Ray Davies wasn’t the only Briton who grew up in the aftermath of World War II entranced by American culture, especially rock, blues and country music. But the former Kinks frontman dug deeper than most of his British Invasion compatriots. America became a kind of fever dream for Davies, a knot for his imagination to unravel. More than 50 years after the Kinks first toured the U.S., Davies is still working at the threads on his latest album.
Like his 2017 release Americana, Davies’ new album is a collection of songs and spoken-word bits about living and working in the United States, and the hold this country and its mythology have had on him since he was a kid: Hollywood glamor, the untamed west, the sense of impregnable security and endless possibility. With guitarist Bill Shanley and alt-country group the Jayhawks reprising their role as his backing band, as well as some help from a horn section, a choir and a selection of other musicians, Davies dabbles in a pre-rock rhythm & blues sound in the trebly guitar riff and swinging beat on “Back in the Day,” rootsy New Orleans swing “A Street Called Hope” and country-folk in the steel guitar and mandolin on “Bringing Up Baby.”
They’re among 16 new songs and a few re-imagined tunes from his extensive catalog with the Kinks and as a solo artist. None of the latter are strikingly different, though Davies has done some tinkering: “Oklahoma U.S.A.,” first heard on the Kinks’ 1971 album Muswell Hillbillies, trades the original piano for a wash of atmospheric guitars and features vocals with a dreamier sound; while “The Getaway” here is brisker than the version on his 2006 solo album Other People’s Lives, with subtle electric guitar accents and a brief spoken-word intro.
Davies pays particular attention to New Orleans here, and not just in the musical arrangements. “It seems that all the music that inspired me started here, then drifted up the big river to become rock ’n’ roll,” he says in a spoken-word bit through layers of wordless vocal harmonies and acoustic guitars on “Calling Home.” New Orleans is also where Davies was shot in the leg in 2004 while chasing a mugger. It’s no surprise then that his fascination with America is tinged with wry, can’t-look-away aversion: he describes a sense of well-being as dawn breaks on “Louisiana Sky,” but confesses to feeling creeped out “with all the talk of voodoo / The living dead / And the zombies everywhere” on “March of the Zombies,” a slinky number stacked with horns.
Our Country: Americana II isn’t explicitly a political album, but there are political overtones these days to any album whose subject is America, particularly one that opens with a song called “Our Country.” That’s a loaded term lately, when the historical promise of a melting pot is at odds with the current reality. “Different cultures, race and creed / Building a society / Gone is the land I used to know so well,” he sings on the song, which plays like an updated “This Land Is Your Land,” with choir-like backing vocals. Turns out Davies is singing about his native England, but you couldn’t tell for a minute, could you? In the end, despite his fondness for America, Davies embraces his origins and heads home. “I am a Londoner, after all,” he says on “Epilogue,” before ripping into the rollicking album closer “Muswell Kills,” which recreates his mugging and includes a payback fantasy.
Despite a career stretching back decades, Davies will probably always be best known for the scabrous guitar riffs powering the early Kinks singles “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night. Yet this more rustic sound suits him. Our Country: Americana II and its predecessor, along with Davies’ 2013 memoir Americana, offer an outsider’s perspective on the beauty and peril of America, a land of confounding contradictions. Davies doesn’t judge, he simply tries to understand. Maybe seeing ourselves through his eyes will have a similar effect on us.