After twenty-odd albums, either you follow the Kinks or you don't. If you don't ("Gently pity those you can't persuade," as Jonathan Swift put it), it's unlikely you'll acquire the habit with Misfits, especially since none of the songs sounds like an immediate hit single. But if you do, this LP can make you cry. Not because Misfits is a bad record — on the contrary, it's the Kinks' best since, at the very least, 1974's underrated Preservation Act 2. No, what makes it heart-rending is its candor bordering on cruelty. And both the victim and the victor are Ray Davies.
It's as if the voice that has probably whispered for years inside Ray Davies' head, murmuring, "Come out, come out, wherever you are," has swollen into a scream that can no longer be stifled. No more hide-and-seek with the dramatis personae of the theatrical RCA albums or the metaphors of the last LP, Sleepwalker, the Kinks' first for Arista. No more peek-aboo behind cute ambiguity ("...I'm glad I'm a man/And so is Lola") or the disingenuous exhibitionism of drunkenness. Out of the closet, out of the Kinks even, and into the fire — not of damnation but, what's more excruciating, of irresolution. For sometimes, coming out isn't as difficult as it's cracked up to be: discovering where you are is often the hard part. That's why Davies, rather than answering the scream in kind, responds with a sigh that is desolating but that also speaks of a peace — a sadder but wiser awareness of his own ambivalence — that passeth all under-standing.
Where, after all, does a misfit belong? To come out of the closet may be to leap into the void. Almost all of the songs on this record are about people who don't belong anywhere: a tax exile in a tropical land, a heterosexual transvestite, "the only honky living on an all black street" and most of all, Ray Davies himself. The title track, addressed to every performer whose time has come and gone, but especially to Davies, is a fitting introduction to the Kinks' most intimate album. Alienated from the dwindling crowd on whom his livelihood depends, Davies sings:
You had your chance in your day
Yet you threw it all away
But you know what they say
Every dog has his day.
That "dog," which Davies drops almost casually, without bitterness or self-pity, is devastating. Apart from Johnny Rotten, the only other rock performers capable of such a brutal self-assessment are Pete Townshend and perhaps Neil Young. "Misfits" shows up a song like Jackson Browne's "Running on Empty" for the callow self-romanticization it really is.
"A Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy" is even more ruthless. It's a twofold fantasy: that of Davies, who'll "break up the band, start a new life, be a new man," and that of a diehard Kinks fan, Dan, who's wrapped up in their records. At its lovely beginning, the song suggests a breathy ballad by the Bee Gees, another veteran group but one that, unlike the Kinks, is now enjoying greater commercial success than ever before. As the lyrics describe Dan's rapt devotion, billowing harmonies deliberately evoke the Beach Boys, a band that seems to have soldiered on only for the sake of nostalgia. Then, as this description reaches its climax, the Kinks burst into an approximation of the sound of Boston's dense, swirling guitars. (If Boston can scarcely get it together to record a second LP, imagine how the Kinks, whose success was equally over-night, feel as they approach their twenty-second or so!) "A Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy" ends with Davies insisting, "Don't want to spend my life, living in a rock 'n' roll fantasy /...Don't want to waste my life, hiding away anymore," but after nearly fifteen years as a rock & roller, it's clear that any alternative is every bit as much a fantasy. You can't teach an old dog new tricks.
Quoted in snatches, the lyrics of these two songs make them sound lacerating, but actually they're extraordinarily tender. Ray Davies sings them gently, almost conversationally, as if the last thing he wanted to do were to melodramatize his dilemma. Indeed, Misfits may be his best-sung — and most subtly sung — record yet. "Misfits" and "A Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy" are arranged as under-stated anthems; each begins on a delicate, confessional note and builds, layer upon layer, to a chaste grandeur that never topples over into pretentiousness. With Andy Pyle replacing John Dalton on bass, the Kinks play immaculately. This is rock & roll with a bitter-sweet restraint.
Only "Trust Your Heart," the first song kid-brother-cum-lead-guitarist Dave Davies has written and recorded in six years, erupts uncontrollably, and the chaos is scarifying. As the track lurches from a love song to a political jeremiad ("What on earth do we need government for?"), guitars whine and wallop in a dark void. Dave squeals and caterwauls like Little Richard until on the last verse, his hysteria becomes incomprehensible without the lyrics sheet. Unlike Ray, he cannot articulate his torment, which makes it all the more violent. How can you trust your heart when it's incoherent?
Letting it all hang out as the brothers Davies do on Misfits has its limitations. The straightforward "Out of the Wardrobe," a prosaic ode to transvestism, misses the dodgy wit of "Lola." Though "Black Messiah" rightly ridicules the naive enthusiasm of white audiences for the Rastafarianism of reggae (which it travesties musically by adulterating it with Dixieland), the song raises without resolving the issue of Davies' own racism. And "Get Up" is saved from unseemly condescension ("Here's a message for the little guy") only by the excitement of its beat and because it becomes obvious that the exhortation is aimed, above all, at the singer himself.
Thanks to Ray Davies, Misfits is very nearly a masterpiece because it anatomizes rather than glorifies Davies' role as "One of the Survivors," as the Kinks sang five years ago. After all, merely to have survived is nothing to crow about: Al Martino is hanging in there, too, and for all we know, Martin Bormann is alive and well and living in Argentina. For an artist (and anyone else, for that matter), the point is not only to survive, but to flourish. The Kinks aren't getting older — they're getting better.