Ray Davies wrote many of the songs I love best, but he wrote nearly all of them prior to 1972. That was the year Everybody’s In Show-Biz -- the last really good Kinks album or, for some, the first not-so-good one -- came out. Although the band enjoyed a commercial resurgence at the end of the seventies, Davies’s songwriting generally lacked the sustained inspiration that distinguished the Kinks’ “golden era,” and often enough he simply pandered to arena-rock crowds and cashed the checks.
The Kinks broke up in the 1990s. Davies’s solo albums did not mark a return to form; rather, they tended to sound like later Kinks songs, but with session men instead of a band. After the disappointments (mostly) of Other People’s Lives and Workingman’s Cafe, I didn’t greet news of his latest release, Americana, with overly high expectations.
Americana follows Ray’s book of the same name, and develops some of the material found therein. For this outing, he decided to ditch the session men and go with a well-regarded indie band, The Jayhawks, as his backup. They deliver a warm, country-rock sound and keyboardist/vocalist Karen Grotberg takes the lead on two tracks, to evocative effect. Subject-wise, the songs draw their inspiration from American mythology somewhat in the way Davies did in the early seventies, with his tribute to Hollywood, “Celluloid Heroes.” This time his subjects include cowboys, roaming buffalo and spacious landscapes. If these topics sound fusty and out-of-date -- well, at times Americana is exactly that. At its worst (“The Great Highway”) it serves up cliches: jukeboxes in smoky bars, malted milkshakes, the soda-sipping, shades-sporting girl in denim who “might be a dreamer.”
In the album's best moments, though, Davies puts in the imaginative effort needed to turn this material into something vibrant and meaningful. The high point for me is “Rock 'n' Roll Cowboys,” where the obsolescent metaphor is appropriate because the subject is, in fact, obsolescence: that of Ray himself and that of his genre, rock songwriting. The title song of the album also works: it situates its Wild West within the mind of an English boy growing in the fifties, and also in that of a man in his seventies remembering how he once was that boy.
Ray’s singing is wistful and tender, without the hammy, hard-rock pretensions of the Kinks’ later period. Best of all, his melodic gift -- unrivaled by anyone in rock music, yet disappointingly absent during the last decades -- is in evidence again: for instance in “Message From the Road,” a Davies-Grotberg duet that channels heartbreak through double lenses of time and distance. I’d be wrong to say the entire Davies post-1973 catalog is without its redeeming moments; as utilitarian as they often are, the later Kinks albums -- and Ray’s solo efforts -- have almost always contained one or two gems. But Americana marks the first time in decades that Ray the genius songwriter -- the one who gave us “Autumn Almanac” and “Waterloo Sunset” -- is present for more than half of an album. He’s let it be known that many more new songs are forthcoming, that the current album is just a small part of his recent output. Perhaps something better is indeed beginning.