Other People’s Lives
suppose I should have expected nothing. But the pleasant surprise of the Thanksgiving Day EP disarmed my inherent negative prejudices regarding new Ray Davies material for a new milennium, and the cautious praise lumped on Other People’s Lives before its release had me thinking the old bell curve might just get bucked this time. Sadly, ‘twas not to be. What we have, instead, is another piece of overwarm Dad-rock, the proverbial mutton dressed as lamb.
In a pop climate seemingly headed towards the less-is-more mentality, this record is more than just an anomaly—it’s a curio, overproduced to the point of insensibility. What makes it all the more frustrating is that there are actually some great tunes here: Davies’ trademark clean melody lines pinning up atypical rhythmic structures that hint at all the classic Kinks referents—music hall, blowzy pub rock, American roots music, and so on. The same is true of Ray’s usual lyrical approach and subject matter—the use of characters, the elements of storytelling and lives-in-transition, the slight hints at political and social statements, and of course the sense of wry humor and irony. All present and accounted for, but subsumed beneath layer upon layer of studio musicianship, so thick at times even Ray’s iconic voice is lost for all the acres of reverb and spit-shine genero-rock coating.
All is not lost, I tell myself. And there are moments of, if not glory, at least some charm on Other People’s Lives. I also have to admit that it gets better the more I listen to it, but let’s bear in mind that I am forcing myself to listen to it. Then again, when did we teach ourselves to rate anything from Ray Davies as being merely acceptable? I’ve heard some amazing Kinks songs and I’ve heard some that blew, but rarely anything much in between. The best songs here (“Next Door Neighbour,” “The Tourist,” the first portion of “All She Wrote”) sound like outtakes from Arista-era Kinks albums. The worst songs here (“Run Away From Time,” “The Getaway (Lonesome Train),” the rest of “All She Wrote”) sound like outtakes from the Eddie & the Cruisers II : Eddie Lives soundtrack. Whether it’s the fault of too much time spent in gestating the songs, too much time spent in the studio or just being out of touch, we’re not really dealing so much with poor material as the mismanagement of above-average material. Even the strongest lyrical ideas and core melodies seem to have spent so much time negotiating compromise with the expected demands of the listener that they sound labored. Contrasted with the effortless magic of even lesser songs in the Davies canon, it’s unavoidable to draw the conclusion that the man most famous for disregarding the audience has finally pandered to it.
Of course, it’s axiomatic to the point of cliché that young, struggling artists make bracing, vital pop music and older, settled artists make more mature, developed works. But we’re not talking about Bruce Springsteen or Noel Coward. This is bloody Ray Davies: the third and oft-neglected component in the great triad of British pop. Between the unbearable brightness of the Beatles and the unwearable machismo of the Stones, the Kinks always offered delicacies more intricate and refined, more devious in their delight. When everyone else zigged, they would zag. Even the two great critically-shunned periods of the band (their all-concept albums phase and their American AOR-era) were succinct statements of intent from a man who hadn’t so much ceased to care as continued to completely piss on public opinion. So how did this legendary malcontent come to such a sad end? This is an album that seems tailor-made for aging rockers clutching fresh copies of MOJO and sipping overpriced California wine at dinner parties, reminiscing about their first 45’s and pretending that going to a Rolling Stones concert in 2005 isn’t just the “growing old gracefully” of the Rock Generation. It seems not only uncharacteristic, but downright insidious. Has the man lost his marbles?
Perhaps, but perhaps he’s only misplaced them—the biggest flaw with Other People’s Lives is that the songs play to Davies’ weaknesses rather than his strengths, coupled with overproduction that veils any remaining virtue under a gauzy blanket of unnecessary studio witchcraft. Opener “Things Are Gonna Change (The Morning After)” is typical of the problem—dramatic, strident chords in the late 80’s stadium rock tradition, drums and bass part filtered through the Big Rock Sound, Ray straining his voice to sound more urgent and epic. All of this is no doubt intended to provide a wry undercurrent to the lyrical concerns—a fairly standard set-piece in the long tradition of post-indulgence resolutions. While this kind of over-reaching might have once suited a song like “Victoria,” where the cracks and strains of Davies’ voice parallel those in his facade of Royalist loyalty and the half-competent jamming mode of the band evokes a sense of the Empire spiraling out of control, they are totally lost in the world of Pro Tools and professional studio musicians. What we’re left with is a joke the narrator isn’t in on: more sad than funny.
At the opposite end of the pole is the closing song, “Thanksgiving Day”—originally released on an EP of the same name at the end of last year. While hardly his finest hour, it at least suggests a direction which would combine Davies’ obvious desire not to rest on his laurels with something more musically palatable. The obvious New Orleans influence in the song is the key element—it’s a low-slung, sparse (at least in the company it’s given here) gospel-hued affair which adroitly balances the dreamy-eyed respect for tradition and the sharp-witted, worldly cynicism which have ever been the strongest elements of Ray Davies’ songwriting. It’s sweet, it’s sad, it’s a good deal corny, but freed of the overproduction that mars most of the material on Other People’s Lives, it manages to soar even as it trades in cliché. And if that’s not a trademark of a Davies song, I don’t know what is.
Without putting the cart too far before the horse, a song like “Thanksgiving Day” suggests an imaginative way out of the Elder Statesman of Rock conundrum—instead of going the Neil Young / Van Morrison route that Davies trods through much of Other People’s Lives, why not quite deliberately avoid pastures well-trod for ones hitherto unseen? “Thanksgiving Day” succeeds by sounding completely like Ray Davies and not in the least like the Kinks. Of course, failing that approach, maybe Ray just needs to stop using other people’s collaborators and find a few of his own. In fact, I might suggest a couple of likely lads—the names Avory, Quaife, Dalton, and Gosling spring to mind. Oh, and there’s one fellow—just came out of hospital and started playing on the gee-tar... Dave Davies, his name is. Funny that.