Ray Davies: “Working Man’s Cafe”

Ray Davies is one of the finest craftsman in all of pop music, but don’t let that fool you: While craft is often a synonym for a competently dull, workmanlike product, Davies’ latest, Working Man’s Cafe, is anything but. On the contrary, it’s a jolting reminder of just how joyous and exhilarating craft can be, as Davies’ warmth, wisdom, and wit elevate his songs to the level of real art.

This is the kind of record I love: The work of a veteran artist doing what he does best, and ending up with some of the finest work of his career. On just the second offering of his long-overdue solo career, the former Kink– as gleefully snarky and melodically gifted as he was even on his old band’s classic records– has made an album that’s genuinely exciting, not because it breaks any new stylistic ground, but because it finds him at the top of his game, proving that he can run circles around immitators a third his age. He’s sticking to what he knows best, but that doesn’t mean he’s phoning it in: the lyrics and the hooks alike are among the sharpest he’s ever written. It’s a latter-day triumph not unlike Donald Fagen’s Morph the Cat or any of Graham Parker’s recent albums, though Davies isn’t as morbid as Fagen, and he’s more consistent than Parker. His sense of humor is as feisty and cantakerous as ever, which means he’s cut from the same cloth as Fagen and Parker, but also of Ian Hunter; in fact, more than anything, Working Man’s Cafe sounds a bit like a stronger, funnier twin of Hunter’s Shrunken Heads album, released last year.

Of course, Davies is 63 now, so it’s not too surprising to find him railing against modern life, but make no mistake– this isn’t the sound of a tired old fogey griping about a culture he doesn’t understand. Davies has always been at his best when he’s writing character sketches infused with humor, compassion, and a journalist’s eye for detail, which is exactly what this record is full of. There are songs about the disorienting nature of modern society, but they’re not angry or resigned so much as hopeful and more than slightly amused, as in the opener, “Vietnam Cowboys,” a cheeky ode o globalization; the title song, a remembrance of a long-gone greasy spoon diner; and “Peace in Our Time,” which Rolling Stone incorrectly labels as a political anthem– did they even listen to it?– but is really a poingnant tale of domestic strife.

Albums like this one often have a shroud of mortality hanging over them, sometimes to the point of fetishizing death; Fagen’s album, Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, even recent albums from Paul McCartney fit this bill, to various degrees, but Davies wisely sidesteps it. He does, however, include a couple of songs about his experience being shot in New Orleans a few years ago, part of a brutal mugging– “Morphine Song” is wonderfully macabre, while “No One Listen” is gleefully enraged.

None of this would matter, of course, if Davies weren’t writing tight, snappy pop songs, but he delivers them in spades here, coming up with the kind of hooks that radio would kill for, were it not biased against artists of Davies’ advancing age. “Peace in Our Time” is a highlight– in fact, it’s almost a shame it isn’t a protest song, because it’s got the kind of sweeping chorus that can get a whole arena singing along.

Davies and Ray Kennedy produced the set, giving it the guitar/bass/drums/keys dynamic one would expect from a Ray Davies album, but there are little flourishes in the production, and a warm interplay between the musicians, that give these songs depth and dynamics while keeping the focus on the songcraft.

Put it all together and you’ve got an album that could only come from a master pop songwriter; an album that could only come from a British pop veteran; an album that could only come from the brilliant mind and sharp pen of Ray Davies.

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