Tuesday, January 16, 2007

"State of Confusion" / The Kinks

Inside Ray Davies lurks a gifted actor, begging to come out. You can see it in all the Kinks videos, in his cameo performances in Absolute Beginners and Return to Waterloo, in all those larger-than-life roles he played in his 1970s rock operas Soap Opera and Preservation. Most of his classic songs are really little playlets, with Ray creating a persona and singing from that viewpoint -- the envious schoolboy of "David Watts," the smug suburbanite of "Autumn Almanac," the naive hetero seduced by a transvestite in "Lola."

One of Ray's favorite characters is the ordinary Joe, the working stiff -- whatever social class he is -- driven to distraction by his job and obligations. (Think of songs like "Situation Vacant," "Dead End Street," "Alcohol," "Get Back in Line," "Yo-Yo"). "State of Confusion," the title track of their 1983 album, is sung by another of these ordinary people, barely coping with the pressures of modern life. And when I'm having a stressed-out day, this is the song I want to play LOUD.

After a few initial howls of desperation, Ray breaks into the jazzy piano of the intro with a startled cry: "Woke up in a panic / Like somebody fired a gun." He's yelping tuneless phrases in jittery rhythms; those punishing drumbeats are way forward in the mix, like the timbers of his house falling down around him, and the minor key guitar riff circles ominously around, trading off with an electric organ refrain stolen from an old horror movie. In verse two, he whinges and moans: all his appliances are on the fritz, and on top of it all, his girlfriend's moved out too (he says it's because the VCR broke down -- you've got to wonder if that's the whole story). All the trappings of middle-class affluence, and they still haven't made him happy.

By the third verse, he can't cope at all: "Standing on an island in the middle of the road / Traffic either side of me, which way will I go? / I should've stayed at home, I should have never come outside / Now I wish I never tried to cross the other side." I can just see this poor bloke dithering in the crosswalk, cars whipping past him. It's funny -- Ray makes his voice extra panicky for comic effect -- but jeez, haven't we all had those dizzy, disoriented moments in times of stress?

In the bridges, a little more melody slips in as Ray, playing up that strained quaver in his voice, ponders his condition: "Is it the weather, or am I going mad?" In the second bridge he blames society: "Should feel happy, should feel glad / I'm alive and it can't be bad/ But back on planet Earth they shatter the illusion / The world's going 'round in a state of confusion."

The last bridge is the one that really gets me, where he's "Lyin' awake in a cold, cold sweat / Am I overdrawn, am I going in debt? / It gets worse, the older that you get." This guy isn't just another Ray Davies nervous breakdown; we could be him tomorrow.

In the chorus, the backing vocals whirl around dizzily on the "Whoo-oo-oo's", while Ray frantically barks out "I'm in a STATE [beat, beat] of confusion." It's as if the song starts to spin out of control, just like the singer's life. We don't need to believe that Ray's writing about himself; we don't need to feel that he's writing about us. But this portrayal seems so true to life, we can crawl inside this man's neurosis and feel right at home. And, strangely enough, like it.


Anonymous said...

Ray has always been in a State Of Confusion in one way or the other, that's one of the best things about Ray's writings, they describe his life, not the there and then, but his WHOLE life.

It's a real gift!

IƱaki said...

Brilliant song and incredible video. Thanks again, please keep writing these great blogs.

Julie said...

There are days when this song fish hooks into my brain. Along with being a modern primal scream, it has and irresistable rhythm and memorable refrain. I just hope to god it never gets used to sell an anti-anxiety medication.