The act of looking back to simpler, happier times, to times fondly remembered, to snapshots taken by one’s mind and brought to the fore by photographs arranged as artifacts of a life gone by is the subject at hand in Ray Davies’ “Picture Book,” a bouncy, wistful song that appears on the Kinks’ November 1968 album, The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society.
Wistful, perhaps, because the happy, peppy tune belies the almost tossed-off intent of the lyrics. In the song, an older person, thumbing through a picture book, is spying snapshots of his life, of his mama, his papa, of him in his birthday suit, on vacation, as a baby–days when happiness prevailed. He’s reliving “those days when” he was “happy, a long time ago.”
This person is gazing at photos in a “picture book of people with each other, to prove they love each other…” Implying that they weren’t sure? Or they weren’t in love in the present? Are the people in the pictures unsure of their bond? And what of being “happy, a long time ago”? Is he not happy now? One can certainly look back with fondness on the past, on that day at the beach or that time when junior hit his first home run in his little league baseball game, and attach an associated moment onto the memory that saddens it–weighs it down just enough to elicit a tenuous sigh.
Drums strong and definite in the mix, the joyous song glides along with a smile on its face. Kicking off with a strong drum bounce and followed by an ascending acoustic guitar line (softening the sounds) and harmony lead vocals, “Picture Book” asks the listener to think of himself getting old, sitting “by the fireside a-pondering on” and looking at snapshots of days gone by. And after the various particular visions are thumbed through and the second-to-last chorus comes along, the song’s entire notion almost gets tossed aside with a well-placed a-scooby-dooby-doo.
Further obscuring “Picture Book”‘s suppressed subtext, the song was used as the soundtrack for an HP Digital Photography commercial (during which a guy fiddles with photo printouts as they turn into frames that he pulls over his head), giving a whole new meaning to the lyrics which, in this clever presentation, was buy an HP digital product. Get that out of your head, will you?
Dual meanings have been a staple of pop songs for the longest time. Mixing minor chord melodies with happy, poppy choruses is a tried and true method of getting a point, or points, across. But here, in “Picture Book,” one of the greatest of the early-to-mid-period Kinks songs, the point offered is happy memories stalled in the past can sometimes be looked back on when maybe being not so happy in the present. And in the future? Well, there must be a Ray Davies song that encapsulates that bit of looking ahead.
Alan Haber | March 3, 2014