The Kinks – Arthur Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire (1969)

“But all the words that you spit from your face / Add up to nothin’ / you got nothin’ to say”

the-kinks-arthur-or-the-decline-and-fall-of-the-british-empire-20121209112839Every self-respecting music snob knows the answer to this riddle: Beatles or Stones? And I am firmly in accord with the prevailing wisdom that the run of Kinks albums from Something Else (1967) to Muswell Hillbillies (1971) are pretty much perfect. But square in the middle of these is Arthur, the one I haven’t quite been able to crack—and I’ve tried for more than twenty years. Don’t get me wrong, there are moments here, it just hasn’t revealed itself to me as the top-to-bottom masterpiece it is for others. But my love for the band tells me I have still more work to put in on this one. Fortunately, there was a time in the rememberable past when you could get an original Kinks LP for something like $15…

“Victoria” is a reasonable imitation of the Kinks playing themselves, but the dynamics feel overly calculated and fail to get me bopping. Overdubs of a band hooting and hollering along to their own songs is one of my least favorite moves, and this is the first of a few guilty of this. “Yes Sir, No Sir” starts like a solid Kinks track two, but the horns and fussy bridge reveal the song to be overly beholden to a concept, and I’m beginning to understand why it all falls a bit flat for me. Commissioned for a television program that was never produced, the record is left to stand on its own, and the whole thing might be more unapologetically British than I can appreciate—but they’ve sung of tea on pretty much every record, so not sure that’s the problem. (I’m not even going into the lyrical content of the album, and admittedly growing up in war-torn England is not my experience. But usually a clever phrase will jump out at me for the header of my post, particularly after years of hearing a record, but I had to go searching for the one above, doubling as a bit of deprecating doubt of this album assessment).

Given the subject matter of young and innocent soldiers perishing on the battlefield, “Some Mother’s Son” should be devastating, but registers as little more than a plot point. The patchiness extends to the track sequencing, and the second half of the side doesn’t flow as well as it might (with the powerful “Brainwashed” in particular feeling a bit stranded on both ends). “Drivin’” is a jaunty throwback to Face To Face (1966), and is one of the few convincingly standalone tracks. To these ears, Dave Davies is the star of the record, with a wonderful clarity to his guitar playing throughout that doesn’t come through in quite the same way on the other albums. “Brainwashed” with its dramatic intro and Dave’s more characteristic crunch, is the other singularly striking song, and for that reason made it onto a number of mixtapes of mine over the years. It’s the one time that the horns integrate into the overall sound nicely, whereas the bombastic arrangement and pounding piano fail to add much excitement to “Australia”—which seems to go on even longer than the Stones’ “Sing This All Together.”

Side Two and the first mention of brother Ray, who struggles to fit all the words he’s written into “Shangri-La”—when he should know better than anyone that the three syllables of the title are all that are needed for a moving chorus. The horns again are indifferently played by session men, who contribute little more than a “Yellow Submarine”-like fanfare. There’s lots of tricky changes on this and “Mr. Churchill Says” and while the air raid section of the latter is one of the more thrilling and impeccably played bits of the album, it’s also one of several instances where too many ideas get in the way of a good song. The silly “She’s Bought a Hat Like Princess Maria” is the other tune that found its way onto my comp tapes decades ago, though we should all regret that kazoo by now. The lovely acoustic outro of “Young and Innocent Days” is the most striking thing about that song, and with “Nothing To Say” a reprise of “Yes Sir, No Sir” it does little more than serve its thematic function. The comparatively direct rocker “Arthur” would work better as a closer if it didn’t carry the burden of wrapping up the sketchy journey that precedes it.

I’m not trying to take Arthur down a notch, I just suspect it might be too-tied to its teleplay, and calling it “indulgent” wouldn’t mean anything if the gambit happened to come off. Individually compelling songs can have their greater cumulative effect (a la Village Green Preservation Society, 1968) but there’s simply no “Animal Farm” or “Sunny Afternoon” here, and both of those prove that a beautifully simple idea is enough. I love the next two conceptually looser albums—Lola (1970) and Muswell (1971)—but I check out completely when Ray’s theatrical tendencies take over for the whole of 1970s. I suppose there’s no convincing a listener—particularly oneself—of a thing that just works—or doesn’t. (Can it really be explained how last week’s record is just plain perfect?). The pleasures of the other albums in this classic Kinks period manage to be both immediate and enduring—and Arthur is somehow neither for me.

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