Friday, July 30, 2004

Other People's Problems: A Review of Something Else By the Kinks

So, I hear that some Kinks fans think that Something Else is the pinnacle of the Brothers Davies' accomplishments. Me, I think it's good, but it's not very good. It's no Village Green Preservation Society, and I hear from George Starostin that it's not even Face to Face. Though I agree with him on many points, I can't help but feel that he's missing the point of the album (and VGPS, too, but that's another post another day.

Something Else is a good album; I wouldn't call it a boring album, exactly, though it is a music-hall album through and through. As Ray and Dave Davies are pessimistic men, in general, their take on the music hall experience is far more successful and enjoyable than that other great songwriter, Sir Paul of the Cloying. All in all, though, the music and lyrics combine to form an extended, consistent, and very depressing mess.

See, I'm of the opinion that just because a song looks and sounds like it's supposed to be happy doesn't mean it actually is. The aforementioned Paul's Your Mother Should Know was the first I remember to get this treatment. There's something in the song's dynamic, you see, that makes it unbelievable as a happy dancing tune. The way the swooning, cloudy harmony vocals at the beginning modulate is more disturbing than joyful, the organ solos are poignant, and the chord changes say more of the tragic than the comic. Incorporating biography as I always do, I'll just note that Paul's mother died when he was young and he allegedly never quite came to terms about it. If you just look at the lyrics, it seems as if it should be a bit of bright nonsense, but in fact, it's certainly not.

Similarly "bright" on paper are Ray's songs on Something Else. (Dave's songs are nothing of the sort, but more on that later.) The majority of Ray's songs, from David Watts to Two Sisters to Waterloo Sunset, seem to have a general theme of "wanting to be what you can't", but several of them end more or less happily. Priscilla of Two Sisters ends up "deciding that she was better off / than the wayward lass that her sister had been"; the tin soldier man is a "very happy little tin soldier man". The rest don't seem all that poignant on paper, really.

["Spoilers" ahead] But Ray, after all, is the master of the roundabout kick in the teeth, and the subtlety of the dread here makes it all the more powerful. Nothing actually happens in David Watts; if you grew up with Richard Cory as I did you're waiting for the guy to off himself all through the first listen. The happiness Priscilla achieves at the end of Two Sisters is tainted by Davies's attention to detail: her willingness to sacrifice her Women's Weekly for freedom and her contented "running around the house with her curlers on" both make her a pathetic, dislikable figure (it's an ironic response to "She's Leaving Home" or something). The characters in Afternoon Tea are more artificial than usual for Davies. The whole idea of the Tin Soldier Man isn't a positive one, durnit. Finally, beautiful as Waterloo Sunset is, it's ultimately a song about loneliness and isolation (and the way the narrator names and proudly observes the Friday-evening couple isn't the least bit reminiscent of One Hour Photo, noooooo...)

Then there are the Dave songs, three of them. I disagree with George: they're all great, and better than Ray's less distinguished tracks. I mean, there's only one thing wrong with them: they're all disturbing as hell! Death of a Clown isn't all that bad, though there's a distinct chance that the titular clown is Ray, who cowrote it. It's deeply seedy, though, and the angelic backing vocals (!!!) are some of the eeriest in their catalog. Love Me Till the Sun Shines seems to be an invitation to a prostitute to take over Dave's life, house, etc. -- a classic (?) psychosexual compulsion song. The middle-eight, with more faux-angelic cooing over the lyrics "Baby baby, I dunno what I'm doing, everything I do just tends to ruin," really makes it for me. Finally, the cute-sounding Funny Face is everything but. Dave's little neuroses really take charge here, as he sings about his love for an imprisoned mental patient. The sweetness of the vocal enhances the squick factor even more: "I see you peering through frosted windows / Eyes don't smile, all they do is cry." The guitar riff itself is sleazy and foreboding, but subtle enough that its power is mostly subconscience. It's really a revolting song. Lou Reed might have been proud to write it, I think.

The unexpected bright spot of this album actually points to the direction VGPS would take: Lazy Old Sun (no relation to David Gilmour's Fat Old Sun, really) is actually a touching, heartfelt ode to the sun. This is not California sun-worship here; the line that sums up the point best is this: "When I was young, my world was 3' 7" tall; when you were young, there was no world at all...". The sort of chronological sublimation here would, I think, transform into VGPS's extended meditations on history, personality, and loss.

All in all, this album reminds me of a family holiday party: stuffed to the gills with resentments, anger, disillusion, and maybe a bit of perversion, none of which anybody will talk about. (For an amusing confirmation of this feeling, check out the real story behind "David Watts" sometime.) It's a profoundly discomforting, uncomfortable album. Because of this, it's much more interesting than Starostin gives it credit for. It's not an essential Kinks album, but it is an interesting and disturbing one.


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