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Tuesday, May 03, 2005

And This Was Their Finest Hour

Hopefully I don't have to tell you that The Kinks' Arthur Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire is one of greatest albums ever recorded. The Kinks are in now, aren't they? So I don't have to make a case for Arthur, complete with evidence and what not. Instead, I can concentrate on pure gushing. Fun for all involved.

I was one of the lucky ones. Many years after its release in 1969, Arthur was my introduction to The Kinks, and it remains my favorite Kinks album. I think what amazed me first about Arthur was the extraordinary number of tones and moods the album moves through, with the lyrics and melodies sure, but with Davies' singing and the band's playing as well. There's the giddy fuck-it-all, let's-have-some-fun laziness of "Drivin'", the mock comfort turned quiet rage of "Shangri-La", the rumble-tumble, morale-boosting "Mr. Churchill Says" and the seemingly straightforward costs-of-War lamentation of "Some Mother's Son". I say seemingly because, truthfully, nothing is straightforward about this album; it happens to be one of the most emotionally complex albums I've ever come across, with subtle variations taking place not just from track to track, but usually several times within each song. It gets to the point where one must rightfully conclude that Davies' songwriting on Arthur, especially for sardonic wit and uneasy insight, is unparalled by all but Bob Dylan. All of that and there's a decidedly English narrative told in perfectly sparse storytelling to pay attention to. Gooseberry tarts anyone?

The Kinks - "Young And Innocent Days"

When I first started this post, I only wanted to write about "Young And Innocent Days", the song from Arthur on repeat in me brain lately. In the textbook of rock music, "Young And Innocent Days" deserves to be the chapter on yearning. Maybe the melody feels a bit hesitant at first, but the second verse brings the other Kinks, the second chorus brings the drums and by now the song has cohered into one of the most poignant mediations on the loss that always accompanies growing up. This is succinct, universally evocative songwriting of the highest caliber. Ray Davies' way of singing, especially on the two lines that comprise the chorus, is enough to make me want to see behind the curtain: I want to know exactly, scientifically even, how he manages to effect me so dramatically every time.

The Kinks - "Arthur"

Arthur is the album's greatest lyrical achievement, moving at it does from one immortal line to the next. The best of the bunch is "Somebody loves you, don't you know it", which could be the crown jewel in most songwriter's catalogues. Married to "Arthur"'s inventive melody though, the line really soars to new heights. When played loud, the handclaps and gospel-tinged celebration of the last minute and a half of the song can only be described as glorious.

The Kinks - "Mr. Churchill Says"

The fact of the matter is it's all there in Ray Davies' voice. Not to take anything away from the band, who are spot-on throughout, but the power of Arthur rests to a large extent on the unique expressiveness of Davies' singing. If the song is about complacency, I'll be damned if Davies doesn't sound complacent. "Mr. Churchill Says" is a perfect example. A classic case of "doth protest too much", the narrator of the song is all blind patriotic bravado, the one guy in the trench who really believes in the war because, hey, Mr. Churchill said to. The schoolboy chant near the end of the song brilliantly brings it all home to roost. Don't miss the "do your worst and we'll do our best" yell.

So, by now you realize you need Arthur, right? Well, don't settle for anything less than the best, be sure to get the 2000 Castle reissue which contains 11 fantastic bonus tracks, including the unforgettable "Plastic Man" in stereo and mono. It should be readily available from your neighborhood corporate superstore, or from Amazon. As for getting to know The Kinks online, your best bet is this Unofficial Kinks Web Site.


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