Kronomyth 1.0: THE BOGUS MINSTREL. Queen Syrenia sat in her stone chair, caressing a grecian urn of Elvis with hands loitering at the loved handles in quiet lament, when what should shake her sequined kingdom but the sound of the bard, too once beloved, being strangled in the mouth of Bryan with a why, doom-crooner of the ages. Could this be the same BF of stargazed schoolgirls, their nouveau jeans marked by late-night kneeling at the shrine of le Strand, he on whom the future so much depended like a lipstick-red wheelbarrow hauling manna over the scorched earth of meaningless sixties pop? Just as the bard’s mad prophecy ended, the wheelbarrow tips over to reveal that the Bogus Minstrel has been carefully picking up despised pieces of pop music along the way–Lesley Gore, the Paris Sisters, the Beatles and the Stones—with the intent of Heaven only knows. Ferry’s first is disturbing: “Sympathy For The Devil,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” It’s romantic: “These Foolish Things,” “Don’t Worry Baby.” It borders on being tasteless: “It’s My Party,” “Piece of My Heart.” Yet, lost in a moment, perhaps in the closing minutes, the urn falls absentmindedly from regal fingers and rolls unheard into some dusty corner, where it watches in silent envy as a new shape assumes its pedestal, one with a continental flair for trendmaking and trailblazing. Like the emperor’s new album, we adjust our tastes, convinced that Ferry’s must be the finer palate. Had we spit out “River of Salt” in haste, or missed the mystery of “I Love How You Love Me?” Or was the new king of pop merely a junk collector at heart? It still eludes me today, this enigmatic entrance. Whatever angle you’re coming from, urn for a big surprise.
The tendency to view Roxy Music as an extension of Bryan Ferry’s solo career is something I’ve never understood. There’s not a Best of Sting & The Police, David Byrne & Talking Heads or Lou Reed & Velvet Underground floating around out there, after all. This misunderstanding seems to be perpetuated by latter-day Roxy fans; the same sort of people who would ignore Roxy’s best album, Country Life, and lionize their worst, Flesh + Blood. (Cough.) However, in their defense, Ferry’s concurrent solo career with Roxy Music was never a second marriage so much as an ongoing affair, and fans have long sought to reconcile the two. Could the man who gave us “The Bogus Man” and “Triptych” really have harbored an affection for Tin Pan Alley songs? Street Life shows us that the same revisionist spirit was at work in both. Ferry’s terrifying version of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is revealed to be no less iconoclastic than “Virginia Plain” or “Do The Strand.” Splitting time between his solo and Roxy recordings in roughly chronological order, we see Ferry smoothing out the rough edges, inching toward the romantic figure he seemed to satirize in the beginning. Perhaps Bryan Ferry was always a romantic figure, since revolutionaries at their core are romantics. Choosing “Street Life” as the title track proves an interesting choice, since it’s something of a fulcrum on which his musical oeuvre rests. The song represents one of the last times that Ferry would really get his feathers ruffled (“Casanova” notwithstanding). With Siren, the balance of Roxy shifted toward romanticism, as the separation between the sincere, solo romantic (“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” “These Foolish Things”) and the trailblazing band slowly disappeared. While I would quibble with the selection (already have, in fact) and point Roxy fans to the much earlier Greatest Hits, Street Life balances the Jekyll and Hyde of Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music as well as any one disc can do. Also worth noting, the digital remastering sounds remarkably good and brings all of the dark, subtle details in the early music to light.
Bryan Ferry stuck some of his earlier, alternate takes of Roxy’s classics (which had previously appeared as B sides) alongside terrific new covers and packaged the whole thing as Let’s Stick Together. Not only does this blend together seamlessly (even though “2 HB” was recorded three years earlier), but it represents the single finest argument for Ferry’s fascination with cover material. Tracks by the Everly Brothers, The Beatles and Wilbert Harrison are never far from a sweet saxophone or guitar solo, the icing on these cool confections. But the album would have been little more than a box of creme-filled candies without the chewy interpretations of Roxy nuggets like “Casanova” (delivered here with devilish detachment), “Re-make/Re-model” and a corporeal “2 HB.” By reconciling Ferry’s work with Roxy Music alongside his solo persona as the re-visionary romantic, Let’s Stick Together offers that rare two-dimensional picture of the enigmatic artist. For my money, hearing Bryan bulldoze through “Shame, Shame, Shame” (and whip out a harmonica solo!) and melt over “Heart On My Sleeve” are indelible moments in music. Past interpretations of Bob Dylan have been challenging, the leisure suit donned for “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” et cetera impeccably tailored, but rarely has the end result been enjoyable in its own right. Let’s Stick Together is different; here, the listener can enjoy Ferry’s voice for what it is rather than what it’s not. For Roxy Music fans crossing over, this is Ferry’s smoothest ride.
Here’s proof positive that if you listen to something long enough, you learn to like it. At first, In Your Mind struck me as a disappointment (as it has many before and since); actually, a disappointment with an asterisk. With Roxy Music mort, Bryan Ferry not merely invited but rolled out the red carpet for comparisons to his former band by writing all-new material for In Your Mind. No longer cloaked under cover material, Bryan Ferry’s solo work was stacked up next to the groundbreaking music of Roxy and found wanting, causing more than a few critics to muse that the album was little more than Roxy Music lite. And initially I shared that perspective, but in the absence of anything else in Bryan Ferry’s subsequent catalog that even remotely resembles vintage Roxy, I’ve returned to In Your Mind often, looking for a glimmer of the original genius. At first, I was won over by “One Kiss,” a remarkable love song that nearly replicates the magic mood of “Heart On My Sleeve” thanks in large part to Phil Manzanera’s plaintive guitar. Next, the easy sway of “Rock of Ages” wove its magic, suggestive of Siren if less noisy. And soon I was spotting sparks everywhere: the delicious chorus on “Tokyo Joe,” the moody and exotic “Love Me Madly Again” (presaging parts of Manifesto), the cheerful cracking of Ferry’s voice on “All Night Operator.” However, that all took time; it takes a fraction of the effort to declare Let’s Stick Together the penultimate party platter, Avalon a haunting and sophisticated work, These Foolish Things a fiendish wolf in sheep’s clothing. In other words, every Bryan Ferry album requires some faith, but In Your Mind requires a lot of it. At eight songs it’s a little light, the arrangements pedestrian (relative to Roxy Music anyway), the backing band familiar but not the creative foils they could have been, and the whole thing feels like Boys and Girls minus the shiny polish. That’s my objective opinion; subjectively I’d say it’s worth picking up, since the difference between the ghost of Roxy and a pale imitation is simple semantics.
Bryan Ferry returns to the role of world-weary romantic on Mamouna, but he’s picked up some new tricks along the way, made plain in the opening moments of “Don’t Want To Know.” The electronic effects announce the singer’s intent to infuse his muse with the mix-heavy melange of ambient/techno, underscored by the participation of Brian Eno. And the Roxy reunion doesn’t end there: Phil Manzanera and Andy Mackay return on a few tracks as well. Bryan has never really shaken the ghost of Avalon, choosing instead to bring the original vision into sharper focus over the years. It’s the attention to sonic detail on Mamouna that stands out in my mind; the melodies are otherwise transparent, the vocals lovely but reduced to melancholy mumbling in spots. The guitar parts read like one of Eno’s ambient endeavors: mood guitar, atmosphere guitar, drift guitar, scratch guitar. These drift in and out of music, as do the sultry backing vocalists, found voices, and Bryan’s own keyboards. (Unlike Bête Noire, Ferry writes all the material and plays much of it himself.) It’s a remarkable world, one that wraps around you like a thick mist and offers tantalizing shapes in the shadows. And then there’s the inseparable beat, the unseen heart in this amorphous entity. At first, Mamouna is captivating, “Don’t Want To Know” and “Your Painted Smile” in particular. But, as often happens with Bryan Ferry, style and substance seem inextricable; “Mamouna” slips past like a cool breeze, “The 39 Steps” dissipates into the darkness much as Avalon’s “The Space Between.” The closing tracks shake the dust from Morpheus’ cloak to deliver scintillating sounds: the warmly rendered “Which Way To Turn,” the invigorating “Wildcat Days,” the surprising “Gemini Moon.” As the mist clears in the waning moments of “Chain Reaction,” we’re treated to a glimpse of what surely must be Roxy’s old ghost, reminded again that the two spirits dwell in the same house. For some reason, I approach these albums braced for disappointment and walk away resolute in my respect for Ferry’s artistry. If I place this behind Bête Noire, it’s by a nose at best. The two are both solid works, and I had initially expected to endorse Mamouna (downbeat mood and all), until I reflected that the disc could have been even better. It’s to Bryan Ferry’s credit that I can hold him to such high standards after all this time, but the fact remains that half of Mamouna is merely good. The other half is well worth the trip for any would-be Orpheus, a ferry ride across dark waters to where lost loves loom like shadows.
Bryan Ferry must have known he was courting disaster in some quarters when he released a second album of cover songs. Another Time, Another Place bristles with defiance, charging through a perverse version of “The ‘In’ Crowd,” nailing “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” like only Bryan can, cavorting through “Fingerpoppin’” without regard for personal appearance, and closing it all with a killer original. In the end, no one succeeds at knocking the chip off Ferry’s shoulders, although American audiences hadn’t warmed up to the singer’s solo career enough to get close. Stylistically, this album sounds like it belongs between the half poised/profane These Foolish Things and the lively rock arrangements that appeared on Let’s Stick Together. Sometimes, Ferry exorcises his old demons with noisy arrangements and intense readings, at other times he simply presents the songs in a flattering light. His take on Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe” is less subversive than his reading of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and in fact is far more accessible than Dylan’s cranky version of the classic. Elsewhere, the languid and lovely “Help Me Make It Through The Night” confirms Ferry’s status as an incurable romantic. Although his previous album covered better songs, more of Roxy Music’s manic energy shines through on Another Time, Another Place (especially on the title track, which might be the best song Ferry has written outside of the band). After you’ve exhausted the Roxy catalog, work backwards from Let’s Stick Together, then forward from In Your Mind.
Fear not Ferryphiles, Bête Noire is nothing to be afraid of. A red rose with some thorns, downbeat and moody at times, but otherwise the same immaculately conceived matters of the heart that fans would expect from the author of Boys And Girls. The primary difference between the two is the participation of Patrick Leonard, who coproduces, plays on and cowrites much of Bête Noire. Leonard’s rich, exotic landscapes share the spotlight with Ferry’s voice, here subdued but still expressive. These songs don’t represent a new chapter for Bryan, who has plied similar ground on songs like “Love Me Madly Again” (echoed in the single “Kiss And Tell”) and “Spin Me Round.” But Bête Noire does polish the image of Ferry as weary romantic to better effect than before, balanced by an energized, sophisticated backdrop of sounds. “Limbo” sets the stage perfectly, conjuring that middle world where highs and lows are abstract ideas long untasted. What follows is a mix of precise, studied dance music (“Kiss And Tell,” “Day For Night”) and murky islands of minor remorse (“Zamba,” “Bete Noire”). Leonard, who had worked with Madonna, brings some of the same high-value production to Ferry’s voice, notably on “Day For Night” and “Bête Noire.” But this is Bryan’s beast from beginning to end, masterfully restrained and yet sensual. The sharing of songwriting and Ferry’s subsequent silence should give some listeners pause, yet Bête Noire is clearly the equal of Boys And Girls; not as eager to please, perhaps, but that’s a good thing. The album is also notable for a collaboration with Johnny Marr (of The Smiths) on “The Right Stuff,” which delivers on some of that pairing’s promise.
Welcome to Avalounge (population: you). So what are you still doing here after all these years? Surely you’ve gleaned all you can from the bard’s bitter musings, so why the desire to stay in these desolate lowlands? Because some folks get stirred up by this stuff, got stirred by Roxy really, and the rest of their life is spent looking for just another high. Taxi is a cover album (the closing “Because You’re Mine” is an original), and so critics dredge up all their past prejudices when describing this album. Frankly, I’ve never seen a critic bother to differentiate between the cover albums, and Taxi is in fact a Ferry of a very different sort. Beginning with Bête Noire, a Bryan Ferry disc took pains to set the tone in the opening moments. It’s shallow into “I Put A Spell On You” that you sense what’s up his sleeve: an album of covers played from his present ‘90s perspective. Honestly, if half of these tracks weren’t already familiar, you’d just assume this was the new disc from Bryan. The trouble I had with some of his solo work was a sense that musical development went on hiatus when the covers came out, but not so here. To my eyes, I see a logical bridge between Bête Noire and Mamouna. It’s a little more playful than those efforts, including funky treatments of “Amazing Grace” (it’s better than you think) and “Answer Me.” The choices are unusual this time, from the old Velvet’s track “All Tomorrow’s Parties” (now Bryan and Nico would have been a duet for the ages) to the title track (an R&B hit for J. Blackfoot in the early ‘80s). Perhaps that diminishes the nostalgia quotient, which is fine with me. I don’t look to someone as subversive as Ferry to protect the past, and I don’t think the old heroes need a new coat of paint. Honestly, the new material haunts the same familiar places anyway, so what’s the difference if Ferry pilfers from Elvis’s songbook or from Elvis by way of Roxy? I like the original material a little better (more surprises, more freedom), so follow Mamouna and Bête Noire first, but catch up with Taxi eventually.
Avalon, as it turned out, wasn’t the last word on Bryan Ferry’s new romantic notions. Boys And Girls is in many ways even better. Ferry fusses over every detail: the sounds sparkle, the sentiments linger, the arrangements percolate to perfection. And the songs sneak up on you like hot breath on the back of your neck. At first, I was slightly disappointed with Boys And Girls because it wasn’t subversive. I had the same reaction to Let’s Dance. But with time I learned to fall in love with “Slave To Love,” “Windswept,” “Don’t Stop The Dance” and “Sensation.” It’s not the haunted palace of Avalon, but a gilded dance hall illumined by the likes of David Gilmour, Nile Rodgers and Mark Knopfler. Where Bowie was simply going through another one of his changes, Ferry had come back to claim his throne as the New Romantic King. Since the reign of Roxy The Second, bands like Simple Minds and Scritti Politti accumulated followers while Bryan Ferry faded into legend. Here, the legend returns. No one (and I mean no one) delivers a romantic line like the king. When he sighs, the flowers sigh, when he cries, the sky cries. There’s more to it than emotion, of course. Boys And Girls is impeccably arranged and unassailably intelligent. Heavier cuts like “The Chosen One” are nearly as complex as those uber-funk experiments from David Byrne and Brian Eno. For me, Avalon’s ghostworld will always be home. But Boys And Girls, immaculately conceived, is the return of the king and a reason to rejoice anew.