Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Song Commentary: "Imaginary Man" by Ray Davies

AKA: God Save Ray Davies!

Ray Davies of Kinks fame has recorded a new CD called "Working Man's Cafe," which is out now in the UK, but won't be out in the US until February 2008. I've already heard it, and I can tell you it has a lot of stirring tracks. "You're Asking Me," "Working Man's Cafe," "No One Listen," "One More Time," and "Voodoo Walk," are all thoughtful, well-crafted, tuneful numbers with interesting themes and chord progressions.

However, if you are a long-time Ray Davies/Kinks fan, there is at least one track that you absolutely owe it to yourself to listen to. If you're a fan who sat enraptured by songs like "Waterloo Sunset," "Days," "Celluloid Heroes," or just about anything off of Arthur or The Village Green Preservation Society, then I'm telling you that you must listen to the song "Imaginary Man."

This is not because the song necessarily SOUNDS like those tunes. If anything, it sort of sounds like "Still Searching" from 1993 (with a pre-chorus that quotes "This Strange Effect'). No, the reason you need to listen to this song is because of the themes it explores and how damn moving it is, especially if you're a fan of Ray's famous band The Kinks.

Ray, who turned 63 this year, quite craftily jam-packs several of his heavy duty themes all into one song. The song explores, in no particular order:

1) Mortality (his own, and by extension, everyone's)

2) Reality and Existence: What is real, what is unreal

3) Existential longing and regret

4) Memory/Nostalgia/Loss

5) Identity/Self-doubt

6) The meaning of celebrity / relationship between the performer and the audience

So, in about four minutes, Ray covers a lot of ground and pulls no punches. Basically, the song plays (at various points) like a heartfelt letter to the fans, an apology, a rumination on life and a heartbreaking journey through the past.

The thrust of the song (if I have this right) is that Ray is entering his twilight years and is looking back on his life. He's saying it's been great and it's been fun, but at the same time he's saying his life has gone by like a dream, and in a sense feels "unreal" or has an intangible quality to it (hence "imaginary"). He's saying, "What does existence mean? There's nothing to hold onto once the past is gone so in what sense did I exist? What sense, if any, will I continue to exist once I'm gone?"

At the same time he's dissecting his own "unreal" status, he's intersecting this theme with the idea that he has existed, from the fans' perspective, primarily in our heads. He is only "imaginary" to most of us; he only exists in our heads. We may feel like we know/knew him, but in a very real sense, he is/was only a figment in our heads, brought into being by his songs.

Ray then gently tells the listener "I offered my very best to you" and that he took us to all sorts of places in his songs. He sings about walking down to the Preservation Hall and looking for the "old trad band", an allusion to his musical past. He wonders who he is, who he was, what it meant, and where it's all gone. He employs musical phrases (the aforementioned "This Strange Effect") that invoke past glories. Listening to this, it's easy to conjure an image of Ray walking past empty town squares, weather-beaten gazebos, deserted music halls and the now-overgrown "Village Green" he once fought so hard to preserve. This time, however, it's not the Village Green that Ray wants remembered, it's himself. Heady stuff.

The tone of the song is contrite, intimate, reflective. One of the most striking features about it is that Ray is almost speaking directly to the listener/fan, which is quite disarming. Ray employs characters and situations to convey his inner life so effectively it's sometimes easy to forget that he rarely uses overtly direct tactics. Here, it's almost like the defenses and some of the layers have been stripped away, and the effect is twice as powerful since it's so seldom used.

The song is almost like a Ray Davies version of "My Way," if that makes any sense. However, where "My Way" was about a proud man looking back on his life and re-affirming his belief in himself, "Imaginary Man" is a re-affirmation of all the insecurities and doubts that (we assume) have plagued Ray Davies throughout his life.

The song ends with Ray's fragile voice repeating over and over "I'm the imaginary man, I am." His voice strains to hit the high notes like a man railing against his destiny, longing to be remembered, longing to be heard in the void. Which is, when you get right down to it, what we really all want, isn't it?

All this adds up to an extremely touching moment in a career that's been loaded with tons of tender, poignant moments. Hopefully, there will be even more in the future.

Kinks fans: Check this one out.

The songs from "Working Man's Cafe" are available now on iTunes, and the full CD will be out in the US in February, as mentioned earlier.
There are also some clips on Ray's MySpace.


mrwhoppy said...

Very good summary of Ray's new CD.
"Imaginary Man" is also my favourite song from the CD too. I saw him sing it at Nottingham UK earlier this year...first time "Live" apparently!. It left a lump in my throat. A sign of a really well written song, as i'm not normally emotional. But anyway,enjoyed reading your comments here. Tim.

ruffian said...

This song is also my favorite off of WMC. And I appreciate Glenn's insights into it. I hadn't looked at it in terms of the performer/fan relationship, but on a different level--that of a man singing to a former lover. (I naturally went in that direction after hearing Ray mention in a BlipTV clip something to the effect that he was saying, "Don't get too close to me; you don't know what you're getting into.")

Well, any way you look at it, it surely is one of the most moving, intimate things our man's written of late. When I saw the audience members react to it on the recent BBC broadcast of Ray's Electric Proms concert--bodies swaying gently to and fro, arms overhead--I had to smile. What a sweet moment. (And Ray still hit the high notes, even though it was one of the last songs in a very energetic set.)

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Glenn.

Cuzzino said...
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