Braving waves of contemptuous reviews for his seeming reproach to the unreproachable Roxy Music, the group’s unmistakable voice began a solo career in the early ’70s as an irregular sideline after Roxy’s second album, making it his vocation as the band faded into a hiatus in the early ’80s. (Temporarily, as it turned out.) A courageous groundbreaker who has long ago stopped taking grave creative risks (though not the occasional pratfall), Ferry has had far-reaching stylistic influence and continues to make sophisticated and affecting romantic music from a glossy continental pose. It’s hard to overstate how many modern singers have modeled themselves after one aspect or another of Ferry’s archly suave — yet somehow daring — style.
A brilliantly conceived shockwave against Roxy Music’s unprecedented glam-rock inventions (and, alongside Bowie’s virtually simultaneous Pin Ups, an early example of the now-commonplace covers album), These Foolish Things had the audacity to offer the rich irony of Ferry’s grandly pompous, glamorously adult interpretations of songs by an eclectic, hipoisie-defying collection of artists, from Bob Dylan and the Beatles to the Beach Boys and Kris Kristofferson. With a backing group on These Foolish Things that includes Roxy drummer Paul Thompson as well as future Roxy bandmate Eddie Jobson, Ferry croons his way through such surprising ’60s selections as “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “You Won’t See Me” and “Sympathy for the Devil.” Decades later, this warped ’70s jukebox sounds weird but wonderful, a stylistic dare that still works. Another Time, Another Place reprises the exercise, drawing on various epochs for material like “The ‘In’ Crowd,” “You Are My Sunshine,” “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Only the title song is an original.
The crooner continued to hit the covers jukebox on Let’s Stick Together, adding a bracing self-referential element by revisiting five Roxy Music songs (four from the band’s first LP). Rather than simply redoing them, Ferry tried a variety of approaches, recutting vocals, trying alternate versions or simply re-editing/remixing the original recordings. Some of these sound fine, but a funked-up “Re-Make/Re-Model” is too revisionist for words. Otherwise, the album presents a brace of neat new covers, including the wonderful title track, “Shame Shame Shame” and the Everly Brothers’ “Price of Love.” As odd as it is, Let’s Stick Together has the most great tracks of Ferry solo records. (The CD-3 EP that followed contains four album cuts, including “The Price of Love” and “Shame Shame Shame”; the subsequent 12-inch has two substitutions.)
In Your Mind, produced during a period of Roxy inactivity, is the first Ferry album on which all of the material is original and new; that results in a bland collection short of good tunes. After that, inspired by his broken romance with onetime Roxy Music album cover model Jerry Hall (the future mother of several Mick Jagger offspring), Ferry wisely split The Bride Stripped Bare (the title indicating knowledge of Marcel Duchamp’s Dada masterwork) between new originals and relevant revivals. With Ferry at his most emotionally translucent and a coterie of session pros (including Waddy Wachtel, Neil Hubbard and Alan Spenner), The Bride Stripped Bare is radically different in both construction and sound from Ferry’s prior solo records. Some of the tracks are intensely gripping (“Sign of the Times,” Lou Reed’s “What Goes On”; “That’s How Strong My Love Is”); others, like Al Green’s “Take Me to the River,” released just before the Talking Heads’ rendition, are subtler and less rewarding. A mixed success.
Ferry then devoted himself to the revived Roxy Music, not making another solo record until the mid-’80s, by which time the group had begun another long rest. When Roxy Music again ceased to exist, Ferry’s solo career took on new significance. Unfortunately, his own music is not that different from end-time Roxy Music: perfectionist studio technique and seamless production of songs that are at best bland and frequently lifeless. Boys and Girls (dedicated to Ferry’s late father) doesn’t sound that different from Roxy Music’s 1982 swan song, Avalon, but it’s so short on material that several of the numbers rely on fatiguing one-note vamps to carry them along. “Slave to Love” and “Don’t Stop the Dance” have proven to be enduring hallmarks of Ferry’s post-Roxy existence, but they don’t make the album soar. Exceptional lyrics might allow one to overlook such inadequacy, but there’s nothing much happening on that front, either. It’s impossible to dislike the album with any enthusiasm — given the considerable care, thought and effort that obviously went into its creation — but it’s dismaying to hear the iconoclastic rebel sound so tamed by the very thought of romance.
The similarly restrained Bête Noire confirms Ferry’s commitment to innocuous sophistication. That wonderful voice is his sole asset: what he’s singing is all but irrelevant. But this record’s stronger melodic development and a wider variety of danceable tempos than on Boys and Girls are palpable signs of life; the involvement of ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr as a player and the co-writer of one near-exciting song (“The Right Stuff”) is another positive touch. In the end, given one’s diminished expectations,”Limbo,” “Kiss and Tell” and “Day for Night” are coolly inviting and likable enough.
With no new music forthcoming, Ferry’s British label began issuing old/retrospective items. The Let’s Stick Together EP is available as a remix on CD-3 and CD-5 (with totally different accompanying tracks) as well as 12-inch vinyl (also different); The Price of Love, another remix, comes on CD-3 and 12-inch, both with alternate mixes of “Don’t Stop the Dance” and two additional items.
Street Life is a poorly annotated two-record career retrospective: 20 songs drawn from Roxy Music as well as solo releases, stretching from “Virginia Plain” to “Slave to Love.” Also combining Roxy and pre-Bête Noire Ferry tracks, Ultimate Collection adds a new mix of “Let’s Stick Together” to a skimpier overlapping selection. The 1989 release entitled Bryan Ferry is a boxed set of These Foolish Things, Let’s Stick Together and Boys and Girls.
Two decades after confounding fans with These Foolish Things, Ferry pulled the same trick on a new generation of listeners. Recorded quickly as a stopgap when he found himself unable to finish the record that ultimately became Mamouna, Taxi (repeating the configuration of Another Time, Another Place, placing a solitary original at album’s end) is another eclectic batch of oldies, done up to a glossy studio sheen. Lacking the context of anything stylistically contrary in his current oeuvre, however, Taxi is just a covers album, with no resonance beyond any other collection of finely wrought interpretations. The open pop architecture of Goffin/King’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and Lou Reed’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties” benefits from Ferry’s tender ministrations, but Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” and “Amazing Grace” (given an unseemly syncopated snare kick) don’t, and the contrived synth effects on “Rescue Me” are no excuse for Ferry’s soul-free mishandling of the Fontella Bass classic. (Carleen Anderson, the Houston expatriate who made her name singing with England’s Young Disciples, is the subtly featured backup vocalist on all but two tracks of Taxi; her Mamouna role is even greater. Ferry, however, is nowhere to be found on True Spirit, her 1994 solo album.)
The enormous expense, time and effort it took Ferry to bring Mamouna home is nowhere evident. This especially tiresome yupfunk exercise could easily have been titled More Boys and Girls. “Too fast to live, too young to die,” he sings in the opening couplet of “Your Painted Smile,” and that’s sadly typical of the writing’s invention. “You and me, we’re just like night and day,” he cannily observes in the title track — which at least has a catchy two-word chorus. Without even hinting at the sound of a reunion, erstwhile Roxy bandmates Phil Manzanera, Andy Mackay and even Brian Eno add touches of atmosphere to this relaxing champagne bath, but the record’s overwhelmingly soporific temper prevents their eccentric contributions from disturbing its placid surface.
As Time Goes By is a miscalculation of a different sort, but one that would be subsequently made by other aging rock lions, including Rod Stewart. Having explored the rock, pop and soul canons, Ferry takes on ’30s pop standards, positioning himself uncomfortably as a soft-voiced jazz age softie surveying a dancefloor of flappers from a bandstand of muted trumpets and mild vo-dee-oh-doh arrangements. The gimmicky production (which, thank heavens, does not employ 78 scratches as an effect) calls to mind the ’60s novelty hit “Winchester Cathedral” faster than the droll wit of Cole Porter and truly sounds like a rejected Woody Allen film soundtrack. If you must know, Ferry’s selections include “I’m in the Mood for Love,” “Where or When,” “Miss Otis Regrets” and, in the sole moment of artistic sanity, “Falling in Love Again,” which Ferry languorously delivers against a handsome combination of string quartet, harp, piano, bass and harmonium.
With that out of his system, Roxy Music unexpectedly reconvened for a spectacular 2001 tour, an experience which may have helped Ferry find his solo footing again on Frantic. Wisely returning to the scene of the crime after 30 years, he begins with a Dylan chestnut, “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” (with a fierce harmonica solo) and proceeds through an eclectic program of originals and covers, demonstrating a reinvigorated sense of purpose and place. David Stewart produced and co-wrote a chunk of the album, including the delightful Roxy clone “Goddess of Love” but also encouraging Ferry’s tendency toward vapidity and dancefloor tedium; still, positive energy and enthusiasm go a long way here. A second dose of Dylan, “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right,” sung directly over solo piano with another harp interlude, is fine, and the Drifters’ “One Way Love” is a knockout, but “I Thought,” a pleasingly melodic collaboration with Eno (he co-wrote, sings backup and plays guitar and keyboards), boasts some of the worst lyrics to ever emerge from Ferry’s larynx: “I thought you’d be my streetcar named desire…I thought you’d be that flame within the fire.” A tuxedo may convey many things, but it has never guaranteed Ferry’s safety from such slips. Bravo!
With Dylan songs cropping up throughout Ferry’s solo career, the dedication of an entire album to them was probably inevitable. What was less certain, however, was how fine a result would come of it. In fact, Dylanesque is a winner, succeeding both for its incongruity and its sympathy. There could hardly be two singers or songwriters with less evident commonality, and Ferry ups the stakes by selecting a song from each of 11 Dylan albums (including a ringer: Eric von Schmidt’s “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” which Dylan cut for his 1962 debut album). On paper, the notion of an aging 21st British sophisticate finding a compelling reason, or approach, to sing the topical ’60s vituperation of “The Times They Are A-Changin'” or the supremely personal vindictiveness of “Positively 4th Street” looks ridiculous; in their smooth, thoughtful and brisk recordings here, Ferry puts such concerns to rest by dropping the mask, the irony and the distance and simply getting on with it as if there were nothing odd afoot. Dignity, sincerity and confidence may not be the first three qualities one looks for in the execution of a rock record, but Ferry makes them work. Limited in impact by the nature of what it is, Dylanesque is by turns gorgeous (“Make You Feel My Love” and “Simple Twist of Fate”), genuinely exciting (“All Along the Watchtower”), charming (“All I Really Want to Do,” “If Not for You”) and surprisingly effective (“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”). Going all the way to a perfectly credible job on “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (could there be a more unlikely Dylan song for him to choose?), Ferry gives Dylan a convincing shot of love.