Ray Davies’s first new album for almost 10 years is a follow-up to his same-titled memoir Americana, published in 2013. The recently knighted, quintessentially English songwriter Davies has always had a fascination with American culture, and this autobiographical record describes the important role America has played in his life in an extended love/hate relationship. It’s a return to a genre that The Kinks helped to pioneer in the ’60s: the concept album. Moreover, it’s a real return to form for a music icon who’s rested on his laurels for far too long.
As a satirical social commentator Davies may have made his name writing songs about swinging London, but early on The Kinks were heavily influenced by American rhythm and blues. And his band had considerable if uneven success in the United States over the years: they were briefly a part of the “British invasion” until receiving a touring ban from the American Federation of Musicians between 1965 and 1969 (for “bad behaviour”), but made a commercial comeback there later playing arena gigs. Davies has lived in New York and New Orleans, where he was shot in the leg after chasing a mugger in 2004. It’s been a passionate but complicated affair, as Americana shows.
The album was recorded at Konk, the studio founded by The Kinks in north London in 1973, and co-produced by Davies with Guy Massey and John Jackson, with US alt-country rockers The Jayhawks providing excellent support as backing band. He may be knocking on 73, but these 15 songs showcase Davies’s undimmed talent for writing catchy tunes with incisive lyrics (as well as incorporating spoken work passages from his book). Americana is not especially rootsy, but it does pay its dues to various American styles of music.
The album both celebrates and questions the power of American myth, which first attracted him when growing up in post-war austerity Britain. Widescreen Technicolor America, boasting western movies and later rock ’n’ roll, seemed much more exciting than monochrome Muswell Hill. But, always the outside observer with a critical eye, Davies here constantly challenges buying into the American Dream.
In the opening, country-esque title track, he voices his younger self’s silver-screen vision of a big country of freedom and opportunity: “I want to make my home / Where the buffalo roam / In that great panorama.” But in the teasingly whimsical The Deal, which alternates “fabulous” with “fraudulent”, a fantasy life among the rich and famous in LA is too good to be true. And lead single Poetry is an implicit condemnation of a materialist world where Davies sings ironically about “great corporations providing our every need” but asks with dismay, “Where is the poetry?”
Message From The Road, a folksy acoustic guitar and piano ballad about loneliness on “The Great Highway”, is a duet with The Jayhawks’ keyboardist Karen Grotberg, who also features on A Place In Your Heart, another sad love song with a more upbeat rockabilly sound including fiddles.
The bluesy, swampy Mystery Room, with its honky tonk piano, may allude to Davies’s near-death experience in New Orleans. And Rock ’N’ Roll Cowboys reflects elegiacally on ageing rock gunslingers (presumably including The Kinks) whose “time’s passed” and who are “in last chance saloon” ‒ “Do you live in a dream, or do you live in reality?” seems to sums up the dichotomy of Davies’ attitude towards America.
Change For Change has a slight chain-gang-song feel to it, with “Everybody fightin’ for the same gutter / That’s livin’ in the free world, while I’ve Heard That Beat Before is a jaunty jazz number about a fighting couple next door and A Long Drive Home To Tarzana has dreamy pedal steel guitar accompanying Davies crooning, “It’s a long, long way to paradise”.
The Great Highway is a rocky song with a driving beat that conveys the romantic potential of the open road. In the bluegrass-style The Invaders, Davies comments on The Kinks’ soured experience of America in the ’60s: “We just came to get a break / Not to turn into enemies of the state.” And the final track Wings Of Fantasy’s “Livin’ in denial / Chasin’ the dream” perfectly encapsulates the album’s bittersweet mood.
Americana is consistently melodic and witty, even if its mellowness sometimes verges on the sedate so that you fancy a burst of garage-guitar power chords from “baby brother” Dave to fire things up a bit. It’s an impressive comeback from the “Bard of Muswell Hill”, who may have returned to live in north London some years ago but who evidently still dreams of north America.