For their fifth studio album, The Kinks chose to gravitate away from the broad rock and roll sound they had fostered during their early years, trading in guitar solos for layered baroque pop ballads and psychedelic R&B numbers. Expanding upon the impressive accomplishments of Face to Face, Something Else by The Kinks – a fitting title for a record so radically different from the band’s previous efforts – features a series of vignettes that serve as complex character studies, laying the foundation for the lush concept albums that would follow in the years to come. With the band flexing a variety of stylistic muscles, this was surely an album that aimed to rival the work of The Beatles.
Much of the change in sound stemmed from a shifting dynamic within the group. The album saw Ray Davies assuming the role of producer, and thus further becoming the driving creative force behind the band, while Dave Davies was emerging as a noteworthy songwriter. All the while, this period gave way to the inclusion of Ray’s wife, Rasa, on backing vocals. The seeds of division were being sown, yet Something Else would become the crowning achievement of The Kinks to date, inspiring countless imitators and single-handedly launching the career of Wes Anderson.
From the opening conversational production commentary and Nicky Hopkins’s staccato piano clangs, “David Watts” makes it abundantly clear that this was going to be a very different album from The Kinks. A decidedly British song, it is anchored by a lingering “fa fa fa,” which could be interpreted as the English affectation for the word “far,” where the speaker of the number so desperately longs to be. Ray Davies, quite possibly speaking as himself, idolizes his titular character to the point of sexual fantalization, keeping with a recurring theme of homoeroticism within his songs. In only two and a half minutes, “David Watts” is able to recount a languished fascination, while displaying layers of interwoven musical stylings.
Initially released as the debut solo single for Dave Davies, “Death of a Clown” addresses the monotony of life as a performer, here reduced to that of a sideshow act. The song’s Dylan-esque lyrics paint a picture of the dark side of fame and the struggle to gain genuine respect from an audience, much like the thematic territory Bojack Horseman would tread nearly half a century later. It boasts a melancholy tone, though it is consistently pleasant enough to form an atmosphere of nostalgia. The only track on the album that sees the Davies brothers sharing writing credits, “Death of a Clown” captures the grace of their collaborative efforts, while also giving Hopkins a moment to shine with his introductory plucking of piano wires.
The shortest song on the album, “Two Sisters” juxtaposes siblings who are polar opposites, telling the audience all that they need to know about the song’s characters in its opening lines: “Sylvilla looked into her mirror / Percilla looked into the washing machine.” Although on the surface it appears to be a simple number, its orchestration is one of the most ambitious on the record, driven by a speedy, dreamlike harpsichord rhythm and featuring the introduction of a string section into the band’s repertoire.
“No Return,” caught somewhere between the music of Tin Pan Alley and “The Girl from Ipanema,” is a surprisingly straightforward and personal song. The Kinks didn’t catch on with American audiences the same way that their fellow British Invasion acts had, largely due to the fact that they devoted much of their energy to taking stabs at English social class structure, but here we are given a forthright declaration of undying love, the likes of which would resonate with any listener. The speaker’s life would cease to hold any meaning if his sweetheart were to take off, and he would be sent into a slump from which there is no return. Still, the tune is far too bouncy for this to be a somber song.
Ray Davies is a tremendous storyteller, but above all, he is a comedian. Quite possibly the funniest song about nicotine addiction ever recorded, “Harry Rag” has the cadence of an end-of-the-night drinking song. It follows characters who have a dependence on smoking, so much so that nothing else in their lives matters: “But if I give it all, I won’t feel sad / As long as I got enough to buy a harry rag.” Borrowing from an English history of rhyming slang, Davies uses the song to display his trademark wit and wordplay. While much of the album saw a transition toward using the acoustic guitar as a featured instrument, for “Harry Rag,” the band decided to go electric.
“Tin Soldier Man” strikes with the steady momentum of a parade march. While it is chock-full of the anti-military sentiments that would serve as the driving force behind the songs of Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire), at it’s core, it’s about the monotony of the workforce. There is a dire importance placed on keeping up appearances at all times: “Just to put a little shine on his shoes / And keep his uniform tidy.” Ray Davies is constantly fascinated with post-war Britain and he loves to dissect the cultural expectations of the era that he finds to be so strange. In 1967, countless artists were churning out songs of rebellion, and Davies was able to join the trend in his own whimsical way.
An uptempo rocker, “Situation Vacant” bears an uncanny resemblance to the songs The Beatles were recording during this period, complete with overpowering layers of sound and rapid stylistic changes throughout. Tonally similar to Squeeze’s “Up the Junction” and The Police’s “Synchronicity II,” the song tells the story of a working class couple struggling to make ends meet and getting bogged down by the weight of their own responsibilities. While it is another classic Ray Davies character study, the lyrics are second to the instrumentation, featuring Dave Davies displaying his distinctive guitar tone and Nicky Hopkins showcasing his imposing range on the keys. True to the era, “Situation Vacant” comes complete with a false ending and a reprise.
The second entry on the album penned by Dave Davies, “Love Me till the Sun Shines” is a fairly simple blues rock anthem. Lyrically, the song parallels Dave’s freewheeling life as a bachelor. He isn’t looking for any substantial romantic connection; he only wants to have a good time until the sun comes up. Something Else is mainly composes of cerebral tales of class warfare and societal expectations, but the album’s second side opens with a song that is purely hedonistic. It’s a fun track, especially during Mick Avory’s frantic drum breaks.
“Lazy Old Sun” is a manic drug trip, stretching the conceptual limitations normally associated with pop music. It bends in and out of consciousness, playing with combative sounds and lyrics that may seem nonsensical to the sober ear. Three and a half months before this album came out, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released, and it was an obvious influence on The Kinks. They didn’t often dip into the psychedelic realm, but when they did, it was a natural fit. “Lazy Old Sun” also brushes against the pastoral themes that would play such a meaty role on the band’s next album, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society.
The Kinks always feel framed in an air of nostalgia, and on “Afternoon Tea,” the speaker’s eyes are glued to the past. Ray Davies is an expert at taking a melancholy lyric and distracting his audience by wrapping it around a bouncy melody. Who else would have used the ritualistic act of tea time as the catalyst for a song about heartbreak? It is a charming number that uniquely belongs to the band, even giving way to some signature Dave Davies guitar work.
Probably the song on the album that receives the most flack, “Funny Face” once again thrusts Dave Davies into the spotlight as a songwriter. Much like the previous track, the speaker is pining after a lost love, only this time the subject of the song is locked away in a mental institution. Melodically, it doesn’t aim for any heights that haven’t already been achieved earlier on the album, but it is a pleasant toe-tapper. The transition between verse and chorus serves as an delightfully ethereal contrast.
A lovely lounge crooner, “End of the Season” is a piano standard fit for a smoky bar. It is a bittersweet moment of transition, caught somewhere between the pleasures of the past and the uncertainty of the future. There’s a shuffle and swing to the song that would feel at home in a musical. Once again, we are tossed into the wilderness, with the music of birds chirping present from start to finish. It serves as a wonderful segue into the album’s final song.
“Waterloo Sunset” puts currency in taking time away from the hustle and bustle to appreciate the world around you. Even in the midst of our own personal dilemmas, our problems really don’t matter all that much: “But I don’t need no friends / As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset / I am in paradise.” It is an iconic song, and one that is difficult to get tired of hearing. The track has inspired countless hyperbolic (though well-earned) praise, with even Robert Christgau calling it “the most beautiful song in the English language.”
Something Else was arguably the most important moment in the career of The Kinks. It touched on all the highlights of their catalog thus far, while paving the road for projects with even grander ambitions. An observational record, it takes a step back in order to take note of the goings-on of everyday people (“Everyday I look at the world from my window”). Forged out of the marriage of cynicism and whimsy, Something Else by The Kinks is a standout in an era of exceptionally noteworthy music.