In an era when most artists of Ray Davies’ vintage are happy to be heritage acts, credit the Bard of Muswell Hill – Sir Raymond indeed – for bucking the trend, even if that means exploring his own life and legacy as an Englishman across the pond.
Much of Americana, the companion to his 2013 memoir, deals with a semi-idealistic view of the USA as seen through the eyes of a kid brought up on Wagon Train, rock’n’roll and celluloid daydreams.
As a conceptual travelogue, the album is a resounding success. If some of the place name-dropping seems stock, the songwriter still delights in turning clichés inside out. His version of America is awfully familiar but it’s gently brought to life by the man’s ear for an image. Meanwhile, the music, often provided by The Jayhawks, floats past like a trip down a highway on a sunny afternoon, encompassing vaudeville and Cajun to deep country and even tear-up – if not too loud – rock.
Of course, The Kinks are with him in spirit, fuelling the episode when they arrived in the USA in 1965 and had their work permits blocked, a bittersweet episode marked by The Invaders. They also infiltrate the gloriously sentimental nostalgia of Wings Of Fantasy, which sounds like an attempt to bury the hatchet with brother Dave (although probably in his neck).
The news is good though: Davies is in terrific, matchless voice, his storied career standing up to a sprawling treatment without too much drag.
For someone associated with England’s small patch, Davies enjoys exploring the panoramic possibilities here, but the best songs aren’t necessarily those suggested by the title. The Deal, a cautionary tale of fabulosity and fraudulence – think LA Versus Powerman – is a bit of a retread, whereas the spoken-word track Silent Movie, recounting a time when he saw his friend Alex Chilton in New Orleans, is so British pukka it sounds like Jonathan Meades at his most deadpan.
The Man Upstairs, meanwhile, breaks into a melody that’s a dead ringer for John Sebastian’s Lovin Spoonful, and Change For Change shifts and shuffles with a nod to Tom Waits.
Ray Davies is no fool. The book, the DVD and the album (with a second volume still to come) will no doubt be followed sharpish by a live reconstruction and a stage version: this ex-Highgate Harrier isn’t running on empty. In fact, you could say that he seems to be working all day and all of the night.