There were a thousand worries that nagged at me regarding the return of Ray Davies. Not that he ever fully left, but the last album was a collection of musical pairings that had more to do with wringing out old Kinks laurels versus having anything new to say (See My Friends, 2010). Did Davies even have something new to say? More pointedly, could he still say them even if he wanted to?
Don’t look at me that way. You know I’m right. How many artists have come back from hiatus with voices that couldn’t handle the workload and points of view that were, at best, uncharitable to the idealists they once were? How many sought the golden road of Carlos Santana’s Supernatural only to get crossed up with individuals hardly super and certainly not natural, concluding with half-hearted product?
Fortunately for all, it’s not the case with Davies’ latest, Americana. A few elements are in play that put the record in the “win” column. The most crucial point is having roots-rock staple The Jayhawks appear as Davies’ backing band. They have the ability to go in whatever direction the songwriter has chosen, and there are plenty to choose from. There’s more than milligrams of a Muswell Hillbilly DNA present in The Jayhawks.
Another element is that Davies has never really sung like a man of his age, even in his youth. He regularly employed speak-sing and put on affectations to hammer a point home. These stylistic choices have served him well. As his peers have needed to take on these choices because their natural instruments have failed them with age, Ray Davies sounds like Ray Davies. And when he chooses to rip up the wallpaper with a rocker like “The Mystery Room,” he defies age entirely.
The album is constructed with bits of dialogue interspersed throughout, which can be an immensely tricky gambit. Regularly, these kinds of tactics find a band attempting to be more intellectual than they’re capable of. Any good director will tell you, “Don’t say it if you can show it.” But we all know that Davies, the consummate raconteur, knows how to spin great yarn, and these spoken-word interstitials seldom feel tacked on or shoved in.
Having been a Kinks fan for years and across almost every era, I got a distinct thrill from the song “The Deal.” It’s a great tune on its own and utilizes Davies’ patented acerbic wit, detailing a visit to the shallow lifestyle of West Coast America and the “let’s do lunch” false chumminess that goes hand-in-glove with it. The key, however, comes in later when Davies calls back “How Are You?” from the underrated Think Visual album. The MCA years weren’t covered in glory sales-wise and did not produce hits like “Destroyer” or “Come Dancing.” It was gratifying to hear not only was Davies still engaged with that part of the canon, but gave the nod to one of my favorite pieces from it.
Davies’ solo stuff had been, for me, a case of trying too hard with the obtuse Other People’s Lives, the walk-back of Working Man’s Cafe, and the previously mentioned See My Friends. Americana, for me, is like the great big reset button that reminds the listener that Ray Davies has always been one of rock’s most erudite and savvy practitioners, wise beyond his early years and lively past his latter ones. It’s an uncompromised, crowd-pleasing winner.