Certain Songs #869: The Kinks – “20th Century Man”

Album: Muswell Hillibillies
Year: 1971

Just as some of you think that Face to Face is the equal of the records that followed it, a lot of Kinks fans think that Muswell Hillbillies is the equal of the albums that followed it. I don’t quite share that opinion, even though I think both of those records are incredibly strong.

That said, Muswell Hillbillies does stand as a definite transition album — away from the rock and pop songs that had previously dominated their sounds toward horn-and-piano-filled roots music from both sides of the pond.

And so naturally, Muswell Hillibillies opens with what ends up being one of the biggest, most dynamic rock songs yet, the ever-building “20th Century Man,” one the most Ray Davies songs Ray ever Daviesed. Expanding upon — or taking to their logical conclusion — the lyrical themes that drove songs like “The Village Green Preservation Society,” “Victoria” and “God’s Children,” Ray declares all of the things that are wrong with the modern world, like a Reverse Paul Weller, before finally declaring:

This is the twentieth century!
But too much aggravation!
This is the age of insanity!
I’m a twentieth century man
But I don’t want to be here

Sitting here in 2017, of course, with Ray having already dropped his third album of the 21st century, this seems nearly as quaint as “hope I die as I get old,” because — technically — Ray got his wish: he’s not living in the 20th century anymore!

Of course I have no doubt that if 26-year-old Mr. Ray Davies was bothered by gray-dressed bureaucratic government and his relative lack of liberty and privacy, then 72-year Sir Raymond Douglas Davies is utterly scandalized, because it wasn’t like he was going to become less conservative as he got older.

And of course, none of that matters, because the genius arrangement of “20th Century Man” overruns whatever quibbles I might have with the lyrics.

As Ray’s complaints about the 20th century come up over and over again, the song stops and crashes against itself with ever-increasing tension, as John Gosling’s Hammond organ and Dave Davies’ electric guitar make their own arguments for at least some of the innovations of the 20th century.

So if the first part of the song is a slow burn, with Ray implementing the genius tactic of staying quiet even as the song started getting loud, the second half is sheer full-bore rock and roll. And when Ray’s vocals finally level up in intensity to match the anger and paranoia of his words, “20th Century Man” becomes as powerful and kinetic as anything in their catalog.

Fan-made video for “20th Century Man”

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