By Kimberly Chun
SONIC REDUCER I fell in love with the recent Ray Davies solo album, Other People's Lives (V2). Face it, I fall in love all the time — with records, of course — but I think I truly did love about three-fourths of the Kinks leader’s solo debut for the first four listens. Then I stopped listening and just coasted on the afterglow.
But you fall out of love. The fifth or sixth listen comes around and little things start to break down for you. The way those coveted hot pants always give you gnarly cameltoe.
In the case of Other People's Lives, it was the song's overblown arrangements — for which Davies completely takes the blame — complete with unintentionally cornball sax and a production sensibility that sounds like modern music really did stop with the last humongoid Kinks album, 1983's State of Confusion (Velvel). When even the quirks annoy, like the half "yar," half yawn that ushers in the record's otherwise fine opener, "Things Are Gonna Change (The Morning After)," and the throwaway Ricky Martin–style Latin pop treatment given to the media-lashing title track, you know love's a goner.
An American album, conceived mainly during Davies' stay in New Orleans, Other People's Lives resembles Morrissey's You Are the Quarry (Attack), another disappointingly produced and arranged album of even better songs by a great wordsmith and sometime US transplant. Perhaps you're so happy to hear those familiar voices again, at your doorstep, that you overlook the details — the tacky suit, wilting flowers, wrongheaded arrangements — the first five times around.
Still you have to hand it to Davies — whose recent travails, like being shot in January 2004 after chasing the thief who snatched his girlfriend's purse, have been well documented — when he decides to make a bold gesture. That's what inspired some to call the Kinks the first indie band. "I prefer that to being called the originators of heavy metal," says a sincere and thoughtful Davies from London. "Yes, I like that. We have a very independent spirit.... We took chances, and we failed a lot. Really, other acts' careers would've been ended by some of the bold and stupid things we did on record. I've got a 9-year-old daughter now, and she wants to hear my music when she visits me. I find it really hard to explain some of the weird diversions I've taken in my music over the years."
Bold and stupid?
"The Bold and the Stupid. It sounds like..."
A soap opera?
"Yes, stuff like Preservation, Soap Opera," he free-associates. "You know, at the time, when Rod Stewart and Elton John were doing conventional tours and, you know, big stage-entry things... and there we are. We go indoors with a musical farce onstage. You know, it was a rock Punch and Judy show. It was a totally wrong career move, but it worked brilliantly. I mean, sometimes those things pay off really well."
Davies obviously still can write a song — that was why Other People initially seduced me. And he knows he's really got me — and everyone else. "I think I've got a fairly good fix. I can hone in on detail with people all right. You know, it's like little things people do, habits that people have, the way they walk. I have that sort of observation with my writing, which leads it to be sometimes a bit quirky. I think I know how far to take something when I'm writing a song, and I think that's probably one of the sort of skills I've developed, although I wouldn't say you ever learn how to write songs. I think that's one of my skills — knowing that it's always a new inner palette, a new landscape, every time I write a song, and I think experience has taught me to be aware of that fact, that I can't just phone them in."
Sounds like the archly self-aware narrator of "The Tourist," which appears to center on New Orleans slumming, is a lot like the songwriter within Davies — and that songwriting and stepping into other people's lives is a kind of imaginative tourism.
"It is," replies Davies.