The RCA label signed The Kinks to a recording contract during early 1971. I don’t know what the label had in mind for the band but it’s doubtful they were prepared for Muswell Hillbillies. It not only remains the most unique album in The Kinks’ music catalogue but there is really no album to compare it to during the era of its release.
The lyrics moved from the idyllic village green to the urban setting of Ray Davies’ youth. They told stories of British working people vs. the modern world. Gone were the pastoral stories and heavyweight criticism and in its place were some lightweight satire and a good dose of Ray Davies humor.
It was the music that was the most radical departure from their past. Missing were the power chords and subtle guitar sounds. Banjos, trumpets, and tubas now made an appearance. It was Ray Davies traveling a musical journey that few people have ever envisioned. There was country, bluegrass, English vaudeville, some beer hall music, and even a little jazz thrown in for good measure. There were no hit songs and little commercial success to be found in the eclectic mix, much to RCA’s chagrin. The songs are not meant to be listened to individually, nor do any of them provide a good listen on their own. When taken together, however, there is a brilliant flow to the music, which is a credit to Ray Davies’ genius.
The songs are never mundane. “Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues” had upbeat New Orleans-type melodies that run counter to the grim and bleak lyrics. “Complicated Life” was a song to hoist a brew to while singing along. “Have A Cuppa Tea” was Ray Davies at his witty best as he told a tale of tea being the great class equalizer of British society. “Holiday” found him traveling back to the 1920s for a vocal that sounded as if it was recorded through a megaphone. The title track was pure country, “Alcohol” leaves just about any recognizable musical format behind, while “Skin and Bone” was a bebop toe-tapper.
The only mainstream track and one they performed live for years seems almost out of place. “20th Century Man” was a building song that began acoustically and gradually became a frenetic guitar-and-drum rocker that just thunders along.
Muswell Hillbillies is such an odd album that its allure depends on the musical tastes of the listener. It may not have changed the course of music, but it’s never boring. If you are ever in the mood for something different, then this may be an album for you.