The first true full-length studio album from the legendary leader of The Kinks is spectacular.
This is a brilliant album -- a collection of smart, funny, catchy, soulful, touching songs that come from a pen you might have forgotten over the years. But how many rockers can make a chorus of the phrase, "Is there life after breakfast? Yes there is!"?
One: Ray Davies.
Pop songwriting can be so many things -- and it usually isn't. A great pop song is a condensed gem that can swing from love to tragedy in eight bars -- or from the horrible to the hilarious, from the hopeful to the wistful. Terrific pop songwriting simultanesouly entertains and reveals, and it does it in the name of increasing your pulse and swishing your hips back and forth. When it's done right, it's genius. But how often is that?
Mr. Ray Davies has done it more than almost any other man in rock, and Other People's Lives is as a good a collection as you're going to hear in 2006. "You Really Got Me" and "Lola" made Mr. Davies' band, The Kinks, the rawest and weirdest of the British Invasion bands. When they were a mop-topped garage band, The Kinks were the scrappiest. When they adopted British folkisms, The Kinks did it without preciousness. When Mr. Davies wrote linked song cycles, they were the smartest. And when the 1970s and punk dared him to mature, he found ways confound critics with a minor masterpiece (Sleepwalker, the band's 1977 Arista debut) and a deeply ironic hit song ("A Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy" from 1978's Misfits).
So how can it be that one of the greatest rock songwriters is only now releasing an album of spanking new material?
Well, you could get analytic about it, but Other People's Lives will quickly end your discussion. Now long-released from commercial expectations or the directive to write for a narrow "Kinks" identity, Mr. Davies is producing crazy, crafted, witty music -- the kind of stuff that reminds us that the best rock writers have always just been good songwriters, regardless of style. Like Elvis Costello, Mr. Davies wears his rock persona easily into middle age, while not being afraid to incorporate the odd saxophone or bossa nova coloring. These are great pop songs put across in fantastic performances.
"Things Are Gonna Change" snaps the album open with organ-and-guitar rock built on heaping doses of melody: a great riff, a bitten-off verse, a rising chorus, and a strong bridge. Mr. Davies sings about "the barrier we cross" as "we crawl outside ourselves" -- an optimistic song about the "morning after" something that might be 9/11 but is just as likely a smaller problem -- yours or mine. The second song starts to bring the album title to life -- the first in a series of character-driven songs: "I just had a really bad fall, and this time it was harder to get up than before.' Mr. Davies cranks his voice into a nasal overdrive, but still harbors optimism -- seeing the moment "after the mist clears" even though the narrator is a "sinner waiting at the travelers' rest seeking refuge from the storm" who is "falling upwards into the great, wide blue". The song explodes outward with exuberance on a great Fender power chord.
The quaint side of Ray is in evidence too, though. "Next Door Neighbor" is a classic Village Green Preservation Society-esque story that floats on a bed of horns and a jaunty beat. And the humorous Ray is everywhere: "Is There Life After Breakfast?" doles out feel-good advice with tongue in cheek, and "Stand Up Comic" starts with a culture-mocking monologue suggesting that "Shakespeare is the schmooze of the week and anyone who says different is a fuckin' antique" and "now the clown does a fart and we all fart back . . . and that's that." But as much as anything, we get the best Ray of all -- the songwriter who can manage to be sweeping and grand without ever seeming to reach too far toward anthem or bullshit. "Creatures of Little Faith" moves inevitably toward its irresistible chorus, but it does so through lyrics detailing a domestic dispute. "All She Wrote" starts with a break-up letter sung over folk-guitar simplicity, then it explodes into a funky rock that dismisses the "few cute lines to get my goat". "Over My Head" rises up on heartbreak again, the narrator reaching for optimism by letting negativity fly over his head, powered by a wah-guitar groove punched up by grand piano thump. If you heard this stuff coming from a car window in June, you'd want to push the accelerator down, but you'd listen to the lyrics too.
Some critics will surely want to accuse Mr. Davies of reaching too far beyond his style or audience. "Other People's Lives" has a Latin rock feel, a female background croon, and references to internet-spread scandals. "The Getawa (Lonesome Train)" is, essentially, an alt-country song with a Neil Young twang. But these tracks aren't betrayals of some patented "Kinks Sound" as much as further demonstration that Mr. Davies has always been more a songwriter than a "rock songwriter". Whatever window dressing he may find for each song's proper style, Ray's British growl and snarly pout tells each story with humor, affection, and conviction.
This is a great collection of songs from an artist who has not tested our affection with meandering solo material or endless mercenary reunion tours. He's the real thing: a rocker who's an artist. And with Other People's Lives, well, he's really got you.