Sir Ray Davies. It has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?
The Kinks frontman has been celebrated as rock and roll royalty for years, but Queen Elisabeth made it official when she knighted him in December. It’s an honor Davies unarguably deserves. For more than 50 years, he’s been England’s great social satirist and commentator. If The Kinks are pop music’s quintessential British band, then Davies is by extension its quintessential British songwriter.
Even today, Davies, now 72, is defined largely by his homeland. So when it was announced that his new solo record would be called Americana, it felt like something carved out of alternative history. But it’s real, and it’s a record as good as its premise is enticing. Almost a decade after the release of his last record, 2008’s Working Man’s Cafe, Davies comes out of hibernation for one of his most wily and enthused solo outings yet. The record acts as a musical companion to his memoir of the same name, revealing a fascination with the States that runs deeper than fans might have ever thought.
“Americana is such a big story,” Davies said in a video interview promoting the new record’s release. True enough, much of Americana plays like a celebration of American myth. Davies’ view of life across the pond is one conjured through a fascination with old western movies, the open road, and other distinctly American imagery. With the able support of alt-country mainstays The Jayhawks as his backing band, the record’s 15 tracks delve deep into the folklore. Davies wastes little time shaping his narrative on the record’s title track, regaling listeners with fantasies of roaming buffalo, school-boy romances, and living in the land of the free. “Since I was a teen, you know I had this dream,” he sings before the band comes crashing in. “Americana.”
On “The Deal”, he’s intoxicated by the notion of fame, envisioning his place in a fabulous life among the hobnobbing LA elite. But you’d be wise not to take Davies’ doe-eyed, babe-in-the-woods musings on American life too seriously. This is, after all, one of pop music’s most incisive songwriters, and he never leaves his cutting wit at home. “Isn’t it wonderful, marvelous, utterly surreal,” he bursts after laying out his childlike plan for capturing fame and success. “Totally fabulous, fraudulent, bogus, and unreal.” Even as he’s celebrating the wonder of America and all its spoils, there’s an undercurrent of razor cynicism that belies the joy.
That’s the fun yin and yang that makes Americana such a rich listen. Davies spends much of the record trying to reconcile the difference between America’s storybook fantasy and a reality that is oftentimes a lot less pleasant. Brushstrokes, an acoustic guitar, and a light country twang color “I’ve Heard That Beat Before”. It’s a perfectly ideal country tune on the surface, that is until Davies spins his tale of being an unwilling bystander to marital strife and abuse. The record’s lead single, “Poetry”, meanwhile, ridicules the shallow commercialization and commodification of American life. If the punchy power pop of “The Great Highway” romanticizes life on the open road, Davies and The Jayhawks bring the dream crashing back down to Earth on the homesick “Message from the Road”. The singer even injects some topical flavor into the mix, using his own experience being banned from the States with The Kinks as a statement on immigration on “The Invaders”.
Turns out Davies was right. Americana is a big story, and it’s not one with tidy resolutions or easy fixes. But Davies is far less preoccupied with trying to tie up the loose ends than he is pointing out America’s dual narratives. There is the fantasy and there is real life, and more often than not they bleed over into one another. And once again, it took the efforts of one of our greatest living songwriters to spell it all out for us.
Essential Tracks: “Poetry”, “The Deal”, and “The Great Highway”