Delving into a new Ray Davies always gives me the shakes. I want so badly to loveitloveitloveit – but will this be the time he finally lets me down?
Mind you, Working Man’s Café is technically only Ray Davies’ third album. Other People’s Lives, released in February 2006, was his studio solo debut; there was also a live show recorded as Storyteller. But as front man for the Kinks – lead singer, songwriter, producer, and all-around dramaturge — Ray Davies has been releasing records for over 40 years. You’d think by now he’d be on autopilot.
But now I’ve heard Working Man’s Café, and I can breathe easy — no such thing has happened. That old chip on Ray Davies’s shoulder is still there, driving him to overachieve, to settle imaginary scores, to baffle all critics.
Other People’s Lives was a brilliant debut – a searingly honest mid-life stock-taking, suffused with fury, melancholy, grit, and vulnerability — but Working Man’s Café is a much more confident, robust outing. Davies is back in vintage form, once again playing the detached observer of life and love, adroitly sampling a pastiche of musical styles, and dealing out his cards of satire and sympathy with a practiced sleight of hand.
Known as the chronicler par excellence of British social life, on Working Man’s Café we find Davies taking stock of British culture circa 2007 — and concluding that there is no such thing.
After a dramatic opening guitar riff straight out of the movie The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, the snappy opening track, “Vietnam Cowboys,” pans around the globe to find a fatal blurring of cultural identities, a cold-hearted outsourced global economy of “Mass production in Saigon / While auto workers laid off in Cleveland.” (True, I don’t think of Cleveland as a town of auto workers, but it’s like John Belushi’s Animal House rant about the Germans bombing Pearl Harbor – don’t stop him, he’s on a roll).
Davies brings it home to the U.K. in the title track, as he pictures himself walking down a High Street full of Starbucks and Gaps, looking in vain for the old café where old geezers on the dole could swill tea. Far from savage satire, it’s a classic bit of Daviesian nostalgia, a deeply poignant farewell to Englishness, and Davies’ hushed, husky vocals strike the perfect tone.
As a satirist, frankly, Davies is always sharper when the grudge is personal – like in “No One Listen,” a punchy diatribe against the bureaucratic process. It’s clearly drawn from Davies own 2004 experience after being shot by a mugger in New Orleans, the howl of frustration in his voice echoed by a snarly electric guitar.
The thoroughly charming “Morphine Song” is a music-hall-tinged bit of absurdist comedy which Davies wrote during an extended hospital recovery after the shooting. With its female back-up chorus and horn section, the sound harks back to Preservation – not only the Kinks’ mid-'70s rock operas of that name but also the jazz hall in New Orleans.
Despite its John Lennon-like title and Neil Young-ish arrangement, the track “Peace In Our Time” has nothing to do with the war in Iraq — no, it’s a domestic battleground Davies is complaining about: “the living room’s a wreck from all the rows / The atmosphere is stifled with aggression / Ultimatums, deadlines, and depression.” As usual, he manages to make himself out to be more sinned against than sinning. (Note to self: never break up with someone in person, just write a devastating rock song and your revenge will be complete.)
Relationship songs, in fact, constitute most of the album. (Pretty cool, being a rock star in your sixties and still writing songs about your tumultuous love affairs.) “You’re Asking Me” dances warily around some younger person asking Davies for advice – he could be addressing an adoring musical acolyte or a child, but I’m betting it’s a much-younger girlfriend. It’s a jumpy, edgy track, fighting off that Wise Old Man mantle that Davies clearly doesn’t aspire to; Davies almost seems to be channeling early David Bowie here, which is plenty ironic, given that Bowie started out modeling himself on the Kinks.
Like a mood poem, “In A Moment” tries to capture that tipping point when a love affair first goes sour. The genial loping rhythm of this track unfortunately undercuts any sense of loss; Davies scores better with “Imaginary Man,” a genuinely plaintive lament from a man who realizes that his own slippery sense of self leaves him incapable of living up to a lover’s expectations. A truly fresh insight on relationships – how often do we get that anymore? For this song alone, the whole album is worth buying.
Masks, identity, authenticity – these issues have always absorbed Ray Davies. In the deliciously jazzy “Voodoo Walk,” insomnia and paranoia are let loose for a nocturnal prowl (shades of the Kinks' Sleepwalker album), revealing the dark side of every personality.
The restless rocker “Hymn for a New Age” searches for authentic faith – “But I believe I need something to look up to / I believe / I wanna pray but don’t know what to.”
The album closes with the tender ballad “The Real World,” a portrait of a lost soul moving from town to town to escape a banal reality. Though the character is ostensibly a woman, it could just as easily be Ray Davies, adrift in a dislocated global culture that no longer feels like home. It's a deeply affecting valedictory, a cautionary tale with no moral, ending the album on a haunting note I can't get out of my head.
Now here’s the bad news, at least for American music lovers: although Working Man’s Cafe was released last week in the U.K. and throughout Europe, Davies has yet to secure a deal with an American label. (V2 Records, which issued the CD, recently shut down its North American division.)
While a free version was included in last Sunday’s London Times — yes, this album was GIVEN AWAY FOR FREE to every Times reader in the U.K., some 1.5 million copies – we Americans can only buy it as an import. It was offered for about 48 hours on iTunes last week, and then mysteriously disappeared. What gives?
I can only conclude that Ray Davies is still his usual prickly, slippery self, playing some kind of complex game with the schizo music biz. When I think of all those unappreciated giveaway CDs landing in British rubbish bins, while American Kinks fans can’t even get their hand on a copy – well, it’s so mystifying.
But getting your hands on it will be well worth the effort, I promise. Over the 40-odd years that I’ve been listening to Ray Davies’ music, I’ve learned that his albums tend to grow on me gradually. If I like this one so much out of the gate, just think how much I’ll love it once it really plants its tendrils in me.