Such the jokester, that Bryan Ferry. The man hasn’t done anything remotely frantic since “Both Ends Burning” from Roxy Music’s majestic 1975 album Siren. He therefore must possess, at least, a dry sense of humor, and likely named the album so just to watch critics write opening paragraphs like, uh, this one.
While Frantic may be anything but frantic, it is easily his best solo record since 1987’s Bete Noire. However, it begs two questions: First, why are they using a picture from the Bete Noire photo sessions for the cover? (The photo was previously used on the “Right Stuff” 12-inch single) Second, and most importantly, does it mean anything that this is his best record since Bete Noire?
Let’s go back in time for a minute. Bryan Ferry had just completed a fantastic trifecta between 1985 and 1987. First was Boys & Girls, his first post-Roxy Music solo album, which had the worldwide smash “Slave to Love”. The Patrick Leonard-produced Bete Noire came out in 1987 and spawned “Kiss and Tell”, Ferry’s first US Top 40 single since Roxy’s “Love Is the Drug” in 1975. Sandwiched between the two albums was “Is Your Love Strong Enough”, featured on the soundtrack to the ill-fated Tom Cruise movie Legend and quite possibly the best song Bryan Ferry has ever written. The man was poised for a major breakthrough. And then he pulls a Keyser Soze. Like that, (blow on fingertips) he’s gone.
Well, artistically speaking, he’s gone. After all, the only things that stand in between Frantic and Bete Noire are a thoroughly forgettable covers album (Taxi, 1993), his weakest album of original material since the breakup of Roxy Music (Mamouna, 1994), and yet another covers album (1999’s As Time Goes By, a most fitting title if ever there was one). Ferry seemed to be completely tapped out, which might explain the sudden desire to reunite Roxy Music last year for a tour. The new stuff isn’t working, so let’s “reinterpret” the old stuff. Reports of red flag sightings were popping up all over the Ferry camp.
Thankfully, the tour seems to have done Ferry a world of good, bank account balances aside. Frantic has elements of his solo work while still a member of Roxy Music, as well as that classic rico suave style he has honed since Avalon, Roxy’s landmark farewell album. He may have taken the easy way out by writing only seven new originals and filling the rest of the album with covers, but a good record of half originals, half covers is certainly preferable to full-length mediocre albums of either.
The Dylan fetish Ferry’s had for ages rears up twice on Frantic. Leadoff track/cover “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” has the energy of his covers like “Let’s Stick Together” and also possesses the lean, rootsier sound from that period in Ferry’s canon. Perhaps nothing is as lean as Dylan Cover #2, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”, which features Ferry, a piano, and Ferry’s surprisingly good harmonica playing. While the reggae-tinged take on “Goin’ Down” is perfectly competent but needless, he makes up for it with a deft left-field cover of “Ja Nun Hons Pris”, written by Richard the Lionhearted, of all people. It’s 30 seconds of medieval bliss. The inclusion of the Cliff Bennett & the Rebel Rousers nugget “One Way Love” explains an awful lot of Roxy’s Manifesto album, as it sounds like an outtake from those sessions.
Ferry’s voice also sounds different on Frantic, though in an old way. He gave up the smokes thirteen years ago, and it seems his wavering tenor is starting to climb again to a range that can best be described as like Siren, but weathered. He doesn’t hit notes so much as flutter around them, and some notes he doesn’t hit at all anymore. But he puts an air of vulnerability over those ballads that belie Ferry’s uncertainty. Make no mistake, Bryan Ferry is a sharpshooter, and has taken more people to bed than even Marvin Gaye.
The real secret to Ferry’s music is not what he says so much as how he says it — the real key to any singer — and it’s that delivery that saves songs like “Goddess of Love”, an otherwise run-of-the-mill song about Marilyn Monroe (as if the world needs yet another song about Norma Jean). Ferry’s lyrics have been suspect for a while, which might explain “San Simeon”. Those lyrics were written around the same time as the Roxy classic “In Every Dream Home A Heartache”, and the music sounds like “Dream Home” run through the Boys & Girls blender. A bit odd, but oh so seductive.
For those looking for another “Slave to Love”, look no further than “Fool for Love”, which is like some lost classic from Boys & Girls, and sure to be a fan favorite. “Hiroshima” features guitar work from Johnny Greenwood, and has the paranoid vibe that comes with nearly everything touched by a member of Radiohead. The closer, “I Thought”, is a gem, a collaboration with Roxy bandmate Brian Eno that features a surf guitar break, of all things.
Frantic may play like a greatest hits album, with bits here recalling Boys & Girls and songs there echoing late Roxy, and it may rank in the middle to upper of the pack of his overall body of work. But it’s the most cohesive album he’s done in ages. Given how down and out he appeared to be, the fact that Frantic is more than half good is cause for joy.