Review: The Kinks – Muswell Hillbillies (Deluxe Edition)
Published on October 11th, 2013 | Jonny Abrams
1971’s Muswell Hillbillies is in its way the great lost Kinks album, a hidden treasure trove of would-be classics best prescribed to the uninitiated with a knowing smile and a “thank me later”.
Ray Davies’s contrarian streak gave rise, quite improbably, to a set of songs that could reasonably be described as Americana yet are at their core every bit as ‘quintessentially English’ – loathe as we are to regurgitate that phrase – as those which adorn Arthur.
His lyrics here encompass all manner of distress, disenchantment and decrepitude, but somehow Muswell Hillbillies is a total blast from start to finish. It’s like a mini musical of mental patients basking in the warmth of their shared suffering and ultimately making joyous light of it all.
“You keep all your smart modern writers, give me William Shakespeare” Davies asserts on rocky opener “Twentieth Century Man”, his hushed vocal almost seeming to masticate on his own thoughts when all around him drops out for lines like “I’m a twentieth century man but I don’t waaaaant…I don’t wanna die here”.
It’s a fantastically effective touch, as is the way the instrumentation gathers momentum in unison and tees up the reintroduction of Davies’s vocal an octave or two higher up, not to mention a damn sight shoutier. Awesome, awesome and thrice awesome.
Having out-Stoned the Stones, “Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues” comes across kind of like Dylan with a heightened sense of fun. Accompanied by sleazy burlesque brass and honky-tonk piano, Davies conjures an absolute whale of a time out of dire circumstances:
“They’re watching my house and they’re tapping my telephone / I don’t trust nobody, but I’m much too scared to be on my own / And the income tax collector’s got his beady eye on me / No there ain’t no cure for acute schizophrenia disease”…don’t ask how The Kinks manage to sculpt this into such a frivolous romp, just listen and find out for yourself.
The ensuing “Holiday” is perfect, literally perfect. It should be one of their most well-known songs, a karaoke classic even. Try singing along in that affected, grizzled croon and not grinning like a…well, a loon, if you’ll pardon the contextual insensitivity.
Honestly, how is it not known the world over? It’s so happy, so sad, so carefree, so encumbered, so funny, so weary…it packs so much into its two minutes and forty seconds that Davies has to call upon an array of different singing voices just to keep up with it.
Few could get away with being such a chameleonic, character-based vocalist. Perhaps just Ray Davies and Paul McCartney, come to think of it.
“Skin and Bone” tackles eating disorders with the kind of jollity you’d think just couldn’t be made palatable, yet resoundingly is. Even the minor-key lament of “Alcohol” is invested with such baroque musicality as to be downright campy, like a more sophisticated “Harry Rag”, albeit the similarly rendered “Holloway Jail” later on does cast a sombre shadow.
Ray Davies’s ‘naive’ voice is so affecting coming from one so acerbic, and it’s utterly irresistible when “Complicated Life” pauses for his Southern-accented utterance of “Gotta stand and face it, life is soooo complicated”, followed of course by hearty round of “lah-dee-dah”-ing.
The same can be said for the likes of “If life’s worth living, what’s living for?” in “Oklahoma USA”, on which Dave Davies joins in for a deliciously delicate two-part harmony on “But in her dreams, she is far, far away”.
Muswell Hillbillies concludes, as does Arthur, with a countrified title track…but before we move onto CD2, we have to give the last word to the life-affirmingly wonderful “Have a Cuppa Tea”, which to be quite frank should be the national anthem…
“Whatever the situation, whatever the race or creed / Tea knows no segregation, no class nor pedigree / It knows no motivations, no sect or organisation / It knows no one religion nor political belief”
Fair tea, we salute thee!
Right, onto CD2 and its attendant outtakes. “Lavender Lane” amuses by dint of its outrageous adherence to the melody of “Waterloo Sunset”, “Kentucky Moon” is a brilliantly brooding and sparse piece of country/blues, but best of the bunch is “Mountain Woman”, with its jangly breakdown of a chorus and its loping rhythm similar to that of “Lola”.
We also get a right old knees-up of an alternative version of “Have a Cuppa Tea”, a breakneck live rendition of “Skin and Bone” and an instrumental take of “Twentieth Century Man” that proves instructive as to how it all might have come together. There’s other stuff too, fine package it is.
Mostly, though, we’re grading Muswell Hillbillies in terms of its standing in the Kinks canon. It’s brilliant…not quite as brilliant as Arthur, Something Else and Village Green Preservation Society, perhaps, but definitely on the next half-quail-sized rung down along with Face to Face.
Muswell Hillbillies is out now on UMC (Universal Music Catalogue).
You can buy Muswell Hillbillies on Amazon.
Rocksucker says: Four and a Half Quails out of Five!