Steadfast in Style

In the meantime, his former peers thrived. Bowie briefly became a superstar, with 1983's Let's Dance, then released a series of difficult, elusive (i.e., bad) musical experiments which certified his stature as a technological pioneer. And Eno subtly spread his influence into the mainstream by guiding records by the Talking Heads and the world's most self-important band, U2.

Last year, Roxy Music reunited for an exciting tour—though really, every reunion excites its ready audience. And Roxy fans learned that Ferry was working on a new CD with help from his old adversary Eno, who'd disdained the tour. Even seducers can exhaust their welcome, and the Roxy fans I know were skeptical that Ferry could resuscitate his genius.

The slightly misnamed Frantic sounds a lot like The Bride Stripped Bare, the grumpy, lovelorn record Ferry made in 1978 after Texas model Jerry Hall left him for Mick Jagger. It's roughed-up art-rock with spiky blue notes and some spirited harmonica solos from Ferry, who raises his voice above a sepulchral croon for the first time in ages. Half the songs are covers, including two Dylan classics: Without the youthful disrespect Ferry used to bring to reimagining others' songs, these add nothing to the legacy of either the singer or the writer.

Bryan Ferry: gentleman of leisure
photo: Jay Muhlin
Bryan Ferry: gentleman of leisure

Details

Bryan Ferry
Frantic
Virgin

Ferry's increased engagement in the music continues through the seven original songs, several of which he'll still be singing until he retires. The repetition in imagery is unmissable: In three of the songs, it's raining. (Like filmmakers, songwriters love the rain, not only because it immediately denotes sorrow, but also because it's an easy word to rhyme.) In 1979, Roxy had a song called "Still Falls the Rain," though Ferry's worldview was better summed up the next year, in the title of another Roxy song: "Rain Rain Rain."

"Why in the world are you so cruuuuuuuuel?" Ferry whimpers in the softly ticking "Cruel," only he's not addressing a lover, but the heavens that keep drenching his songs. A millionaire father of four grown children, he names the solitary figures he identifies with ("James Bond, Jackie O., Johnnie Ray, and Garbo"), and extols his sense of mission: "Nobody cares, nobody but me," with an emphasis on the drawn-out final word.

Ferry's voyage out of the British caste system, from miner's son to Richard Hamilton's ward to country squire, cost him credibility: If you identify with Garbo, you're better off shutting your mouth about it. And the glare off Roxy's glamour blinded people to the farcical humor in Ferry's work, which admits the absurdity and narcissism of heartache. He's often compared to Cary Grant for his dashing style and reserve, but the actor Ferry most reminds me of is Woody Allen.

On Avalon, that landmark of purposeful fuck music, he sings, "You must phone me—you know me/When things go wrong," like a character out of Philip Roth. Maybe it's an arriviste's pessimism; it's certainly very Old Testament. For Ferry, things are either going wrong or about to go wrong. The rain represents his internal landscape, a fretful realm of anxieties unmitigated by the Home & Garden decor that surrounds him.

And on the 1974 Roxy album Country Life, Ferry opens with "The Thrill of It All," a stiff, hedonistic stomp which he laces with ambivalent dread; at the end, as the party persists, he howls, "Oy vey!" Despite the bespoke suits, Ferry is one of rock's great neurotics. Take my trophy wife—please!

"Cruel" is a song about aging and the fear of death, punctuated by Chris Spedding's stabbing guitar solo, and, bottom line, "Goddess of Love" talks to a dead woman. Two other songs refer obliquely to movies: "Hiroshima," an imagistic whisperscape with a squawking, sustained guitar line from Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, visits Thailand, Versailles, and Berlin, turning Alain Resnais's Hiroshima Mon Amour into an ominous refrain echoed by a female chorus, and "San Simeon" opens the doors of Randolph Hearst's walled enclave. Like Citizen Kane, Ferry finds corruption within luxury. For the latter song, Ferry adapted 19-year-old lyrics written for a draft version of Roxy Music's "In Every Dream Home a Heartache," a trance-like serenade to a blow-up sex doll. It's beatless and odd—at first, Ferry seems to be singing "sinsemilla" on the chorus—and the lyrics juxtapose hints of kinky mischief with a cataloging of the mansion's design details, as lines like "walnut veneer/True reproduction" hint at a misleading facade. Ferry's topic, his only one, is "love, and all it brings," as he sings knowingly on the misty "A Fool for Love," which evokes Arthurian legend. On Frantic, he takes counsel and aid from his commercial betters, including Greenwood, Eno, and Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics, though it's done little to help sales: The week The Eminem Show opened, Ferry debuted at 189—behind even Badly Drawn Boy and Yo-Yo Ma—and the next week fell off the Billboard 200. And so what? This is a man who writes songs to a long-dead actress in the hope she might answer—why does he need the company of an audience? His question to Monroe, "What can I do?," isn't just an offer of help, it's resignation in the form of a Talmudic riddle: He can do nothing. Like all self-styled romantics, Ferry, shuttered in his castle made of cashmere, is serving a life sentence.

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