According to “Big Sky,” what is man’s place in relation to the cosmos? First off, it needs to be said that many may find this inquiry pretentious; rock critics, even the few that lean towards profundity, do not tend to bring philosophy into their equations. So, I write enjoining the caveat that I will be treating Davies’ lyrics with the same respect that I treat Milton or Blake. The premise of “Big Sky,” stated in simple terms, is that if there are higher powers that govern human existence, they are powers that do not have an active interest in human existence. Whatever Gods rule over us (and the song does not rule out a pantheistic perspective) are either not aware of us, or, even more likely, are too occupied with their own business to offer us much help. Davies also suggests that our relative, ant-like smallness makes it difficult for what he calls the big sky to feel motivated to intervene on any of our behalf. The image of the big sky as a non or semi-conscious deity, too vast to be concerned about us, has consonance with certain kinds of existentialism, that tends to deny the existence of God outright; however, Davies’ wrinkle suggests not that we live in an empty universe, but that we live in an active universe in which we play a miniscule part. The drama of the song is that it begins with the consideration of intervention on our behalf of some kind of celestial force: “Big sky looked down at all the people looking up at the big sky/ everybody’s pushing on another around/ big sky feels sad when he hears the children scream and cry/ but the big sky’s too big to let it get him down.” These are stunning, and stunningly pessimistic, ideas; their ambition is also stunning; a complete, if miniaturized, account of one of philosophy’s most persistent questions. What grants “Big Sky” its peculiar genius is that Davies’ several times shifts perspectives, so that two other perspectives are included: some “I,” discussing these facts with another, and an “I” that ruminates these theories to itself.
Interestingly, the “I” in “Big Sky” takes solace in the big sky’s omnipotence, omnipresence, and exquisite unawareness: “and when I feel/ that the world’s too much for me/ I think of the big sky/ and nothing matters much to me.” Whatever the big sky is, it nullifies worldly concerns to such an extent that it can make, to a subject that can perceive it, the human world a realm on no great importance. The song has two bridges; this bridge doesn’t repeat, while the repeated bridge tackles similar emotions in relation to the big sky, in the context of an interaction, a “we”: “one day/ we’ll be free/ we won’t care/ just you see/ ‘til that day should be/ don’t let it bring you down.” The subtext is that the end of a human sojourn on earth does not end in an abyss, but is a going upwards, some kind of fusion with the big sky, which Davies’ equates not only with disinterestedness but with freedom. If human life is a slog, if we live in a universe that does not particularly care for us, there is the consolation of an ultimate freedom, if it can be grasped and held in an individual’s consciousness. But it is not simply a meld with God, or with a God-head; it is a meld with an inexplicable, vastly powerful force that is beyond our understanding. These would be incredibly sophisticated ideas to be addressed in a poem, let alone a rock song; and “Big Sky” is sui generis, not only within the Kinks catalogue but in the entire rock oeuvre. What Davies gives us is the universe explained in simple terms, simpler than the terms Blake or Milton used. If it is impossible to do, in three minutes, what Milton accomplished in Paradise Lost or Blake did in his long poems, it is still a height of thoughtfulness and nuanced response to universal powers that few other popular songwriters would dare attempt.
One truly strange thing about “Big Sky” is its primitive production standards; that by 1968, many successful rock artists were using lavish production techniques to beef up their musings. Released that year, The Band’s Music From Big Pink was credited with initiating a “back to basics” response to all this grandiosity. However, the Kinks managed to outdo The Band (though few noticed), and not only is “Big Sky” not a grandiose production, it is comparatively “lo-fi.” There is immediacy and an earthiness to the songs on Village Green simply because the Kinks were working in low budget circumstances. Davies also innovates formally; most of the key lyrics in “Big Sky” are spoken rather than sung. There are artful cuts between spoken parts and sung parts, so that when each narrated bit of the big sky’s perceptions ends, Davies brings tunefulness in again to intone “big sky too big to cry/ big sky too high to see/ people like you and me.” The song also changes keys for the bridges, which feature slight variations in chord changes, though the two distinct bridges are in the same key. Much of the ambience in this track is owing to the hazy miasma of background vocals, which dart back and forth in the mix. The track mixes ethereality and earthiness, and in such a way that Davies’ lyrics are the clear focus; no solos, no long instrumental passages, nothing “progressive” where the chords or the riffs are concerned, no strings. It is clear from the way the track is produced that Davies knew he had something to say, and wanted to make his point as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Do most rock critics dote on Ray Davies’ achievements? They do, but it is usually in the context of positing Davies as an underdog. When a grouping of great songwriters is required, you will often see Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, and others before you see Ray Davies. The truth, however, is that a song like “Big Sky” is not only nonpareil, but takes the rock song into an undreamed of realm. Because the rock press is present-minded and intellectually shallow, Davies has never been properly credited for this stunning achievement, which easily betters anything on Blonde on Blonde. Davies coheres in a way that Dylan never (or rarely) coheres; everything cleaves around a nexus of stunning ideas. Where Dylan is diffuse, Davies is coherent; where Dylan’s lyrics cannot stand minute analysis, Davies best songs become more stunning the closer one looks at them. “Big Sky” has never (to my knowledge) been particularly singled out before; but, after forty-odd years, it seems that now might be a fertile time to re-open certain classic albums once again to see what sticks and what doesn’t.