Friday, August 15, 2008

Notes on the Kinks, Britishness, and nostalgia

The Kinks' magnum opus Village Green Preservation Society displays a certain irony toward the idea of Britishness (Englishness?), slyly unmasking nostalgia as something not quite real, yet acknowledging something very real (an ideal? a virtue?) lying behind the nostalgia. Muswell Hillbillies does not maintain this ironic distance, idealizing the lost values of pre-industrial England with little hint of skeptism. Arthur, however, is highly critical of Great Britain's legacy. Note the subtitle: Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire. Arthur, from what I understand, was largely influenced by the Davies' sister's move to Australia.

Lola vs. the Powerman & the Money-Go-Round is an oddity couched between Arthur and Muswell Hillibillies. Though mostly known for spawning the goofy transvestite song "Lola," the album is largely a bitter fusillade against the recording industry (and one should not ignore the accusatory subtext roiling beneath "Lola's" veneer of absurdity). This is a very personal album in a different way than the preceding Kinks' albums in that it explicitly confronts immediate difficulties in the life of the band. The grand, abstract theme of Britishness has receded, although Ray Davies still anchors many of the album's songs to concrete references to British life (names, places, etc.). Lola's songs about the recording industry level a direct charge of greed and casuistry at anyone with whom the Kinks had to share their profits.

The other songs on Lola are more abstract and generally deal with a longing for escape. "Apeman," the first truly regrettable Kinks song, prefigures the primitivism of the following album, Muswell Hillbillies, which constitutes a full-fledged retreat from modern industrial society and handles the theme with infinitely greater charm and intelligence. "Lola" seems to summarize the confusion at the heart of the album.

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