Monday, November 30, 2009

"Over My Head" / Ray Davies

Kinks Month isn't over -- not quite yet. I know that Phobia was the last album by the Kinks, but Ray Davies is still working. And if you don't know Ray's solo output, oh, man, you should.

Back in the summer of 2005, I was cleaning up the kitchen after dinner one night, half-watching the little black-and-white TV on a shelf over the kitchen table. I wasn't even looking at the screen -- scrubbing a saucepan, maybe, or sweeping the floor -- but when the first strains of this song came on, I whirled around. My heart leapt. I knew it was Ray, of course -- who else sings like that? -- but I didn't know the song. Could that mean that the Kinks were still around?

Sadly, no, I soon learned as this documentary, The World Through My Window, continued. This program (or "programme," made for British TV) shows Ray recording his new solo album, Other People's Lives -- amazingly, his first solo studio album since the Kinks had dissolved in 1995. Several Kinks classics were played, naturally -- "Days," "See My Friends," "Waterloo Sunset," "Dead End Street" -- but it was the new songs that dazzled me. The minute the show finished, I ran to my computer and used my then-rudimentary Google skills to find out what Ray Davies was up to. Which led me to the Ray Davies Official Forum, and jimmied open the lock that had kept this fangirl too quiet for too long.

For many reasons, Other People's Lives was a Major Life Album for me. I've never felt so transported at any concert as when I stood pressed against a stage watching Ray and guitarist Mark Johns perform The Getaway (Lonesome Train) -- on numerous occasions, I'm glad to say. But listening to this album again today, I realized that it was "Over My Head" that first grabbed me, that first listen on that fateful TV show.

Listen to Ray's vocals, so ragged and world-weary -- as befits an album that's mostly about staring down mortality and his own human frailty. But oh, Mr. Davies has no intention of going gentle into that good night; he kicks back with crunchy guitars, whomping drums, and a hip-shifting funk-infused rhythm that needs no Viagra.

"Wakin' up, / Feeling rough / Totally stressed," he begins, intimately, in a hungover growl. He proceeds with short, unrhymed lines ("Every day is a day at a time / Step by step" -- dig that sly AA allusion), as if he's just setting his feet on the floor, taking stock. His diagnosis? He's definitely battered, shattered, worse for wear: "Hit a wall, took a fall /To a new depth." (An echo of the album's second track, the soul-scouring "After the Fall.") But like a true survivor, he has tools for patching himself up: "Count to ten, / Focus then / Take a deep breath."

The second part of the verse becomes more legato and finally begins to find rhymes, as he steadies his head. He bleakly assesses the world around him -- a world he's learned to cope with, he admits, by merely smiling and pretending. We've seen this Ray Davies before, the guy who just wants to drift away to his island in the sun.

But as he swings into the chorus -- climbing into a higher register and a major key -- for the first time his escapist technique actually seems to work. "I'm a million miles away from it all / And let it go right over my head / Let 'em chase and the winner take all / And let it go right over my head." Can it be? Ray Davies, achieving Zen calm at last?

Well, not entirely. The chorus dissolves back into minor key, sadly repeating the phrase "Over my head," with a tremulous little glissando. He knows he can't check out so completely; it doesn't solve anything. In the ensuing verses, he's still barraged by the people around him, still distressed by the defection of his lover ("Didn't know you were close to breaking / So you thought it should end / Left it all for a new location / So you could start up again"). In the second chorus, he admits that he's only buying time -- "Right now I want some peace of mind / So let it go right over my head." By the final verse, he's crawling back into bed, pulling the sheets over his head.

At six-minutes-plus, I suppose this song goes on too long -- later verses become a mash-up of the earlier ones, as the sonic tangle grows denser and denser. But I dunno, as I get lost in it, I don't recall ever wishing it would end sooner. You know me, I'm a great fan of the underproduced three-minute pop song -- yet I sink wistfully into this build-up of "Over My Head." It's like wading through a beautiful but gloomy swamp (the New Orleans vibe is pervasive on this album, even though most of it was recorded in London). I keep hearing new things, little curls of guitar, splashes of honky-tonk piano, ghostly extra vocals that could be Ray or could be someone else. . .

What a joy is it to have to grapple with a song like this. What a joy it is to hear a middle-aged musician NOT trying to imitate his younger hit-making self, NOT acting like he's still a randy 19-year-old. Discovering Ray Davies after all these years, I was thrilled to discover that he was writing Music For Grown-Ups -- and that's something we grown-up rock fans need desperately.

Thanks again, Ray. And again, and again, and again...

1 comment:

Mark said...

Holly, thanks so much for Kinks Month! I really enjoyed reading your posts, great job, as always! As soon as I finish listening to my stack of jazz CD's, I should take a trip down Kinks Lane again.