Davies has lost none of his biting wit.
Americana may seem a strange title for an album by one of the most distinctly British recording artists of all time. Keep in mind that Ray Davies has always had an eye on American culture. Muswell Hillbillies stands as one of the best recordings in the Kinks’ canon. The themes explored on that effort (class gaps, suburban alienation) were as familiar to Americans as they were to blokes in Davies’ native land.
Americana isn’t exactly a love letter to his adopted homeland. Now in his 70s, Davies has lost none of his biting wit. “The Deal” chronicles a young man who goes off to California in search of fame and fortune, finds and it quickly discovers that he’s a “bullshit millionaire.” One can read it as a more stinging take on themes heard in Tom Petty’s “Into the Great Wide Open.” It’s not exactly a cautionary tale and not exactly a tragedy. The bargain made within the confines of this new song’s verses should be familiar enough to all by now that, should they make the same mistakes, they have only themselves to blame. “The Deal,” though, isn’t one of the record’s best tracks; it’s not built on the same concise precision we’ve come to expect from this elder statesmen of rock. Luckily, he still has fire and passion left within him, enough to rise above the weighty cynicism.
“Poetry,” one of the first songs culled from this release, casts a suspicious eye toward the American way of life with its unpaid credit card bills, mounting debt and dying dreams. That it’s carried off with a certain musical ebullience adds a little something to its incisiveness. The same might be said for the goof on contemporary country music, “A Place in Your Heart,” with its appreciation of wide-eyed optimism and firm skepticism.
Throughout, Davies (who’s backed by The Jayhawks here) reminds us that he’s an artist who has never quite fit in. He’s never really done love songs the way others do and he’s never been one for assembly line angst. His is a world filled with nuance and ambiguity, thin lines that require the listener to read carefully between, allowing them to draw their own conclusions – if they choose to listen deeper at all. The attention required for all that isn’t in generous supply and Americana may be a requiem for the generation raised in the aftermath of World War II, shaped the hippie dream, corporate greed and the gradual decline of the life so many had hoped for.
Those themes and concerns are most explicitly stated on “Silent Movie,” a moving slice from his memoir of the same name that recalls a meeting between Davies and the late Alex Chilton and a profound realization about that passing way of life. It leads into “Rock ‘n’ Roll Cowboys,” a song that isn’t just about rock’s greatest generation slipping behind the curtains, but also all they rallied for and against gaining momentum. They’ve become commodities and, for now, living artifacts well aware of their own mortality.
There’s time for some semblance of levity, though. It comes in the form of a quarreling couple during “I’ve Heard That Beat Before,” with its jaunty rhythms and narrator who’s lived through it all and can’t help but wonder why it matters at all. That levity is short-lived and one emerges with a somewhat dour and dim view of the world by the time the record closes. Maybe that’s not Davies’ intention: He seems angrier than resigned, but one can’t help but catch a little of his awareness that the walls and curtains are closing.
It’s an unhappy ending that appears on the horizon and maybe the biggest disappointment of Americana is that Davies, an often wise and capable voice, ultimately reminds us of something we already know rather than forecasting it.