Album Review: “Muswell Hillbillies” — The Kinks (1971)

Muswell Hillbillies was the start of a new era for The Kinks, as they left longtime label Pye and signed with RCA. Emboldened by the commercial success of their previous album Lola v. Powerman…, they would release six albums with RCA that would go on to be commercially disappointing and critically quizzical, to say the least. As their first RCA album, Muswell Hillbillies is not only the highest regarded of the bunch, it’s also hailed as one of The Kinks’s best albums, period.

Sales-wise it fizzled, only charting as high as #48 in the US and not even charting at all in the UK. Critics were much kinder, of course, and I agree with the assessment that it’s a classic Kinks album, and in fact one of their absolute best. To be fair, though, it’s the least “Kinks-like” album released thus far. In a way, you can look at it as cynical, bitter, angry Village Green with better production values and taking a stylistic cue from American Southern music: country, folk, Dixieland jazz, and acoustic swing setting a tonal backdrop for an album reflecting bitterness, isolation, working class struggle, or just being fed up with modern life as a whole.

However you wanna slice it, the album works beautifully. But it’s a pretty radical stylistic departure for The Kinks, even if Ray’s lyrics are as razor-sharp and entertaining as ever. The album opener 20th Century Man is probably the only “classic rocker” on the album, and it’s one hell of a barnstormer to kick off the proceedings. It opens steady and acoustic and catchy as hell, and ends up as a strong electric rocker by the end (with some nice slide work by Dave). Ray’s statement of feeling entirely out of place in modern times is an amazing tune, one of their best. Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues takes its musical cue from Dixieland jazz, a slower but steady brass-laden ode to the joys of contemporary paranoia, with a bit of saloon-styled piano thrown in for good measure. Maybe the song’s musical approach might turn off anyone looking for the style of Lola Part Deux, but I love the happy sloppy drunken feel of it.

Ray’s vocal affectations might turn some people off from the acoustic swing of Holiday, a toe-tapper celebrating that there really isn’t any worthwhile respite from mental breakdown. You wouldn’t know it from a first listen, as there’s an appealing feel of clueless happiness throughout the number. After that slower diversion, the basic country rock of Skin and Bone is an uptempo welcome, detailing (or lamenting) a former BBW who lost entirely too much chub. What’s remarkable about this song is how is exmplifies how effortlessly Ray and the band adapted new sounds, styles, and genres of music. It’s a good little tune, catchy as all hell.

Alcohol apes the conventions of early 20th-century vaudeville, a harbinger of the band’s upcoming “theatrical” kick that would last for four frustrating albums (let’s not get ahead of ourselves). While this kind of music isn’t generally my cuppa chowder, I absolutely love it on this album as it fits the tone of Muswell Hillbillies so perfectly. Complicated Life is the slow, thick Southern-styled rock of The Band, or Little Feat, or even CCR, but with that patented Kinks dismal cheekiness. Kind of like “Holiday”, it’s all about disengaging from the drudgery of everyday life, to the point of being of a broke-ass deadbeat. Good times! It’s an interesting tune, but it’s my least favorite of the album so far.

Here Come The People In Grey is pure blues, a rage against gentrification and relocation, the faceless government usurping the sovereignity of the individual, or somesuch nonsense. I love the song, but if I have one complaint, it’s that I don’t like Ray’s dalliances with vocal vibrato. Dave is doing more funky slide work, and the album has some uptempo rock that’s been missing since the album opener. Have A Cuppa Tea is pure cheeky fun, English traditional meets American jugband. I’d love the Country Bears to tackle this one! Listen to that fantastic piano run underneath the intro to the chorus! Love this song, a pure slice of upbeat country perfection.

The dark, sad, sinister Holloway Jail is part delta folk, part show number, part blues, and wow is it a great song, recounting the tale of a promising but easily-manipulated young girl led into a life of crime, depravity, and eventually incarceration. Powerful stuff. Oklahoma USA is a soft, beautiful acoustic number about the power of daydreams. She might work in industrial town UK, but in her mind she’s living in a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. Just a hint of zydeco here, and a fantastic, touching song.

Finishing up the album, we start with the simple blues of Uncle Son, an ode to the simple, hardworking man who doesn’t concern himself with the uppity concerns of talking heads and armchair political quarterbacks and the useless aggravations of the self-righteous… he just does what he does. “Liberals dream of equal rights, Conservatives live in a world gone by, Socialists preach of a promised land, But old Uncle Son was an ordinary man…” It’s probably one of the lesser songs on the album, but a simple, effective one. Finally we have the title track of sorts, Muswell Hillbilly, a sort of “Gather everyone into the room and sum up the entire album in one big final sing-a-long send-off.” This is a fine capper, reasserting the sense of working class identity, striking out against uniformity, modernization, destruction of tradition, that sorta thing. The Muswell Hill neighborhood (where the Davies brothers grew up) might be more upscale and proper, but the characters that populate this album will always be Hillbillies at heart.

I love this album. I’d easily rank Muswell Hillbillies third in the Kinks amazing catalog; it’s so entirely different from what they had done before, but yet still so much a product of Ray’s unparalleled songwriting and the band’s strong musicality. Definitely not an album to “start” with if you’re just discovering the band, but one you must have in your collection at some point or another. Some balk at the country/blues/Dixie vibe that permeate the songs — I’m sure in 1971, after Lola, it must have been something of a shock — but it only proves how talented this bunch really was.

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