The strangled guitar chord that opens Working Man’s Café recalls the intro to the Kinks’ “I’m Not Like Everybody Else,” one of Davies’s most brilliantly trapped songs. But that was 1966, and this is now (or something like it), which means his latest set of songs washes up against America in a roots-rock bottle stuffed to bursting by Nashville producer Ray Kennedy. As usual, Davies inveighs against the death of culture and the inability of a songwriter to fit in “among the retail outlets,” as he sings on the title track. Kennedy’s Music City session cats construct a dense sound that’s half British Invasion daydream and half hard-assed Texas shuffle, with Hammond organ and plenty of chiming guitars. It could have come across as professional formalism enhancing a half-assed satirist’s latest free-market nightmare, but Working Man’s Café adds lyricism to the reportage and makes itself useful enough.
“Morphine Song” finds Davies in New Orleans’s Charity Hospital, where he ended up for real in 2004 after a mugger shot him through the leg as he strolled near the French Quarter. Down for the count, he observes “Brenda the alkie” and a citizen who sports a mullet and “grooves around intensive care strutting his stuff.” It’s one of his best songs in ages. Davies sounds genuinely pained on the chorus of “Working Man’s Café,” but it’s hard to figure out exactly who he’s talking about when he sings, “Don’t you know, we were all working men”—it’s a conceit whose truth is questionable, in London or in Tennessee. Still, he displays his enormous gift for the lazy hook on “In a Moment,” where the arrangement ingeniously contrasts sections that go from minor to major, dark to light. “Everything around me’s so transitional,” Davies sings, which means he might understand America after all.