Friday, April 28, 2017

The Kinks, "20th Century Man" (1971 Project)

[Editor's Note: this is the next installment of my continuing series on the year 1971.]

The Kinks had an amazing run from 1966 to 1971 where their sound matured and Ray Davies' eye for the subtleties of postwar British society got ever keener. Their last album in that run in Muswell Hillbillies, which happened to be their first for new label RCA. (Unfortunately for their new label, they would go on a string of ill-advised concept albums after this point.)

The album is a return to the band's roots, name-checking their London neighborhood of Muswell Hill. The music is rootsier too, much like the rocking folk style that Rod Stewart was popularizing at the time. The best song by far is the opener, "20th Century Man," a rip-roaring lament about the bland, standardized modern world. At the start it sounds like something being played on someone's back porch before the drums and slide guitar kick in to give it an edge. The lyrics are a cross between Davies' nostalgia for a different time and punk rock disregard: "Ain't got no ambition/ I'm just disillusioned."

The song keeps driving, with organ coming in to give it extra heft, the faster tempo ever increasing. The whole thing is a rollicking rave-up concealing a social critique. It is a song deeply suited to the 1971 project due to its themes. The optimism and sense of utopia of the sixties are gone here. All of the attempts to change the social order appear to have come to naught. All that's left is a feeling of alienation and paranoia. It's a very typical feeling for 1971, and one that feels pretty familiar to me.

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