Close to the Wire: The Kinks’ Phobia at 30
Is the band’s final studio album more relevant today?
Phobia, the 24th and final studio album from the legendary Kinks, was met with indifference upon its release on March 29, 1993.
Today, it would make no one’s list of top 10 Kinks albums. On most lists that rank all the Kinks albums (like these from Stereogum, Rate Your Music, and Medium), it doesn’t even crack the top 20.
Complaints about Phobia typically maintain that the album is too long (maybe, since it’s 76:10), that the songs are too long (not really fair, since only six clock in at over five minutes), and that it’s all over the map and not really focused.
On that last point I agree – and I’ll go a step further: Boil Phobia down from 16 tracks to 10 and it would make a pretty solid 2023 release.
So how do we do that?
First, let’s just tack “Opening” on to the beginning of “Wall of Fire.” At 38 seconds long, “Opening” is barely a standalone track anyway; they should have just combined the two in the first place. Now we’re down to 15.
Next, we put these on the sidelines: “Still Searching,” “Only A Dream,” “The Informer,” “Hatred (A Duet),” and “Scattered.” Not because they’re bad songs, necessarily (Ray Davies told Pulse magazine in 1993 that “I think I kind of found my voice again” on “Only A Dream,” while “Scattered,” the band’s last original single ever, is arguably the best track on the album), but they distract from the more focused set we’re trying to build.
Okay, now let’s take a look at what’s left:
“Wall of Fire” sets the tone for an apocalypse-is-just-around-the-corner context for the reimagined album: “Standing at the end of the horizon / Looking at another setting sun / Nature gave us all these toys to play with / But we’ve abused them, each and every one.” Yeah, we have. And what’s the result of that abuse?
“Drift Away” details them pretty directly: global warming (“The ice is gonna melt, the water gonna rise / And we’ll all go to hell”), crappy politicians (“Now all the politicians are running out of hope / They’ve burned all their bridges / Now they just can’t cope”) and an even crappier media (“Newsmen winding up the nation / A little bad news helps circulation / Pass on the panic to the population”). What a mess we’ve made of it all.
And this was 30 years ago!
“Phobia” is up next, and setting aside that the opening feels like it’s swiping “I Love Rock and Roll,” the lyric is a logical extension of the first two cuts: When the world is falling to pieces, of course everyone’s going to develop all kinds of phobias as a survival mechanism. What else are you gonna do?
Well, some people might crack and climb out on the ledge, ready to end it all. That’s what happens in “Don’t,” in which the singer muses that it “Must have been something special / To send him to the brink.” We don’t know if the man on the ledge jumps or reconsiders his life and starts fresh; Ray Davies leaves him out there and leaves us to draw our own conclusions.
What a world we’ve created for ourselves! Why would any sane person want to be born into it? Well, that’s explored in “Babies,” in which the unborn cry out: “Mama, what I sense from outside / It’s a world full of fear / And there’s nowhere to hide / Mama, I feel safe between these walls.” Sorry, kid, you’re gonna be born anyway.
Maybe once you’re here, though, finding the love of a good woman might help, but “Over the Edge” suggests that’s not going to work, either. At least not while the singer is blaming the woman, whose brain is succumbing to the pressures of society, for pushing him over the edge. And besides: “The world is turning upside-down / Civilization’s dead, over the edge / Economic turmoil, now the world is in the red / Democracy’s a shadow of its former glory / Law and orders broken-down / End of story.”
And this was 30 years ago!
“Surviving” is really all we can do. And when you get right down to it, that’s not a bad strategy; in fact, “It’s Alright (Don’t Think About It).” As the singer declares, you “gotta have hope / gotta carry on” – even if “Somebody Stole My Car,” because, well, “That’s life in the big city / You beg for mercy but you got no pity.” So just deal with it.
Then, after nine songs of how everything is going even further to hell, “Close to the Wire” sums up the prison that is modern life: “The soul needs attention / Like the body needs to breathe / But banks want investment / So who are we / Cultures are dying / But gold reserves are safe / Can’t live in this jungle / But can’t escape.”
Of course, The Kinks have been singing about this sort of “world sucks, I gotta get away” thing since “Apeman.” But this reworked version of Phobia – I’d rename it Surviving or Close to the Wire – would have had a more focused message, one that certainly resonates all too well today.
The Kinks would break up three years after the release of Phobia, but go back and give it a listen: Not only will you be surprised how much of it rings truer than ever, you’ll probably agree that the legendary band went out on a higher note than most people realize.
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