Flying solo, finally  

February 19, 2006


In the summer of 1996, I reviewed the first of Ray Davies' "Storyteller" concerts at the Jane Street Theater in New York, and was sorely disappointed.

The singer-songwriter played a solo set of Kinks classics introduced with witty anecdotes from his 1995 book, X-Ray: The Unauthorized Autobiography. It was an entertaining evening, to be sure, but I was sad that Davies, like so many legendary musicians from the '60s, seemed content to revel in sweet nostalgia.

Call me a greedy ingrate. But I wasn't ready to write off this brilliant lyricist and powerful tunesmith as an oldies act, even if that was a role he seemed willing to play. I wanted new music as strong as the Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset" and "A Well Respected Man."

The band that Ray formed with his younger brother Dave in 1963 has not released a collection of new material since "Phobia" (1993). What's more, at age 61, Ray has never released a full solo album of new material. These facts combine to make his new effort, "Other People's Lives," an unexpected and very welcome gift.

By his own admission, Davies thought his days as a creative force were over. "I had lost confidence in my own abilities to make records," he recently told Rolling Stone. But in 2001, the quintessential Londoner moved to New Orleans, and here he reconnected with his muse. "I found I fit in somewhere for the first time since I left Muswell Hill," he said in another recent chat with the Hong Kong Standard.

The fresh surroundings inspired Davies to begin writing new tunes, and to complete others he'd left unfinished. The process of recording kicked into high gear after January 2004, when he was shot in the leg while chasing a mugger who had stolen his girlfriend's purse. "That accident gave me the strength to come back and play," Davies told Rolling Stone.

The result arrives in record stores Tuesday, and the 13 songs on "Other People's Lives" find Davies in peak form. Throughout his career, the artist has been renowned for his abilities as an armchair sociologist, sarcastically skewering the foibles of English society as well as creating unforgettable portraits of distinctly British characters. While some critics are characterizing the new album as his look at life in America, its subjects actually range much wider, and its key themes dig much deeper.

The strongest moments find one of rock's most perceptive artists sharing a lifetime of hard-won insights about relationships, the benefits and shortcomings of fame, the inevitability of aging and the human condition in general.

"This is the morning after / All that went before," Davies sings over a typically effervescent melody on the opening track, "Things Are Gonna Change (The Morning After)," announcing his intention to take stock of the past while moving forward. "All of the sun and laughter / The morning after, get up from the floor / To do it all again."

"All She Wrote" and "Creatures of Little Faith" chart a failed romance -- and Davies has had his share -- from two opposing perspectives. "The Tourist" is both an outsider looking in at his new surroundings, and a man realizing he has never really fit in anywhere. "Stand Up Comic" is a Cockney-accented rumination about the tears of a clown, as well as a reminder that long before Blur or Pulp, let alone the Streets, Davies was the king of sardonic Britpop and streetwise storytelling. And the title track is a devastating critique of empty sensationalism posing as journalism.

"Spread the news / Scandalize / Words cut like a thousand knives," Davies sings. "Playing games with other people's lives ... Feed the reporter!"

Musically, the album offers no surprises: Davies hasn't suddenly invested in samplers or synthesizers. Instead, he relies on jaunty and oddly timeless melodies that clearly originated with his trusty acoustic guitar and which were tastefully fleshed out in the studio with an understated rhythm section, the odd piano or the stray horn section and the occasional burst of fuzz guitar that you can't help comparing to Dave's.

Ray is hinting that a reconciliation with his brother and the rest of his old bandmates may be in the works. "I met them all again last week and we had dinner," he told Rolling Stone. "I got the feeling that there was still something special there."

But for the time being, he'll be supporting his gem of a solo debut on tour (including two dates April 1-2 at the Vic Theatre) with backing musicians Mark Johns, Dick Nolan and Toby Baron. And it's great to have him back.