Ray Davies is 72.
He founded one of the most influential bands of the twentieth century. He’s written some of the defining works of Popular Music. He’s played to a live TV audience of 24 million. He’s survived ill health and gunshot wounds. He accidentally invented Heavy Metal. So, what’s left to do? Well, make an easy listening, Country-Rock album with the Jayhawks, apparently.
Like Dylan and the Grateful Dead and (ulp…) Lou Reed and Metallica, on paper, it’s an interesting combination. The Jayhawks are Americana (sic) royalty – gifted players and writers who aren’t prepared to sleepwalk through a collection of pedal steel driven, truck drivin’ hokum. Ray couldn’t have picked a more sympathetic and adept cohort. The result however, is less than the sum of the parts.
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Davies will always be associated with an idealised version of England – waxing rhapsodic about Waterloo tube station, village greens and dance halls, so to hear him turn his attention to The New World is a real novelty. The lyrics however, are where Davies fumbles the ball. The album opens with the line, “I wanna make my home, where the buffalo roam”. All well and good, as the song (“Americana”) is written from the perspective of a wistful schoolboy. Unfortunately, that kind of “USA-by-numbers” approach permeates the whole album. “The Deal”, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Cowboys” and “A Long Drive Home to Tarzana” are among the worst offenders. It’s almost as if Ray watched a couple of Roy Rogers movies and used them as his sole source material. Davies may have wanted to express how exotic and seductive American culture was to a kid born in an unremarkable London suburb at the end of WW II, but at times, he seems to resort to almost comical clichés. As the album unfolds, you may find yourself thinking “Is he serious?” Well the jury is out on that, I’m afraid.
It’s not all bad news. His voice is holding up in a slightly weather-beaten way and there are glimpses of how fine this album could have been. “Message From the Road” – a gorgeous duet with Karen Grotberg – is as good as anything he’s done. Davies sounds genuinely roadworn as he sings over the sparse, haunting instrumentation as Grotberg plays the role of the dutiful spouse, stuck at home while her partner indulges in all the excess of a Rock ‘n Roll lifestyle. It could almost be George Jones and Tammy Wynette. “Silent Movie” and “The Man Upstairs” are fantastic spoken word pieces over well crafted musical accompaniment. If only… you know. Tracks like “The Great Highway” would have fitted nicely onto those latter-day Kinks albums that filled arenas and sold zillions in the U.S. They’re OK. But we expect more from Sir Raymond Douglas Davies, CBE.
This is the album that Davies wanted to make. Does he care what critics say? I doubt it. Is it any good? He thinks so. But it sounds a lot like a missed opportunity.
“Americana” is out now via Sony