Serving as a musical companion piece to his memoir of the same name, Americana finds Ray Davies embracing his younger self’s idealistic view of America as seen through the eyes of a young man in post-war Britain. As he has long done with songs referencing his home country, Davies here relies on distinctly American styles to underscore his narrative wordplay. From country to trad jazz to blues and nearly all points in between, Americana relies on the indigenous idioms of the titular nation to get its musical point across. And as was the case more than half a century ago, this reflecting on some of our greatest artistic exports comes back at listeners in a way that prompts a greater appreciation for the source material. Where before it was American blues being refracted by a dedicated group of young British blues aficionados and guitar wizards, here it is the stylistic whole of what the last century or so of American music has had to offer.
Davies has long been a master of stylistic nuance to indicate time and place. Following the Kinks’ ill-fated attempt to conquer America along with their fellow British Invasion raiders—having found themselves essentially kicked out of and banned from the country—Davies retreated further and further into his homeland’s musical traditions. Where before he relied on a few hammered out power chords and a garage punk aesthetic, the late ‘60s found the Kinks, primarily by way of Ray Davies, mining their country’s musical heritage for inspiration. This resulted in an idiosyncratic refutation of all things American in favor of a far more culturally-specific sound and sensibility. In essence, there was none more British group of Brits than the Kinks.
Letting bygones be bygones, Americana finds Davies in a reflectively nostalgic mood, looking back on his younger idealistic self with a fondness that often borders on the paternal. Aided by one of the quintessential groups of the late 20th century Americana movement in the Jayhawks, Davies forgoes any sort of generic pastiche in favor of the real deal. As he did with music hall on albums like The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, so too here does he embrace all the stylistic nuances and lyricism of American roots music. Not only does he delve into these distinctly American idioms, but he also uses them as a backdrop for his lyrical musings in a manner hinting at the theatricality that has long been the hallmark of his approach to songwriting. Listeners can almost see the accompanying imagery as Davies delivers his wide-eyed impressions of the mythical American West on the opening title track.
Skipping through time without deference to straight chronology, Americana ranges from Davies early recollections to the modern era. And while the bookend titles are certainly of interest, it’s those that deal with the heart of his extensive career that prove the most affecting. The one-two punch of “Message from the Road” and “A Place in Your Heart” are particularly so, each dealing with dueling perspectives as Davies traipses across the globe while his family waits patiently at home for word from him. The former, presented as a melancholic ballad, is structured so that Davies tells his side of the story first and is then complemented by female vocals taking on the role of wife and daughter, both of whom have been left behind. It’s a side of touring life that rarely makes its way into song, let alone as well as Davies has done here.
Quoting directly from his book, “Silent Movie” plays as a spoken word recitation of a particularly sobering exchange with the late Alex Chilton regarding the passage of time. Here they talk of songs remaining eternally youthful while the songwriter slowly ages and fades away. Given Chilton’s career arc, this reads all the more devastating the more people come across Big Star, the Box Tops and his own solo material far too late to have made a star out of him. While Davies doesn’t necessarily suffer the same fate, the point nonetheless resonates with him.
Thankfully it’s not all maudlin sentimentality. “The Deal” finds Davies adopting the same sort of laissez-faire, upper crust vocal persona he’s used throughout his career, dating at least back to “Dedicated Follower of Fashion.” With a chorus hook a mile wide “The Deal” is one of Americana’s most immediate offerings. And a welcome one at that, even if it is coming from someone who now considers himself to be a “bullshit millionaire.” Similarly, “I’ve Heard That Beat Before” plays fast and loose with a decidedly Randy Newman-esque approach to commentary on the music industry in the years following the so-called British Invasion. It’s interesting to hear Davies so blatantly ape another’s performing style when he himself is well known for his own idiosyncrasies, but it makes the song just that much more memorable by having done so.
Above all, Americana is an album full of considered introspection, something Davies tended to skirt in his two previous written accounts of his life. From the front lines account of the British Invasion that makes up “The Invaders”—somewhat ironically presented as a country shuffle—to acknowledgement of the mass passing of an entire musical generation on “Rock ‘N’ Roll Cowboys”, Davies still finds ways to make what in other hands might end up far too saccharine a pleasure to listen to. Showing himself to have lost none of his wit, melodic acumen or genuine love of and for people, places and things, Americana is as fine a late-career album as one could hope for. For long-time fans and neophytes alike, Americana is a treasure to behold.
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