Saturday, November 28, 2009

"Drift Away" / The Kinks

Phobia would be the Kinks' swan song -- at least, that is, if Ray and Dave Davies don't decide tomorrow to get the band back together, which they could absolutely do. Hey, there's nothing stopping them, folks. AHEM.

But in 1993, they didn't know Phobia would be their last album, and they certainly didn't go out with a whimper. It's one of the band's hardest rocking albums, which normally isn't my cup of tea. I'll make an exception for Phobia.

Case in point: "Drift Away." Sure, it's another take on that iconic Ray Davies theme, escaping the pressures of modern life. As far back as "I'm On an Island" he's been nursing this fantasy, through "Apeman," "Complicated Life," and "Holiday." But this entire album is about the relentless tension of late 20th-century life; it's almost apocalyptic in its vision. Tangoing off to an island in the sun isn't a feasible option any more. The very desperation with which Ray clings to his fantasy proves how sick his world is.

He begins wistfully enough, with few measures of what sounds like an Irish sea chanty: "Drift away, / Just drift away / Sometimes I wish I could just drift away." But then the drums smash through, and the snarl of guitar takes off. And singing in his most savage voice, Ray prophesies fire and brimstone: "They say there's gonna be a river of blood / It's apocalypse now / So we're waiting for the flood." It's not just natural disasters either -- "While the dollar falls down / The yen's gonna climb / It's a moral decline / And I'm losing my mind." It's half sung, half shouted, with not a trace of that winsome opening melody. It's like the cry of a drowning man, fighting his way to the surface for one desperate gasp of air.

The metal guitars, the sledgehammer drums, the fierce wall of sound -- they don't go away for the chorus, even though it shifts from minor to major key: "I think I'll just drift away / To that island of my dreams / Live in total fantasy / Close my eyes and drift away." It's hardly a sustaining illusion, though; whereas in earlier songs his escapism promised some relief, here it's just not working.

In verse two, 'back in the real world," Ray finds another villain -- "The man on the news is going over the top / Now he'll say anything so his show don't flop." Ray's had his fill of brushes with the media, and he cuts them no slack: "They shout the story to the nation / Pass on the panic to the population." It resolves in a miserable wail of "It's all over now." And when the chorus rolls around again, Ray admits that his drifting away is only a vain wish. Melody devolves into a series of aggressively shouted "drift aways," on the brink of panic.

"Now all the politicians are running out of hope," Ray declares in the last verse; "They've burned all their bridges / Now they just can't cope." He flings fragmented images at us -- suicides dangling from ropes, newsmen exhorting the populace, rivers of blood flowing. It's like a Hieronymous Bosch painting, surreal and terrifying.

And this is only track three of the album -- Ray and Dave have a lot more apocalyptic vision to load on us as the album continues. You gotta hand it to them -- they never did slide into middle-aged complacency, did they? God Save the Kinks.



Alex said...

Damn, Holly! Does this mean you get the next two days off? What a slacker! :)

Thanks for this great month of posts... You filled in a lot of gaps in my Kinks knowledge (and I always enjoy personal stories about songs and albums).

Holly A Hughes said...

Thanks, Alex. I'll miss Kinks month, actually -- it took all the guesswork out of my daily song selection. As a humble citizen of the Kinkdom, it was my pleasure to spread the gospel.

Mister Pleasant said...

I will second Alex's praise for your fine blogging this month. Your insight into the Kinks and especially Ray's lyrics are so darned exceptional I have to wonder if Mr. Davies is feeding information to you directly. :)

Congratulations for making it through to the end. I (not the Kinks) jumped the shark about 1980 and it did not feel right to continue writing about music that is basically unknown to me.

Nite Owl said...

I don't think I'm being a sycophant when I say I love Phobia and I really think it got a bad rap. "Drift Away," "Still Searching," "Phobia," "Scattered," "Babies"... all these tracks and many more are top shelf. It got a bit of a push from Sony, but I think it was just the wrong album at the wrong time. Grunge was breaking big, and The Kinks fell through the cracks, again. A lot of people don't like this album, but I think it's brilliant. Ray's craft is at the top of his game here. Brilliant stuff.

wwolfe said...

Thanks for Kinks Month. I learned about some new (to me) songs that I found I like a lot, and had the pleasure of sharing many old favorites with new people. And after all, those are two of the fundamental joys of being a music lover, aren't they?