How did the Kinks respond to the fresh start afforded by Lola? By delivering a skewed, distinctly British, cabaret take on Americana, all pinned down by Ray Davies' loose autobiography and intense yearning to be anywhere else but here -- or, as he says on the opening track, "I'm a 20th century man, but I don't want to be here." Unlike its predecessors, Muswell Hillbillies doesn't overtly seem like a concept album -- there are no stories as there are on Lola -- but each song undoubtedly shares a similar theme, namely the lives of the working class. Cleverly, the music is a blend of American and British roots music, veering from rowdy blues to boozy vaudeville. There's as much good humor in the performances as there are in Davies' songs, which are among his savviest and funniest. They're also quite affectionate, a fact underpinned by the heartbreaking "Oklahoma U.S.A.," one of the starkest numbers Davies ever penned, seeming all the sadder surrounded by the careening country-rock and music hall. That's the key to Muswell Hillbillies -- it mirrors the messy flow of life itself, rolling from love letters and laments to jokes and family reunions. Throughout it all, Davies' songwriting is at a peak, as are the Kinks themselves. There are a lot of subtle shifts in mood and genre on the album, and the band pulls it off effortlessly and joyously -- but it's hard not to hear Dave Davies' backing vocals and have it not sound joyous. Regardless of its commercial fate, Muswell Hillbillies stands as one of the Kinks' best albums.
[Like the 2013 double-disc deluxe U.K. set that preceded it, the 2014 Legacy edition of Muswell Hillbillies is anchored by a pair of terrific unreleased songs from the sessions: "Lavender Lane" and "Mountain Woman." On the 2013 set, they kicked off a 13-song second disc but here they're part of nine bonus tracks added to the first disc (the other seven are alternate mixes and edits, all present on the 2013 deluxe edition), leaving the second disc as a DVD with a two-song Old Grey Whistle Test performance from 1972 and a nine-song 1972 performance at the Rainbow for the BBC. This means the Legacy has a bunch of frankly terrific live video material that the U.K. set does not, but the U.K. set has three May 1972 BBC sessions that the U.S. double disc lacks. Hardcore fans will want both but those on a budget can plan accordingly.]