I recently reviewed the new Ray Davies album, Working Man’s Cafe, and faced the question of what you say about a new album by an artist who has the sort of recorded history Davies has. How do you talk it? How do you think about it? Do you ask the same questions of it that you ask of a Vampire Weekend? I like how liberated Davies sounds on it, as if his body of work frees him from the responsibility of doing anything but talking about the things on his mind. Similarly, it doesn’t sound like he felt any need to compete for hookiness with his greatest hits, so he doles them out judiciously but effectively. But beyond that, what? John Swenson says he hears Davies’ time in New Orleans all over the CD. I only hear it in one song, but John’s got his doctorate in Kinksology, so who am I to argue?
Writing about the album brought to mind an essay in the new Spin – I don’t have it in front of me and it’s not online, so I can’t tell you who wrote it – arguing that artists shouldn’t make second albums, and that so many wonderful first albums became part of a body of work that was less stellar for its sprawl. He points to Lauren Hill, who said it all in one album, and the La’s album cover is included in the accompanying art, juxtaposed with Elvis Costello’s Mighty Like a Rose (which is a disposable Costello CD).
I understand the argument because there does come a moment in the life of our relationships with artists where we have to wonder, is it still worth it? The ongoing relationship seems more like a burden than a pleasure. I have hit the point of diminishing returns with many artists, Costello and Bruce Springsteen being two, but really, the only band I have liked for a long time and still fine interesting album in, album out, is the Mekons. At some point, you’ve heard what the artist has to say and after that, everything becomes a variation on the theme. That doesn’t mean the variations aren’t interesting. Hearing Wilco return to roots rock on Sky Blue Sky after 11 years (since Being There) or 10 years (since Mermaid Avenue) is to hear a band reconsider the genre that put it on the map, but if you’ve quit by now, you’ve heard the Wilco you have to hear.
But the one-and-done rule is the equivalent of wanting to stay young forever, embracing a beautiful, impulsive immaturity to such a degree that it precludes art that matures – Lucinda Williams and the Go-Betweens come to mind, along with Nirvana, for that matter. Everything it did is better than Bleach. Ultimately, our relationships with artists are like our relationships with people – some are one night stands, some have a duration, and some last a lifetime. In each case, they’re personal. At this point, a Ray Davies album likely for Davies fans only. It’s hard to imagine anyone who hasn’t followed him all these years deciding that this is the time and this is the album to start listening to him. That doesn’t mean others can’t get into it – this is the first Davies album I’ve heard in years, and my affection for later Kinks is tepid – but it’s not made for us. And it doesn’t have to be.