Steadfast in Style

"Nobody cares like I do/What can I do?" Bryan Ferry warbles on "Goddess of Love," from the British singer's new album, Frantic. A bewitched plaint about Marilyn Monroe, the song first depicts her in familiar terms as glamorous but lonely, then addresses her directly, offering courtly companionship.

There's no reason to believe Ferry's pledge of unmatched concern. Singers, like all seducers, are liars. To woo audiences, they disguise their voices, stretching into unnatural, Olympian high notes, or vow that their changeful emotions will survive eternity. Singers are the used-car salesmen of the arts. Often, they can't even recognize their own lies.

In the pantheon of rock, though, it's true: No one cares like Bryan Ferry does. In an era of shape-shifting, he is music's last monogamist. No, he's like a nun, steadfast and obedient to the Order of Eternal Brokenhearts, ministering to the lovesick strays of a musical Calcutta, where every back alley is a boulevard of broken dreams. Nor is Ferry trying to disguise his thematic repetition: On the new record, "A Fool for Love" and "One Way Love" immediately recall two of his best-known songs, his minor 1985 hit "Slave to Love," and "Love Is the Drug," the closest thing Ferry's former band Roxy Music had to a hit before breaking up in 1983.

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

The irony is, Ferry was a master of shape-shifting 30 years ago. The son of a Newcastle miner, he grew up adoring American r&b and blues, a fixation common to that generation of young Brits. But where Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart loved the rough roar of manly Muddy Waters, Ferry preferred misty girl groups like the Shirelles, and their anxious hit "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow." That adoration seems almost to have guided the development of his voice, a fruity baritone he pushes into a high vibrato to show tenderness.

Roxy Music, the magnificent band he founded in 1972, looked like a gang of drag queens and sounded like the future. A morning-after smear of mascara and synthesizers, European art-song and Motown cheer, they proved that men in off-the-shoulder leopard-skin tops could be taken seriously.

Ferry had trained at Newcastle University's art school under the preeminent pop-art painter and theorist Richard Hamilton—a man who had himself been thrown out of art school for being too iconoclastic. Eight years before Ferry enrolled, Hamilton debuted his epochal collage, Just what is it that makes today's home so different, so appealing?, an exaltation of post-war industrial culture, from Hollywood spectacle and girlie magazines to science-fiction tales and ad campaigns.

Like Andy Warhol, Hamilton studied the architecture of fame. "In the case of a commodity like toothpaste or cosmetics the package is of greater importance than its contents in influencing the purchaser," he wrote presciently. "In its efforts to gain and hold the affection of the mass audience a product must aim to project an image of desirability as strong as any Hollywood star." When most art pros still derided design as a tawdry craft, Hamilton praised it as art: "Style is the projection into form of a well-defined attitude," he taught.

Roxy Music, named for a movie theater in Ferry's hometown, had style for miles: The group's peacock-feathered keyboardist, Brian Eno, quickly developed a cult following so large, acolytes would shout his name during Roxy concerts, which rankled Ferry, who wrote and sang the group's songs. After two LPs, Eno left for a solo career, releasing briny albums of art-pop and inventing ambient music.

With each new record, Ferry debuted a new persona—a dinner-jacketed matinee idol or a jackbooted soldier—immediately imitated by British teens. Ferry was the most handsome man in rock (and even more handsome in person than in photos): Rumors persisted that he would be chosen as the next James Bond. Through the '70s, when Roxy ruled hip England, he staged an unspoken competition with David Bowie, 16 months his junior: When Ferry released a solo album of cover songs in 1973, Bowie quickly answered with Pin-Ups, a similar record; when Roxy moved into disco, Bowie soon followed with "Fame" and "Young Americans"; eventually, Bowie even hired designer Antony Price, Ferry's old friend, to make stage costumes. If Ferry had put on the brakes, Bowie would've broken his nose.

Roxy Music recorded eight albums in 10 years. They toured without conviction—a notorious perfectionist, Ferry took to the road like a whale would—which limited their sales. They have only one million-selling album, their swooning swan song Avalon, released in 1982, just as their glamorous influence was emerging in the splashy teen music of Duran Duran. But Avalon made no effort to assert Roxy's avuncular stature: Instead, the music seems made in the image of cigarette smoke, full of soft blue colors, alluring and hazy. Almost comically, Avalon is a notorious seduction aid, the musical equivalent of Spanish Fly: Any bachelor who plays it risks announcing his depraved intentions in neon letters, ALL CAPS.

Post-Roxy, Ferry focused on solo albums, which he'd begun making in 1973. Mostly, he created variations on Avalon, with increasing fussiness, adding paint to the canvas until detail became the whole of the composition. He recorded cover songs as a respite from writer's block. He hired the most expensive bassists and drummers in the world, often several at a time. On one particularly dire record, 1994's lifeless Mamouna, he used 112 musicians. His records were luxurious, exact, distant; Ferry was like a lover who wants to kiss just to develop his technique. His audience seemed to dwindle to a few hundred sophisticates living in Bel Air or Montserrat, his publicity limited to magazine photo spreads with wife Lucy Helmore, the convent-educated daughter of a prominent financier. Last year, he inadvertently made the front page of The New York Times, when his flight from London to Nairobi was hijacked by a mental patient who turned the plane's nose to the ground in a 10,000 foot dive. Amid the chaos, Ferry's hair was perfect.

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.

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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