In case there was any doubt, Ray Davies reminds us that “I’m Not Like Anybody Else” by kicking off his loosely confident and crisply executed new album — a grab-bag collection that encounters some Kinks-chronicled haunts while lighting out for new territory — with a clear-the-room guitar discharge that evokes brother Dave’s strident chord-blast beginning of that classic and frantic 1966 song.
Not that the first segued-to track of Working Man’s Café, the follow-up to 2006’s solid Other People’s Lives, is anything musically or lyrically Kinks-size. More genially rollicking than desirously raucous, “Vietnam Cowboys” is a new globalization twist on an old Kinks’ finger-pointing put-down penchant, updated and Americanized.
If it seems that Ray has here and there written Preservation: Act 3 — another song bemoans that “Corporations get the tax breaks / While the city gets the crime” — rest assured that there is no Mr. Big lurking about, and that Davies is, for the most part, in fine voice metaphorically with his lyric writing as he is in fine voice, literally so: from celebratory feistiness to curmudgeonly snarl, exquisite quaver to boozy carnie barker. On “The Voodoo Walk” Ray delves into a menacing growl that is as effectual as his “Wicked Annabella” is seethingly insidious. And the powerhouse “You‘re Asking Me” has Davies warning those who might want to worship at the feet of the perceived “God of BritPop”: “If you're asking me, don't take my advice.”
Hopefully Davies is more reliable with his songcraft, but in the meantime there's a lot of connect-the-dots guesswork that can be done with this new work. For every inkling you may have that a song such as the lackadaisical “Morphine Song” is a gateway-tune “Alcohol” from 1971’s Muswell Hillbillies, or that “Hymn for a New Age” (“But I believe I need something to look up to / I believe I wanna pray but don't know what to”) is “Big Sky” from different agnostic perspective, there’s a song like Working Man’s Café’s title song that invites direct lyrical comparison to Village Green’s “Do You Remember Walter?” (Or was it just coincidence that we were in for compounded nostalgia and a double dose of deja vu now that we’re online at the internet cafe: “I thought I knew you then but will I know you now?")
More typical, however, is Davies’ sly and subtle approach. In the “be careful what you wish for category” lies “Peace in Our Time,” comprised of an ambivalence that, without mentioning Chamberlain-era wartime appeasement, still could have fit into the 1969 Kink concept classic Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire). Similarly, an account of a frustrating parting of the red tape retold in “No One Listen” recalls 1970's Lola vs. the Powerman & the Money-Go-Round, Pt. 1, one of the Kinks most rough-edged and agitation-ridden recordings.
Soothed and smoothed to “Celluloid Heroes” perfection, or perhaps reminiscent of a song from one of the Kink’s ‘70s-era rock operas, the gorgeous “Imaginary Man” suggests some skewed self-identification for an artist perhaps too accustomed to living “other people’s lives”:
- Walked down to Preservation Hall
Looking for the old trad band
It was just a momentary glance
I saw my reflection in the glass
Watched as the world went flashing past
I knew the face but could not tell
Why I couldn't recognise myself
I am, I am imaginary
I am, I am imaginary
I'm the imaginary man…
But escape may not be the way to discovery: “So you headed down south left another home town / Now you don't have the time to think / Who's left behind” in “The Real World.” In Working Man’s Café’s most stellar stand-out — and the most un-Kinked and independently Davies – Ray offers one of his most heartrending vocals as a solo artist. After he follows the travels and travails of his subject, Davies sums up that “There's a lot of lost souls looking out / For a sign for the real world.”
It’s as if every day, and for over 40 years, Ray Davies still looks at the world from his window, taking notes. Comforting thought, somehow.