For those like me who believe that the Kinks have been somewhat adrift in commercial commotion since their late-Seventies resurgence, State of Confusion, their twenty-eighth American album, is a strong reaffirmation of their best qualities. What makes cultists of Kinks fans is leader Ray Davies' empathy for the lives real people lead, and his ability to convey that understanding in a voice that is wise and compassionate and in music that captures the subtlest flickers of emotions, as well as the boldest ones. State of Confusion scores high on all counts.
This is not a "happy" record, though there is humor in Davies' Weltschmerz and in the springy vitality of the music. "State of Confusion" sets the tone, painting a scene of domestic disarray: "All the dirty dishes are still in the kitchen sink/The tumble dry is broken/Now the telly's on the blink." To top it off, the poor guy's girlfriend moves out when the video machine goes on the fritz. From there, our hero moves out into the world and finds cause for disillusionment in one after another of its institutions. Like marriage, which makes a two-headed monster of man and wife in "Labour of Love." Or the "Young Conservatives" sprouting up at the universities, whom Davies mocks for their self-centered careerist goals, throwing in a spray of "fa fa fa fa's" at the end as a derisive reminder of the ambitious, by-the-rules schoolboy he lampooned fifteen years ago, "David Watts."
But Davies cuts deepest when he hones in on specific characters, which he does brilliantly in "Property," "Cliches of the World (B Movie)" and "Heart of Gold." The first of these is as sad a song as has been written about the dissolution of a relationship; melancholy washes of keyboards lap up against Davies' gentle, heartbroken voice as he and his ex get down to the terrible task of dividing the spoils. "Cliches" is a fiercely sung, angrily played rocker about the embitterment of one of Davies' celebrated "little men," who is swallowed up in some anonymous high-rise and toils thanklessly in a nondescript job. Then there's "Heart of Gold," which just might be addressed to Davies' beau, head Pretender Chrissie Hynde. Musically, it has the jangly, quasi-folk-rock sound of the Pretenders' recent hit, "Back on the Chain Gang," and toward the end, Ray turns a phrase or two à la Chrissie. Is she, in fact, the girl with a heart of gold "underneath the hard exterior"?
"Come Dancing," the by-now-familiar single that was released many months in advance of the LP, sums up the bittersweet mood that wafts through the record in calming counterpoint to its more turbulent moments. In it, Davies reminisces fondly on a landmark from his childhood — a dance hall where his sister's suitors used to take her. And though a part of his childhood died at the moment it was demolished, he prefers to dwell on the pleasant memories it recalls than in the sadness of its passing. Grace under pressure — and a reflective eloquence — are this survivor's finest traits, and they turn up when it matters most on State of Confusion.
The album is not quite perfect: "Don't Forget to Dance," Ray's big ballad here, is gloppy and saccharine, and there's no excuse for omitting the regally hard-rocking "Noise" and Davies' astonishingly Dylanesque "Long Distance" (they're on the cassette only). But in the breadth of its songwriting, the zip and assurance of the playing, the comeliness of the melodies and the gritty determination of Ray Davies himself, State of Confusion cuts the competition to shreds. Nobody but the Kinks could have made such a record in 1983, and no band deserves more to be at the very top — which is where this LP ought to place them.