The recently knighted Sir Ray Davies, co-founder and principal songwriter for the Kinks, is back with his first record in almost a decade. Backed by alt-country stalwarts the Jayhawks, and focused on exploring the contours of American roots music, at first glance this might appear a quixotic addition to Davies' considerable oeuvre. But a closer look reveals a longtime fascination with an imagined, or idealized, America in his songs.
Perhaps stemming from the strange period in the late 1960s when the Kinks were banned from the United States (and thus had to imagine what exploring the country might be like), or perhaps just as a result of the same old fascination with the American mythos that animates so many artists around the world, Davies has frequently approached "America" as a poetic construction. From "Oklahoma U.S.A." to "Celluloid Heroes" to "Catch Me Now I'm Falling," America has tended to function as an idea as much as a place in his work, even when he lived and wrote in New York and New Orleans.
On this fifth solo record, Davies has finally decided to chase this idea as far as it will take him. It's a treat to tag along; still in strong voice at 72 years old, Davies somehow hasn't lost a step along the way. Between his inimitable acerbic wit (the withering "Poetry" is peak Davies) and his generous attention to quirky detail (his ode to the road trip "The Great Highway" is a highlight), longtime fans will find much to celebrate here.
As part of a broader autobiographical project (we are told that a second volume of Americana will drop later this year, along with a book and a concert series), this can't be said to read like a complete work. It's fragmentary, and a bit scattered in its attentions. Spoken word pieces (à la 1998's Storyteller), duets with the Jayhawks' Karen Grotberg and studio triumphs like the title track are juxtaposed, giving the impression less of an album, per se, than a scrapbook, a compendium. Yet, it's a trip through the mind of one of rock'n'roll's greatest songwriters. Who's going to complain? (Sony Legacy)