Ray Davies now a politico, no longer Kinky

Let it never be said of Ray Davies that the man has nothing to say. The erstwhile Kink’s second solo album, “Working Man’s Cafe,” is separated by less than two years from his debut effort, and it certainly has the sound and feel of a record freighted with meaning. In a dozen crisp tracks Davies holds forth with ruminations on everything from globalization to religion to the United Nations, all delivered in the slightly cheeky tone of a Brit who’s seen the setting of enough suns to be capable of invoking “the old country” with some credibility.

Perhaps it’s that initial nugget of credibility that makes it all the more disappointing when the listener discovers just how shallow Davies’ ruminations turn out to be. It’s all well and good for a novelist or a college professor to point out the depersonalization and homogenization of culture that underlies so much of contemporary Western life, but when a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer decides he’s up for the same task, one should demand that it be done a bit more pithily, or at least with a little pizzazz.

“Working Man’s Cafe” delivers neither pith nor pizzazz, sadly. Most of what Davies evidently hopes to be received as withering social commentary merely falls flat. “Corporations get the tax breaks / While the city gets the crime / The profit’s going somewhere / But it isn’t yours or mine,” he sings on “One More Time.” Such remarks aren’t objectionable or even necessarily wrong, just banal — certainly nothing more than one could get from watching the trailer for the latest Michael Moore film, and probably even less than that.

To make matters more frustrating, the album’s recurrent flights of punditry are thrown into puzzling relief by the second track, “You’re Asking Me,” in which a snarling Davies seemingly defends the vagueness of his own topical observations by telling his imagined questioner to “Get a life.” The only problem is that it’s doubtful anybody really was asking Ray Davies to weigh in on the state of the world to begin with.

Of course, the beauty of rock and roll is that a good tune can be an effective buttress for even the weakest of lines, and so the lyrical shortcomings of “Working Man’s Cafe” aren’t unpardonable by themselves. Musically, however, the album is stranded somewhere in between the mildly diverting and the downright forgettable. Chunky guitar lines, steady rhythms and an occasionally soaring electric organ make little shorthand appeals to some mythical heyday of “classic rock,” but much like the singer they seem to be trying (and failing) to channel a world that just isn’t there anymore. How unfortunate that an album whose title track bemoans an ersatz Americanized world should sound so plain and monochromatic itself.

That said, listening to “Working Man’s Cafe” is in no respect an intolerable experience, and Davies is never so dogmatic in his judgments as to grow predictable or tiresome. And certain tracks, such as “Imaginary Man” and “Hymn for a New Age” do merit repeated listens. In fact, for being such a flawed album, “Working Man’s Cafe” is at least flawed in a genuinely interesting way — namely, while its singer and songwriter pines wistfully for times gone by, he also displays a mixture of cynicism and self-indulgent sentimentality that is unmistakably contemporary. When on “No One Listen” Davies exclaims, “Hey, man, I am the innocent party here,” one can’t be quite sure if he actually believes in his own indignation or not.

It’s precisely this fine line between sincerity and disingenuousness that Davies waltzes across repeatedly on “Working Man’s Cafe” — the same line, incidentally, that The Kinks toyed with so masterfully. Even if none of the music on this album approaches anything from the glory days of the British Invasion, the listener can at least be thankful to have received that much of a glimpse.

Comments

  • coral

    You really need to listen to this album a few times before you start to get it. Too bad you don't have much patience or insight.

  • rosie rooke

    If you want to hear albums with political commentary and tasty riffs as well, Ray has already succeeded. Muswell Hillbilly, released circa 1971 offers slashing commentary of an individual depressed and frightened by his government, but hey, there's always something amusing to look at even in the darkest of times. Preservation Act One (circa 1973) takes us to a country afraid of itself and reaching out to fascism to somehow subdue everything uncomfortable and frightening ; Preservation Act Two (circa 1974) has lyrics you can cry to (try Nobody Gives)as Ray mourns about a world gone mad. But, hey, that's no reason to not have a ding-dong (Mirror of Love and Salvation Road). Ray is greatly loved by people all over the world; maybe he should write to them and not the folks who are surprised that "You Really Got Me" wasn't written by a Van Halen.

  • garrity

    well I hope that you grow up and start to appreciate life someday. what are you 24-25 just out of college? or 50 and angry at opinions? regardless you seem to have a misguided agenda and I thank free press for allowing you to have such an opinion. now go back and listen to it again without blinders and report the truth.