With the Grammys over and last year's rash of strong releases from aging rockers safely buried in the past, I figured the cultural waters were safe for entry once more. My title, pop music critic, suggests somewhat ambiguously that a certain amount of what I address in writing should be "popular" -- and by extension, not necessarily the creative products of geezers. Nothing makes you notice the passage of time in this business quite like the creeping suspicion that "the old stuff" is far more interesting, inventive, creative, lasting, etc., than "the new stuff." So, back to it, then.
Er, hang on a minute. Apparently Ray Davies has other plans for my pen, at least this week. How am I supposed to write off the old guard and welcome in the new if a genius like Davies -- a man who belongs in the company of the best British songwriters to emerge from the rock era of the '60s, alongside Townshend, McCartney, Lennon . . . and that's pretty much it -- has finally deemed his first solo album in 40-plus years as a recording artist "ready for release"?
I'd be remiss if I didn't note the momentousness of the occasion. Davies has been quiet for a decade, since the rather anticlimactic denouement of the Kinks, the band he fronted with brother Dave through 30 years of infighting, depression, alcoholism, lofty artistic success and, ultimately, public indifference. The closest parallel to the trajectory of the Kinks is that traced by the Who, another band whose output concerned itself with the struggle to find meaning within the framework of rock music.
Davies and Townshend were birds of a feather as songwriters, but they saw the world through different eyes. Townshend was the idealist, thwarted at every turn, who was convinced of rock's ability to offer redemption and spiritual rebirth. Davies was the man obsessed with "Englishness," the collapse of "empire," a pastoral sense of longing, obsession with a past that may or may not have ever actually existed, and ultimately, the attempted concealment of "faith in rock music" behind a faux-vaudevillian clown's mask.
Davies, as one of the finest songwriters of the last century, eventually had to get back to doing what he does best. After all, there's a whole generation of kids who might think the fey, thespian's wisp of a voice popping up on Gorillaz and Blur albums is actually something other than a direct lift from Davies.
"Other People's Lives," which came out Tuesday on V2 records, is the product of four years in Davies' life, most of which was spent in his adopted British expatriate's home, New Orleans. (Davies endured plenty during this time, including a bullet in the leg when his girlfriend's purse was lifted on a New Orleans street and, ever the gallant, he gave chase.) It hardly comes across as an earnest reclamation of a legacy, however, despite the way it is being greeted in some quarters -- mine included. Rather, it's a continuation of a work in progress, a record that, despite its modern-enough production values, sounds like so many of Davies' best efforts -- simultaneously of this time and of no particular time whatsoever.
Davies, at 61, makes no attempt to fit in with the current pop-culture climate. Then again, he never really did. Recall that, following a mid-'60s string of riff-centered, power-pop smashes, Davies chose to release the conceptual masterwork "The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society." That record thumbed its nose at the then-current rage for psychedelia (and psychedelics) by picturing a past redolent of truly English values: small towns, verdant countryside and endless cups of tea, a time when meaning wasn't so nigh-on-impossible to find. When stadium rock -- a style the Kinks, the Who and the Stones invented -- exploded in the '70s, Davies started staging musical theater tours and lost himself in the almost-impenetrable parable "Preservation Acts I & II." He always seemed delightfully out of step with the current ethos.
"Other People's Lives" has an ironic title, not surprisingly. It boasts a novelist's eye for the ephemera and minutiae of ordinary lives, and it can be interpreted as quite judgmental and venomous in spots. But Davies has always been hardest on himself. The lives he examines, casts a sorrowful eye toward, tongue-lashes or abrasively dismisses here are nothing but aspects of his own life.
The usual suspects show up in these new Davies songs, and the usual laundry list of neuroses. On the track "Things Are Gonna Change (the Morning After)" there's the consistent insistence, common to the binge drinker, that tomorrow everything will be different; "Stand Up Comic" features the disarming, self-deprecating assertion that rock music is close to meaningless; "Creatures of Little Faith" explores character flaws leading to flawed relationships; "The Tourist" offers a tale of the "ugly American" abroad; and "Is There Life After Breakfast?" is an ironic paean to aging and dissolution. It's all classic Davies. Beneath the sway of his pen, being neurotic has never seemed more appealing.