God Bless Ray Davies, and God Bless Americana
I did not have high hopes for Our Country: Americana Act II.
See, the last time the usually harmless words “Act 2” followed a Ray Davies-related album title, the result was 1974’s Preservation Act 2, (arguably) the Kinks worst pre-1980s album.
More saliently, I did not harbor enormously warm feelings for the initial Americana, released about a year and a half ago. Americana felt like the work of a legendary actor who’s been doing sitcoms and Law & Order SVU guest shots for a while, and then does an indie film in a desperate claw for credibility; and, see, it’s not just any old indie film, it’s one of those indie films that goes, “I am an indie film, I am an indie film, like me, like me, respect me, aren’t I arty and deep?” I mean, Robert Plant has made a career of doing that sort of thing, but it felt rather odd on Ray Davies, like a too-expensive jean jacket that he did not quite fit him.
Americana was perfectly pleasant, but you could see the sweat, see the bid for respectability. What was intended as sincerity and artistry came across as pretentious and desperate. And although it contained one truly great song (“Message from the Road”), Americana’s unconvincing though vaguely courageous voyage into southwestern ambience and vibey alt-country was just not enough to make me forget earlier, grotesque sins. See, only a few years earlier, the great Ray Davies, the man who was the Gateway Drug to Outsider Rock’n’Roll for so very, very many of us, had sunk to the absolute conceptual and artistic nadir of his career: 2010’s cringe-worthy, beyond obligatory, almost incomprehensibly pandering “I’ll cover my own songs with guests” album, See My Friends. In light of that debacle, Americana’s atmosphere of forced sincerity and musical humility seemed all the more galling. Can’t this great artist get it together to make one great solo album?
Listen, forgive me, but I have to say a little more about See My Friends. I could, perhaps, choose to overlook that sad and sorry record, except for the fact that it contained literally the worst thing Davies had ever recorded: a medley of “All the Day and All of the Night” and “Destroyer” (the latter was already an Indian Bus Plunge of a song) performed with that child-scaring Charlie Brown-headed human stain, Billy Corgan. That one track was such a hateful, self-hating sack of lit shit that it was a disaster most rare: A single song so awful that it makes you rethink everything you ever loved about the artist.
Ahem. Back to our plot.
So, between that corrosive, heart-breaking, soul-aching tire-fire of an album which still scarred my psyche, and the desperate squeal of credibility that was Americana, I was genuinely loath to listen to Our Country: Americana Act 2.
I said surprise.
Our Country: Americana Act II is the best thing Ray Davies has released in decades, perhaps the first “must listen” record he has made since 1977’s Sleepwalker, and the first truly charmed work he has done since Misfits.
(Hey, am I too harsh on everything the Kinks recorded in the 1980s and ‘90s? Perhaps, but I like to apply the Undercover/Steel Wheels/Dirty Work measure to these sorts of things; if you had never heard any Rolling Stones’ music, and your very first exposure to the band had been one or all of the aforementioned albums, would you have gone, “OhhhhhDamn I must fall in love with this group!”? No. No, I don’t think so. So, friends, let’s apply the same standard to anything the Kinks recorded after 1978’s Misfits — oh, okay, after 1980’s One for the Road. Did anyone hear any of those records — I mean just those records, not anything in the magnificent back catalog — and think, this is going to be a band who I am going to hold dear to my heart and my soul and my identity? I think not, my friends, I think not.)
Misfits is the last Kinks album that has the possibility of entrapping and seducing a stranger, of making a stranger think, “This is an artist who says things that I feel in my heart, but had not been able to give words. This is an album I need to tell my friends about.”
Our Country: Americana Act II is that kind of album.
In very many ways, Our Country is a very successful refinement of the original Americana, and it thematically and aurally continues in a very similar vein as the earlier album, but this time Ray Davies got it right. Previously, Davies wore these elements (the resonant, minimal-but-lush, Western-via-Lanois Americanambient soundscape, the long spoken word segments, the intimacy of confession segueing into incident description and character portrait, the occasional adoption of accents or musical genres appropriate to the illustration of the stories) like that ill-fitting, costly denim jacket I mentioned earlier; they felt like a gimmick, not like an inspiration.
But on Our Country all these same stylistic elements feel like a second skin. They really do. Honestly, it is as if he was playing dress-up on Americana, only to find that on Our Country that these clothes really do suit him. The clothes, in this case, being the members of Minneapolis alt-country icons The Jayhawks, who feel much more simpatico with Davies this time around.
Our Country is both sacred and solid. It actually achieves it’s aim of telling a story, with warmth and tension, about a man’s changing relationship with his adopted country; sometimes the country’s own growing pains and struggles are a metaphor for the artist; just as often, the opposite is true. It has genuine taste, discretion, and emotional affect, as opposed to Americana, which just pretended to have those qualities.
Our Country begins with the hopeful, optimistic curiosity of immigrants and colonists and creative invaders, and ends with violence and an oath of revenge. It is a terribly interesting voyage that unfolds in a way that actually makes sense, and it possesses an openness that is extremely rare for Ray Davies (after 1967, virtually everything Ray Davies wrote for the Kinks found him hiding behind a character; on Our Country, he is clearly writing about Ray Davies). In fact, I am tempted to say this is the single most honest work Davies has ever done. Our Country is a sepia-toned love letter to discovering rock’n’roll, discovering America through rock’n’roll, and observing as others – the Americans – discover things about themselves through the music Davies and other “invaders,” cultural and political, positive and negative, brought to America. This hour-long work sounds real, full of grace and gravity. And not only does it contain some of the most honest an affecting songs Davies has written in decades (like “Getaway” and “We Will Get There”), Our Country is actually one of the most satisfying concept albums Davies has ever made.
Speaking of concepts, in general terms, both Americana and Our Country tell the story of a troubadour, a rock star, a wanderer and a roué and a wide-eyed poet, discovering America (and America discovering the troubadour). But When Ray Davies addressed these themes on Americana, I was constantly aware that he had told this story before, and he had told it much better (specifically on Everybody’s in Showbiz — arguably one of the Kinks very best albums, and likely their most underrated – and Sleepwalker, and to a lesser degree, on Muswell Hillbillies). Americana literally lived in the shadow of those records, and while listening to it, I consistently thought, “Why is he telling this story again?” But on Our Country, these tales don’t feel like replays, but rather like complete re-tellings, fresh and revealing visitations, seen through the visor of wisdom, loss, the anger, regret, and childishness of old age.
And Like Americana, Davies doesn’t just revisit familiar themes, but familiar songs.
The remake of “Oklahoma USA” (from 1971’s Muswell Hillbillies album) shouldn’t work, but it does, gorgeously; whereas the original was a youthful aching for a non-existent past, the new version sounds like an end of life reverie for one’s youthful innocence, ignorance, and fantasy. “Oklahoma USA” might be the biggest surprise on the album, because Davies’ earlier attempts to re-record his material have been either unnecessary or catastrophic. In fact, the success of the new version of “Oklahoma USA” – we feel the age, we feel the shedding of lives, years, cells, lovers, friends, passports – exemplifies the success of Our Country. Davies also revisits his catalog on “Muswell Kills,” where he uses the sort of gimmick that he would have used in the 1980s: quoting a Kinks classic within a relatively predictable riff-rock song. But this time, he approaches this idea with a taste and discretion completely lacking from the ‘80s Kinks; it actually sounds like a necessary and effective citation, and not a cheap trick designed to appeal to radio programmers.
The artistic triumph of Our Country makes me think that, on one hand, Ray Davies should ditch the whole idea of a Kinks reunion; this album is that good. On the other hand, maybe Davies could only move forwards/backwards to the end-of-life arc completion/moneygrab of a Kinks reunion once he had made one truly great solo album, something that had always eluded this great artist.
Let us underline that: With Our Country, Ray Davies has finally made a great solo album.
(Oh – and huge props for the very subtle Confederacy of Dunces reference on “Louisiana Sky.”)
I lived in New Orleans for a spell last decade, and sometimes used to see Ray Davies on the street or in a bar. New Orleans has many celebrity part-time residents, but Davies did not look like one of these; he looked like, well, all of us. He looked like a local, or that peculiar form of transplant-local that New Orleans is so full of. He looked like he was both escaping reality and searching for identity, surrendering but looking forward, simultaneously proud and ashamed, shoulders back and chin down, searching for the strange in himself yet conscious of his status as an outsider fearing trouble.
Our Country tells that story, beautifully, with all that uncertainty, sense of place, sense of discovery, and vulnerability.