It was 1971; singer-songwriters were making big commercial waves, and "confession" was in the air. If, for once, Ray Davies of the Kinks was going to join the party and confess, it would have to be with more wit, irony, and sophistication than the James Taylors and Carole Kings of the world. Why Davies did decide to join the party is anyone's guess; but, for once, Davies turned his rapier wit inward, and produced a set of songs (Muswell Hillbillies) which lingered on the author himself as a figure of fun. This being Ray Davies, much of the self-analysis is deceptively simple; the first track on the album, "20th Century Man," begins, "This is the age of machinery/ A mechanical nightmare/ The wonderful world of technology/ Napalm hydrogen bombs biological warfare," and comes to the conclusion "I'm a twentieth century man/ but I don't want to be here." It's an extension of the sentiments expressed in "Victoria" from Arthur: "Long ago, life was clean/ sex was bad and obscene/ and the rich were so mean/ stately homes for the Lords/ croquet lawns, village greens/ Victoria was my queen." What made the singer-songwriters so cloying is the narrowness of their approach; as if their self-absorbed sorrows were really that compelling to a seasoned intelligence (which they weren't). Ray Davies big singer-songwriter confession is that what he longs for is not for his baby to love him again, not for his friends to save themselves and give up drugs, not for the counterculture to reform, but to migrate back to Victorian England, which represents to him (though he is coy about saying this outright) a kind of elegant simplicity which is also safe, comforting, and lazily reliable. Rock music was perceived in those days as ultra-nouveau, to the extent that high-culture stalwarts like Leonard Bernstein and Ned Rorem paid it lip service; with all the new sexual, political, and cultural freedoms won in the Sixties, what could goad Ray Davies into such nostalgic reverie? Because the question is both pertinent and difficult to answer, Davies opts to make fun of himself, turning his neurosis into theatrical comedy, and outdoing, on every possible "meta" level, the crass confessionalism which was selling in '71.
The other big confessional moments on Muswell Hillbillies ("Acute Schizophrenia Paranoid Blues," "Holiday," "Complicated Life") notably employ the language of psychiatrists (what could be called "psycho-babble") to make their points; Davies, as first-person protagonist, is "leaving insecurity behind me/ environmental pressures got me down," and is "too terrified to walk out of my own front door/ they're demonstrating outside, I think they're gonna start the Third World War," but he "don't need no sedatives to pull me round/ I don't need no sleeping pill to help me sleep sound." Engaged rock fans could be encouraged by the bathos of James Taylor to laugh at him; they could laugh along with Ray Davies. Davies bag of tricks did also take Muswell Hillbillies in some surprising directions, away from mere confessionalism. "Skin & Bone" is a song about young women and eating disorders; not only ahead of its time, but one of the few instances in which eating disorders have been addressed as an issue in the rock canon. Davies is sympathetic and humane but still plays the situation for laughs: "Fat Flabby Annie was incredibly big/ She weighed just about sixteen stone/ And then a fake dietician went and put her on a diet/ Now she looks like skin and bone." The chorus runs, "She don't eat no mashed potatoes/ She don't eat no buttered scones/ Stay away from carbohydrates/ You're gonna look like skin and bone." What's interesting to note is that this kind of obsession, with a woman's body needing to be ideally thin, is a twentieth century contrivance; women in Victorian society ("angels in the house") did not have the history of starving themselves half to death. If you were fat, you were fat; so what? Davies encourages us to believe that Annie was happier and more lovable when she was plump, and before the decadence of twentieth century mores destroyed her peace of mind. "Skin & Bone" is essentially a sympathetic piece of portraiture, and uses comedy to make a moral point. Put it next to "Sweet Baby James" and Davies' true status next to the singer-songwriters of '71 is easy to infer.
By '71, sympathetic portraiture wasn't particularly new to Davies (or to his American counterpart of the time, Lou Reed), but one task of Muswell Hillbillies was to address "America," a loaded subject for the all-too-English Kinks. The subject was loaded because America had never particularly warmed to the Kinks, and they were banned from spending much time there. But Davies' imagination was rich, and in producing a song like "Oklahoma U.S.A.," he cut as deeply into the heart of the American psyche as any rock songwriter (even including Bruce Springsteen) ever has. "Oklahoma U.S.A." is equally funny and sad; the female protagonist of the song is an average working-class worker (possibly in a factory or an office, and certainly the American counterpart of the characters in "Dead End Street") who feeds herself on her resemblance to movie stars. The way her daily life works, "She walks to work but she's still in a daze/ She's Rita Hayworth or Doris Day/ And Errol Flynn's gonna take her away/ To Oklahoma U.S.A." And the crux of the song, which is repeated more than once, follows from this: "All life we work but work is a bore/ If life's for living then what's living for?" The implicit message is that Davies has a vision of human essence which transcends the simply English or simply American; everywhere in the world, people try to get through their days as best they can, dealing with deprivations, disappointments, and despair. "Oklahoma U.S.A." is the most earnest sounding piece on Muswell Hillbillies; the music reinforces the pathos of the lyrics, and the honky-tonk ambience which makes the other songs so funny is in abeyance here.
Oddly, for an album which bears the weight of so much thematic richness, Muswell Hillbillies sounds relatively light and breezy. What's conspicuously absent are the sort of "daffodil" stylings which made the Sixties "London" Kinks so distinctive but also insured that they could be called an acquired taste. The music on Muswell Hillbillies includes a good amount of straightforward rock, some blues and the aforementioned "honky-tonk" stylings (consolidating that Davies wanted to tackle American music and Americana here), so that Muswell Hillbillies sounds more conventional than the Kinks other major albums. All of which could've added up to a major commercial success for them; after all, in '70 the hit single "Lola" (also pretty straightforward rock) put them back on the commercial map. Alas; it didn't happen that way, and Muswell Hillbillies became another rock cult classic. What made the Kinks so famously commercially unlucky: bad timing, lack of singles, a desultory approach to live performances, or just bad luck? It's still difficult to answer. By the late 70s, the Kinks did manage to go through a few commercial roofs, and sold out Madison Square Garden at least once. What needs to happen in 2012 is that what got buried for no good reason should come to the surface. Muswell Hillbillies and Sister Lovers both found ways to trump the singer-songwriters popular in those days; in terms of "artful confession," Davies deserves to be not only put on the map but be granted some sovereignty.