ego, writing off whole swaths of his career with the line “That wasn’t me, that was Max” (and, eventually, “It’s been Max all along . . . I hate him”). Was that a put-on? Sure, but a good joke contains a core of truth. Max, modeled on the bawdy Brighton comedian Max Miller, is the star of “Stand-Up Comic.” The song declares the death of style (“Never was much, never has been/But the little bit that was, was all that we had”), but this time, instead of playing preservationist, Davies casts himself as the coarse clown. “I’m the lowest common denominator,” he declares. “I’m the stand-up comic.”
The chorus is overpowering, anthemic, almost militaristic; Davies shouts like he has an entire army before him, finishing with “The mob says ‘follow,’ so we go.” The first time I heard that verse, I thought of a Nuremberg rally. The second time, I thought of a Kinks concert, circa 1980.
So: After four decades of gloriously paranoid songs about the System — government, corporations, unions, technology — is Davies indicting himself as a part of the beast? Maybe. Or perhaps he’s just singing about some other person’s life.