Not Bryan's Songs

Roxy Music veteran Bryan Ferry sets the way-back machine for the 1930s.

"Obviously, 'It's My Party' was done as something of a tease," he concedes, "but generally, I've always picked songs that I've really just loved. And as much as I've tried to love my own writing, I think it's been very important for me over the years to love other people's writing as well -- and usually they've been songs from an earlier time. You think, 'It would be nice to hear that song done again, wouldn't it?'" He adds that his decision to sing Foolish's title track, penned in 1936 by Holt Marvell, Jack Strachey and Harry Link, and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," a 1933 Otto Harbach-Jerome Kern effort that Ferry incorporated on his second all-covers project, 1974's Another Time, Another Place, helped inspire As Time Goes By: "I remember thinking it would be marvelous to do an album just of this material -- although it took me a long time to get around to doing it."

In the interim, Ferry and a revamped Roxy Music, with Eddie Jobson of Curved Air filling Eno's slot, returned with several first-rate albums: 1974's Stranded and Country Life, and 1975's Siren, whose jacket sported a mermaid as portrayed by model Jerry Hall. (Hall was going out with Ferry at the time, but to the probable glee of her accountants, she soon tossed him over for Mick Jagger.) Jobson left the fold in 1978, but his departure didn't hurt the band financially in the U.S., where audiences were finally catching up with the group; "Love Is the Drug," from Siren, had been its first-ever American Top 40 single. Manifesto, from 1978, and 1980's Flesh+Blood were big sellers in the States, and 1982's smoothly romantic Avalon went platinum, eventually establishing itself as arguably the premier makeout LP of the decade. Ferry continued to build up his solo roster as well, putting out 1976's cover-happy Let's Stick Together, the all-original 1977 salvo In Your Mind and 1978's ambitious The Bride Stripped Bare. After Roxy Music's post-Avalon breakup, he kept doing it for himself and was rewarded with the gold sales of 1985's Boys and Girls, which featured the seductive "Slave to Love," and the success of 1988's Bête Noire, whose track "Kiss and Tell" made the Top 40 as well. But rather than quickly following up on this breakthrough, Ferry let five years go by before offering up 1993's Taxi, perhaps the weakest of his all-covers discs. Mamouna was only moderately better; the production was as sleek as Bête Noire's, but the originals Ferry wrote for it were all pose and little substance.

And then? Not quite silence, but close. Ferry issued a few random tracks, contributing one song to the soundtrack of the John Travolta flick Phenomenon, putting his stamp on a Shakespeare sonnet for the Diana: The Princess of Wales Tribute package and singing Noel Coward's "I'll See You Again" at a charity concert commemorated on the live compilation 20th Century Blues: The Songs of Noel Coward. But for the most part, he says, he's been concentrating on an album of his own material that, as usual, is taking him far longer to complete than he'd prefer. "I'd love to think I'd have it out next fall, perhaps next October. But in the meantime, I thought it might be pleasurable to try something a little different."

Ferry at your mercy: Bryan Ferry.
Ferry at your mercy: Bryan Ferry.

Hence, As Time Goes By, Ferry's first all-acoustic album. With the assistance of sizable brass and string sections and a slew of tony instrumentalists such as bassist Richard Jeffries, Ferry employs his keening tenor and swoony vibrato against a backdrop of arrangements that are surprisingly true to this dance-friendly era: Witness "Easy Living," a Leo Robin-Ralph Rainger chestnut that Ferry doesn't enter until after more than a minute of swinging introductory playing even though the song as a whole is just over two minutes long. Equally enjoyable are an exotica-drenched "I'm in the Mood for Love," co-starring guitarist Manzanera; a woozy "When Somebody Thinks You're Wonderful"; and the delicately melodramatic "Falling in Love Again," which, like most of the songs here, is associated with a woman singer (in this case, Marlene Dietrich), not a man.

"I really don't have any male role models from the period that I can think of, so that frees me up to find my own way of singing the songs," Ferry says. "And I try to do the same with the songwriters, perhaps using a slightly different persona than might be expected -- like with Cole Porter, who I admire very much but whose songs I'd never done before, funnily enough. Generally his work is rather upbeat, witchy and elegant. But it was nice to do 'Miss Otis Regrets' [also on As Time Goes By] in a very dark and somber way. That way, I was able to bring a little of my own thing to it."

As agreeable as it can be, however, As Time Goes By is more of a curio than a full-fledged Ferry album, and if the fifty-fifty split on his current tour between songs from the new recording and favorites from his solo and Roxy Music albums is any indication, he knows it. But he's not looking back under duress. Over the past several months, his entire catalogue has been remastered by Bob Ludwig for release in Japan, and by participating in the process, Ferry says he was reminded how memorable a lot of his past work was. "The one I suppose that grabbed me the most was For Your Pleasure. I've always liked that record, but it was great to hear it sound so rich and warm again." He adds, "We're doing several of the early songs I rediscovered live -- like 'Sunset,' from the third album, which I don't think has ever been performed before. A lot of the Roxy stuff was only done on the record, never on stage. But now I have these great musicians with me who can play anything, really, so it's a real treat for me."

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