Ray Davies: Americana

Music Reviews Ray Davies
Ray Davies: Americana

There’s a brief moment during the spoken word track “Silent Movie” that encapsulates much of what Ray Davies is writing about on Americana, his first collection of new songs since 2007 and the first of two albums that will serve as a companion to his 2013 autobiography. He describes a final conversation with the late Big Star legend Alex Chilton, where the two discussed the timelessness of songwriting and how their art provides them an instant passage back to their youth. “But the reality is that things are changing in the world,” Davies admits ominously, then relates how the two shared a wordless moment watching a black-and-white cowboy movie on TV. “We didn’t need to speak anymore,” he explains. “The images said it all.”

He doesn’t explain what those images said to him, but the sentiment—feeling adrift in a changing world, seeking comfort in a possibly apocryphal past—saturates the album. It’s there in the opening lines of the title track, where Davies sings about his schoolboy dreams of coming to the U.S., about wanting to live “where the buffalo roam in that great panorama.” With alt-country stalwarts the Jayhawks providing a gorgeously swirling tableau of pedal steel and lush harmonies, the quintessential English songwriter sounds utterly at home. As masterfully crafted as the song is, Davies can’t help but stumble into cliché. “Kentucky moon, Montana sky, Sierra Nevada / It’s an epic ride,” he sings toward the end, slipping into travel bureau sloganeering.

Americana is part love letter, part lament for the country he was famously banned from touring for the last half of the ‘60s due to the Kinks’ erratic (and often violent) live performances. But the America that Davies longs for—the one of the pioneers, the plains, and the endless frontier—hasn’t really existed for at least 100 years. The American West, to say nothing of the American Dream, doesn’t hold nearly the power in the collective imagination as it once did.

Such sentimentality is, of course, not unusual for Davies. He has been writing longingly of the recent past since he was in his mid-twenties, far more of a social commentator than a nostalgia peddler. Unfortunately, that balance between the two is becoming more tenuous as he ages.

“Poetry,” a sturdy Heartland rocker that finds Davies walking around town and feeling repulsed by the soulless commercialism he finds, is a perfect example. Again, he’s is in fine form as a craftsman, with an instantly catchy chorus and spirited performance, the Jayhawks providing the sort of clean precision the Kinks never did. But where he earned his reputation as the master of finding large truths in the small details of character sketches, he’s now working in broad strokes, seeing the loss of old books and black and white movies as synonymous with a culture that settles for too little substance and too much materialism. It’s a point that comes off as back-in-my-dayism as much as wry social critique.

Similarly, despite having all the hallmarks of a great Ray Davies song—a sweetly sighing melody, a sympathetic character, a singalong chorus—“The Deal” still falls a bit flat in its commentary. In it, a vapid fame-chaser moves to Los Angeles, cruises around town, picks up girls and lives off of credit, hoping to find success. “Isn’t it wonderful, marvelous? Utterly surreal,” Davies sings. “Totally fabulous, fraudulent/ Bogus and unreal,” he continues, flashing his teeth. But where Davies once needled the well-respected and fashionable, this seems like low-hanging fruit, a trope so obvious in the era of Kim Kardashian and Real Housewives that it hardly needs to be discussed at all.

At 15 tracks, Americana is too long by half, getting bogged down in a handful of tracks that drag on for too long with too little to say. “Mystery Room,” reportedly inspired by the 2004 incident where Davies was shot in the leg while chasing a purse-snatcher, is a bluesy meditation on impending mortality that rattles and churns like a Muswell Hillbillies outtake. Even here he falls just short of locating anything interesting to observe about a topic that hangs heavy over the album. Sometimes Davies is simply too eager to please. Despite its shiny hook, “The Great Highway” sounds like a lost ‘90s car commercial, its fist-pumping “Hey, hey, hey, I’m driving on the interstate” chorus lacking all subtlety. Like so many writers before him, Davies checks off most of the American road song tropes—the pretty small-town girl dreaming of getting out, the allure of the open road—and manages to find nothing new to say about any of it.

For more than a few moments, Davies strikes the perfect balance. Though he has been defiant in his disinterest in reuniting the Kinks since their 1996 split, the band’s legacy is a frequent reference point. He opens spoken word piece “The Man Upstairs” by singing a few lines of their classic “All Day and All of the Night,” then bashes out the chords on an acoustic guitar before telling a brief story about the band’s famously fractious relationships. On “The Invaders”—a warmly galloping folk ballad that sounds like something Doc Watson could have recorded—he recounts the early days of the British Invasion, when the Kinks were harassed by immigration officials for their long hair, the band representing the rapidly shifting culture that would soon sweep such people away. With finger-picked acoustic guitars, chirping mandolin, and humming accordions, it’s pure nostalgia, executed flawlessly.

Best of all is “Rock ‘N’ Roll Cowboys,” a richly textured acoustic guitar and piano ballad that finds Davies wrestling with being an aging musical gunslinger whose “time won’t come again.” He puzzles over his relationship to the past as much as his uncertain future. “Do you live in a dream?” he asks himself. “Or do you live in reality?” This is the central struggle of the album and far more interesting than the other themes that Davies gives equal attention. By the end he has embraced the illusion on the album-closing “Wings of Fantasy,” deciding that “living with denial, chasing the dream” is better than accepting the loss of idealism. Given the album’s back and forth between optimism and despair, it’s an oddly appropriate yet unsatisfying conclusion.

Considering the ending, Davies’ earlier mention of getting lost inside old black and white cowboy movies makes more sense. What can ever replace your memories of when you were young and had your whole life’s journey ahead of you? When you didn’t know the dream of becoming a star was far better than the reality of achieving it? It’s probably unfair to expect a better album than this one at this stage in Davies’ career, and a handful of songs here are as inspired as anything he has done in at least 30 years. But for an artist who has experienced enough of the American Dream to know where the truth is and where the lies are becoming more seductive, it’s a shame he didn’t have something more interesting to say about it all.

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