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Bryan Ferry gets Frantic

Bryan Ferry opens his stunning new Frantic (Virgin) with a cover of Bob Dylan’s "It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue," a counter-intuitive choice that, from the opening bass line, takes on a cosmic rightness. You wouldn’t expect Roxy Music’s suave former frontman to have much in common with the ragamuffin early Dylan. But keep in mind: Ferry opened 1973’s These Foolish Things (his first solo album) with a faux soul version of "A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall." And three decades later, there’s nothing fake about his take on Dylan. If the original "Baby Blue" was a howl, and Van Morrison’s 1966 cover (with Them) was pure moody menace, then Ferry’s is raucous bash ’n’ pop: all stomping backbeat, slide guitars, and Ferry testing his lung capacity on harmonica. Had Roxy Music been incubated in a Tennessee roadhouse and not at a British art school, this is probably how the band would have sounded.

Yet there’s no glib way to talk about Roxy. The band’s first incarnation was fueled by the volatile chemistry between Ferry, an elegant songsmith with a endless thirst for pop and R&B, and his doppelgänger, Brian Eno, a visionary who preferred strange textures and musical dissonance. At their best, as on 1973’s For Your Pleasure, they channeled European and Hollywood glamor by way of arty, post–Velvet Underground noise much the way the Rolling Stones had harnessed gritty American blues a decade earlier. Roxy were progressive without pretension: Ferry always looked better in a suit and tie than he did, say, emerging from dry-ice fog in a Yes-style cape before plunging into a 28-minute song suite. Likewise, the band were glammy without being trashy, and never as flashy or startling as David Bowie. When Eno left, in 1974, Ferry’s sensibility predominated as Roxy moved through the art nouveau disco of 1979’s Manifesto to the majesty of their swan song, 1983’s lush and luscious ambient-dance masterpiece Avalon — an album responsible for the conception of thousands of children over the last 20 years.

Since These Foolish Things (Virgin) the now 56-year-old Ferry has released 11 albums. Two years ago, he checked in with As Time Goes By (Virgin), a collection of ’30s- and ’40s-era chestnuts like "The Way You Look Tonight" and "As Time Goes By" that proved disappointing. You always knew he was born to wrap that quivery, whispery voice — one of the most easily recognizable in pop — around a collection of standards. But the result was inert. His impeccable taste had outstripped his talent.

That misstep only makes Frantic more of a joy. There’s no defining sound on the album; instead, Ferry’s flawless, pragmatic good taste finds its own equilibrium. Like a sailboat in a storm, he always rights himself. He reads "Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right" as a piano ballad, throwing light into crevices of the song that Dylan’s version only implied. And then there’s that Voice: you can practically hear the curlicues and serifs hanging off the words. His version of Don Nix’s "Goin’ Down" is a smoldering, three-chord Memphis blues filtered through Avalon-era Roxy, complete with spidery guitar work from Mick Green and David Williams. His reference points are broad. A mediæval-fair riff from "Ja nun hons pris," which is said to have been written by Richard the Lionheart, introduces the power ballad "A Fool for Love." Elsewhere, Ferry does a spot-on version of Leadbelly’s bar-room standard "Goodnight Irene," with some killer fiddling by Ken Smith.

But the real payoff here is on the originals. The astonishing "Goddess of Love," a tribute to Marilyn Monroe written with ex-Eurythmic Dave Stewart, is one of the most perfectly realized songs of Ferry’s career. With melodic and lyrical allusions to the Velvet Underground’s third album ("Marilyn says/I’ve got nothing to wear tonight"), the tune soars and dips on top of a frothy guitar-cum-synth-pop arrangement that’ll make you nostalgic for 1986. Eno shows up as writing collaborator, guitarist, backing vocalist, and keyboardist on the lovely "I Thought," a delicious pop confection with the kind of sweet, offhand music-hall melodicism and wit that used to be Ray Davies’s bread and butter ("I thought you’d be my streetcar named desire"). And the shadow of Roxy hovers everywhere. Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood shows up to repay his band’s considerable debt to them on "Hiroshima," a busy, bleeping chunk of cosmopolitan art rock that would have sounded equally at home on Roxy’s early releases and on Radiohead’s OK Computer. "San Simeon," a creepy, gothic meditation on William Randolph Hearst’s vulgar castle, picks up where Roxy’s "In Every Dream Home a Heartache" left off in 1973.

You get the feeling Ferry’s been saving up this album. If he’s undoubtedly a peer of Bowie, and a progenitor of "cool" middlebrow singer-songwriters like Sting, he’s also making a case to be considered along with one-of-a-kind stylists like Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison, and Tom Waits. Frantic seems conclusive evidence.

Issue Date: May 30 - June 6, 2002
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