[25 October 2010]
Bryan Ferry’s latest release, Olympia, is glacial in the best sense of the term. In subject matter, Ferry’s work with Roxy Music could be described in the same way, but rarely did those songs offer themselves at as languid a pace as the tracks do here. Luckily, the songs are more often grand than boring.
Olympia sees Ferry reunited with such Roxy cohorts as guitarist Phil Manzanera and the legendary Brian Eno, collaborating with Ferry for the first time since 1973’s For Your Pleasure. Much like Roxy Music’s most famous album covers, this release features a supermodel, Kate Moss, as its sleeve subject. All these clues, as well as the fact that this is Ferry’s first batch of original material in eight years, should provoke even the densest Ferry fan to polish off their glitter boots in hope of a Roxy Music reunion tour. Although doing such a thing could be labeled as impulsive, more than a few moments on Olympia do evoke Roxy Music’s final release Avalon.
For this reason perhaps, quite a few critics have been claiming that Olympia sounds dated. Although this criticism is certainly valid, there are those who are so blinded by Ferry’s persona of suave lounge lizard that they can overlook such impediments. Having a persona that calls to mind terms such as “has-been” while being anything but is a mighty achievement. And Ferry has, and continues to, defy conventions, even when dabbling in the retro funk of something like this album’s “BF Bass (Ode to Olympia)”.
Other songs are far more subtle than their titles or collaborators would suggest. Olympia‘s opener, “You Can Dance”, enlists its three bassists to create a definite groove, but the final result is more a nuance than an outright wiggle. Rather than being a disco anthem, “You Can Dance” plumbs the depravity of the dance floor, coming off all the more seductive for its efforts. “Heartache By Numbers” is a collaboration between Ferry and two of the Scissor Sisters, but the song is a slow, slow burn until its stately chorus. “Shameless” makes collaborators of Groove Armada in a far more obvious, and pulsing, way.
Ferry, whose last album consisted solely of Bob Dylan covers, has always been an outstanding interpreter of other artists’ work. He makes good claim to this by including two outstanding covers on Olympia, one being Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren”, the other Traffic’s “No Face, No Name, No Number”. “Song to the Siren” has been covered by artists as diverse as This Mortal Coil and Half Man Half Biscuit, but Ferry’s rendition may best them all. Ferry’s version is a mélange of strings, whispered backing vocals, and over 20 musicians, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour included. It’s little wonder, then, that the chorus of “here I am” sounds powerful enough to blow an anchored ship halfway across the sea.
Olympia ends with a less grandiose yet equally magnificent number, “Tender Is the Night”. The tune features only one special guest—that would be Steve Nieve on keyboards—and the startling intimacy of the track makes this apparent. The song is gentle and desolate, only belying Ferry’s signature iciness with a hush of electronic dissonance around the 2:30 point. Even without these electronic twitches, such a bare song would not seem out of place on Olympia. In an album teeming with class, there is no more graceful note to end on.