Bringing along a few old friends, Bryan Ferry returns to form, crafting a sophisti-pop masterpiece.
Always sonically adventurous and seemingly ahead of the curve by leaps and bounds, it’s slightly jarring to hear Bryan Ferry jump on anyone’s bandwagon. After all, this is the same guy who, for his last album, released a set of covers of songs made famous by the group in which he made his name (Roxy Music) done in the style of early 20th century jazz titled, appropriately enough, The Jazz Age. So to hear him revisit a style he virtually popularized, that of sophisticated pop, in the wake of Daft Punk’s massive success utilizing a similar format on last year’s Random Access Memories seems a bit reductive, until you realize that he’s been putting out albums just like this for quite some time.
For Ferry, the release of Avonmore serves more as a statement of purpose, a reminder that musically he’s been here before (and for some time), both with Roxy Music and solo. Then, as now, he is just as capable of playing with the best of them, putting out sophisticated pop music that transcends the zeitgeist and carries with it a timelessness that gives it a lasting appeal and influence.
From the cover image on down, showing a mid-period Ferry looking pensive and, for lack of a better term, the picture of sophistication, Avonmore refuses to be date-stamped, instead functioning wholly out of time, incorporating both contemporary and retro notions of sophisti-pop songcraft. Without any sort of time sensitive material or styles present, Avonmore carries with it the sound and feel of an album that could have been recorded at any point within the last thirty years or more. In fact, lacking any contextual clues, one would be hard pressed to accurately date the material here, save the fact it’s origins lie somewhere in the later decades of the 20th century.
And given the mainstream’s embrace of all things nostalgic and ‘80s, Avonmore, while not a straight cash-grab, functions perfectly within the current crop of retro-minded performers looking to mine territory previously excavated by Ferry. With this, Avonmore serves as a reminder that he’s been here before and is still more than capable, at nearly 70, of turning out sophisticated pop music that sounds utterly timeless while still monitoring the pulse of current and perceived future musical trends.
Utilizing ace backing musicians doesn’t hurt either. With his newly-heightened profiled in the wake of Random Access Memories’s success, guitarist Nile Rodgers seems to be cropping up nearly everywhere as of late. But a quick look through Ferry’s back catalog shows the two having collaborated almost thirty years ago on Ferry’s Boys and Girls. Even former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, who just released a solo album and co-writes a track here, has appeared on record with Ferry before, being enlisted shortly after his former band’s dissolution in 1987 for Bete Noire.
Bass virtuoso Marcus Miller, having also appeared on Girls and Boys, here returns to the fold, providing gloriously fluid and tastefully funky basswork throughout the album. Never once relying on the fussy slap style for which he’s largely become known within the world of contemporary jazz, Miller instead employs his highly sympathetic, melodic approach utilized during innumerable pop and R&B sessions in late ‘70s and early ‘80s.
With these particular players backing him up, Ferry seems to be attempting his own take on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories formula for success. But instead of enlisting relics from a bygone era to pay homage to influences, Ferry selects musicians within whom he has an already established rapport who just happen to, in 2014, be as relevant as they were nearly thirty years ago when first utilized. While it makes sense given the prolific nature of Rodgers and Miller as session players in the ‘80s, Ferry’s use of both shows his foresight and sophistication with regard to how and with whom he creates.
Aping the basic ideas of Daft Punk’s omnipresent dance funk smash “Get Lucky”, the title track is clearly aimed at replicating a very specific feel with Rodgers’ funky, highly-rhythmic guitarwork driving the song. While the groove, aided by Miller, is certainly there, the hook isn’t nearly as massive. Nor is it meant to be as this is not big, obvious music. Rather it focuses more on the nuances of the performers and the sophistication of the material itself. Able to appeal to the lowest common denominator on the dance floor, “Avonmore” also holds a great deal of appeal for those who prefer more substance in their pop music.
Despite nearing 70, Ferry refuses to vocally betray on record his advancing years, instead sounding much as he has throughout the majority of his career. Only on the Marr-penned “Soldier of Fortune” and Stephen Sondheim standard “Send in the Clowns” does he begin to sound his age. But even these moves seem calculated and an appropriate interpretation for the lyrics themselves, adopting a persona that feels lived in and in keeping with each song’s thematic material.
With a spate of new material, the only real retread here is Ferry’s take on Robert Palmer’s “Johnny & Mary”, a collaborative effort with Todd Terje that appeared on the latter’s excellent It’s Album Time, an album itself beholden to Ferry’s sophisti-pop legacy. It’s a somewhat odd move, having been released earlier in the year, but proves a fitting end to Avonmore’s sadly brief running time.
Ultimately, Avonmore functions as a well-deserved victory lap for both Ferry and those he’s assembled, triumphantly returning to relevance and reminding listeners he’s been doing this since the ‘70s. It’s just taken this long for the mainstream to catch up with where he’s been all along.