Davies is as penetrating as any of his peers.
Though the Beatles and Bob Dylan (and sometimes Joni Mitchell) often get the lion’s share of credit for revolutionizing songwriting in the 1960s, it is now perhaps clearer than ever that Ray Davies is equally deserving of a place in that privileged pantheon.
Even compared to such lauded lyricists, Davies stands out as offering something different—not the broad, all-encompassing emotional palette of the Beatles, the hallucinatory and the seer-like revelations of Dylan, or the bare introspection and the power of observation of Mitchell. These songwriters, especially Dylan and Mitchell, are often prized for their literary qualities, but in truth, Davies is perhaps more of a “writer’s” lyricist than any, unmatched as a vignettist of cultural sentiment who is (unlike the others) more interested in his subject than himself.
As has been observed many times, many ways, “Englishness” is Davies’ inexhaustible topic, and it is everywhere across The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society. If there’s one way to crystallize Davies’ talent, it is perhaps to say that he excels at imagining the ways in which something will feel nostalgic in the future, even when you’re not yet inhabiting the future in which that thing will feel nostalgic. So many of the songs are about past-ness, and perfectly capture what it’s like to “feel” past-ness.
The catchy and innocuous-sounding “Picture Book,” for example, has a dark side that is easy to overlook, crystallized in the line “Picture book/ Of people with each other/ To prove they love each other/ A long time ago.” Davies is perfectly attuned to the way in which, even in our present, we are always crafting what our past will look like to our future selves. There are the portraits of “Do You Remember Walter?” and “Johnny Thunder,” the former exhorting its titular figure to remember when life was lived in a rather more exciting way, the latter seeming to eulogize someone who clung more than most (and perhaps too much) to a fast-paced life. Elsewhere, the perspective magnifies to a larger-than-life optic that seems to transcend the foibles of particular lives lived in particular ways, whether it’s in “Big Sky” (“People lift up their hands and they look up to the Big Sky/ But the Big Sky is too big to sympathise”) or in “Phenomenal Cat,” imagining a kind of mythical figure detached from the fuss of the everyday.
Indeed, some of the songs seem as if written to cure Davies himself of his excessive concern with the pace of everyday life, like the sing-songy psychedelia of “Sitting by the Riverside” or the rural utopianism of “Animal Farm” (despite the obvious dystopic resonance of its title). And of course the city-country opposition is alive and well elsewhere as well, as in “Village Green,” in which there is a self-conscious problematization of idealized country life, the speaker seeming to realize that what he nostalgically longs for is no longer available to him in a meaningful way, or that he has outgrown such a life. Though, of course, in typical Davies style, this song is soon enough followed up by the self-reproach of “Starstruck,” as well as “All of My Friends Were There,” a deceptively jaunty tune about a performer’s torturous dependence on audience, whether after an embarrassing performance or what he imagines to be a redemptive follow-up. Indeed, with “Wicked Annabella” and “Monica,” toward the conclusion of the album, we get another “twin portrait,” though one of decadence. This time, the pairing reflects this with a darker psychedelia than in the earlier, more playful numbers. The closing song, “People Take Pictures of Each Other,” which mirrors some of the themes of “Picture Book”—“People take pictures of each other/ Just to prove that they really existed”—leaves us in an ambiguous condition, with the final dramatization of the narrator closing the picture book of the album itself—“How I love things as they used to be/ Don’t show me no more, please.”
Though, in some ways the Kinks and Davies would set their sights on even more ambitious degrees of musical accomplishment with their next album, Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire), there is no doubt this is the most personal album of their discography, one that left its mark on songwriting (British and otherwise) for its combination of self-reflection and large-scale social critique. By keeping his tongue in his cheek, Davies may have compromised his own position in Mt. Olympus of 1960s songwriting, but for anyone with ears, he is as penetrating as any of his peers, a keen-witted, large-hearted boy with melodies to spare.