One of the first things people will tell you about this album (including me I suppose) is that it went nowhere when it was first released. It oozed into the UK album chart at No. 37, but still went on to be seen as a creative peak for the Davies boys. If “Face to Face” was the Kinks’ big step forward from bluesy R&B to their own distinctive and whimsical sound, then “Something Else” is surely the point when they started stretching their wings a bit with the latter. James Pomery described it at the time in Rolling Stone as “the best album The Kinks have made yet.”
Retrospectively, it’s an album that’s slightly overshadowed by its imminent concept follow-up, “The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society”, but it’s not to be underestimated either – stuffed into this 36 minutes and 26 seconds are some of the greatest tracks The Kinks had to offer in their 30-odd year career.
It’s an album of gentle and bittersweet charm, kicking off with the magnificent “David Watts”, a song that’s musically close to The Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together”. The song reflects on the eponymous David Watts, with the vaguely homoerotic angst of view of another boy who longs to be him. It’s a carefully crafted track, dancing gently with schoolboy admiration and perhaps more;
“And all the girls in the neighbourhood try to go out with David Watts. They try their best but can’t succeed, for he is of pure and noble breed…”
Oh, and The Jam cover is ace too.
It’s followed up by the Dave Davies’ sardonic and wistful “Death of a Clown”, which while upbeat in tempo, hides a satirical sneer.
The following track, Dave Davies’ wistful “Death of a Clown” sets the mood for the rest of the album, full of sardonic wit. It’s a theme that follows with the complex and cunning “Two Sisters”, which is pretty transparently about the tension between Ray and Dave Davies and their contrasting lives, and Ray’s resentment of Dave’s bohemian London life. For a two minute song, there’s a lot crammed into it, and it has that delicious harpsichord throughout.
“No Return” carries on Ray’s sentimental songwriting, with a gentle bossa nova that contemplates the idea of loneliness, and it’s pleasantly serene when it could so easily have been bitter. It lies in dramatic contrast with the next track, the fun and annoyingly catchy “Harry Rag”, a selection of nicely bleak portraits of people who just really want a cigarette.
The tracks that follow, the rocking “Situation Vacant”, the psychedelic and distinctive “Love Me Til The Sun Shines” and the childlike “Tin Soldier Man”, are rich and keep the soft but satirical edge of the album going, and “Lazy Old Sun” is gentle and a little bit Pink-Floydy too.
“Afternoon Tea”, a very very Ray Davies song, is wonderful. It’s romantic, sentimental, sweet and lovelorn – “Tea Time still ain’t the same without my Donna” – and it’s just gorgeous.
“Funny Face”, one of Dave’s contributions, is the weak spot on the album. There’s nothing particular failing about it, but little else to say. I suppose you could argue that it’s buried amongst a trio of mighty songs though, with the music-hall notes of “End of the Season” delivering a melancholy smack down immediately after. “End of the Season” was originally recorded during the sessions for “Face to Face”, but got shelved when Pye Records got sniffy at the tweeting bird effects, which to me make it all the more effervescent.
And then there’s “Waterloo Sunset”… arguably The Kinks’ finest hour, it’s an all-time classic song that gets me even after a thousand listens. It’s a song both of a beautiful everyday life in the heart of London, and of watching down on it, isolated but philosophical, an upbeat reflection of Ray’s growing depression perhaps? Whatever, because it just doesn’t get any better than that moment where he sings “As long as I gaze at Waterloo sunset, I am in paradise”. I still hum it when I’m on my way to catch the Southampton train.
In his Rolling Stone review, James Pomery had an interesting theory that the closing “Waterloo Sunset” was a sequel to the opening “David Watts”, where the boy who envied the world has grown to watching it and smiling. Even if that’s not deliberately true, it kind of fits the feeling of the album, which is at it’s heart an album about the Davies brothers’ antagonistic relationship and contrasting style.
It’s pretty clear listening to this that the band had moved on from the R&B mood of their early years, and on reflection it took some guts to put this out in the middle of the psychedelic age. But then that’s why The Kinks shine anyway – great songwriting from a band that weren’t afraid to stand apart from the herd. And there was plenty more to come…