There were two new albums I wanted for Christmas — the Bryan Ferry and the Pink Floyd — and to my delight I got both. Others may prefer the unknown and the experimental as presents, but at this time of year I favour the pop music equivalent of a decent scarf or a new pair of slippers. The Pink Floyd we shall leave until later, on the reasonable grounds that I haven’t listened to it yet. But the new Ferry album, Avonmore (BMG), is splendid, as warm and elegant as a cashmere scarf, as perfectly snug as the fluffiest slippers. For those of us who have followed Ferry moderately slavishly for several decades, it ticks all the boxes. And what are those boxes, precisely?
It’s the same but different. We would be foolish to expect anything drastically new from one of rock’s elder statesmen, and we are not fools. Avonmore sounds a lot like his last album of original material, Olympia, and a little like all his and Roxy Music’s albums since Flesh + Blood in 1980. (What it doesn’t sound like is any of the younger, sparkier albums before that, for which critical consensus will never forgive him.) There are the same discreet rhythms, the same elegant washes of keyboard, miles over there somewhere, and because Ferry can afford the best, we have the great Marcus Miller on bass, giving the songs some very un-English groove and bite. Beyond that, there are so many guitars and guitarists you can’t even begin to make them all out. On one track, nine are listed, including Johnny Marr, Nile Rodgers and Chris Spedding. No doubt Ferry thought, well, we’ve got seven, we may as well get another two, although I note that one, David Williams, actually died in 2009. But this isn’t a guitar album, in any sense. Between them the nine make less noise than one not-very-good guitarist could with an amp turned up to 11. The devil is in the detail, and on a Ferry album there’s more detail than you know what to do with. Only Ferry knows what to do with it. That’s why he’s Ferry and the rest of us are not.
It also sounds like no one else. These multi-tracked extravaganzas, presumably recorded over many years, are as dense as much modern pop, but don’t sound anything like it. Ferry doesn’t need to worry about chart positions, and it’s been a while since the charts gave much thought to Ferry. There were some glorious songs on Olympia, but the only one I ever heard on the radio, ‘Alphaville’, didn’t chart here or in the US and only reached number 74 in Belgium. When even Walloon youth are turning their noses up at you, many old stagers might think it was time to move on, but I imagine that Ferry listens to chart music, if at all, with a Spock-like raised eyebrow and a faint air of disappointment that things should have come to this. Actually, that’s how I listen to chart music too, so I can sympathise.
The lyrics are hopeless. I have a theory that older musicians lose interest either in writing music or in writing lyrics, knowing that if they lose interest in both, the game’s up. ‘The way you look/ The way you hold me tight/ Midnight train/ Where are you tonight?’ That’s the track with nine guitarists but, curiously, no one was brought in to write some decent words. How many decades since Ferry took a midnight train? How many since he took any train?
The actual songs are as sharp as ever. Ferry’s gift as a melodist is sometimes hidden by the complexity of his arrangements, but his previous record, The Jazz Age, in which he recast his old songs for a 1920s jazz orchestra, revealed the sturdiness of those melodies, and there are one or two absolute beauties here: ‘Driving Me Wild’, ‘Lost’ and ‘One Night Stand’ in particular.
Cover versions: some work, some do not. On Olympia we had a transcendently beautiful reading of Traffic’s ‘No Face, No Name, No Number’. Here he has a go at Robert Palmer’s ‘Johnny And Mary’, which becomes unexpectedly delicate, and ‘Send In The Clowns’, which joins a shortish but eminent list of catastrophically ill-chosen Ferry covers. Why do it? To prove it couldn’t be done? To prove it shouldn’t be done? His version is not quite as embarrassing as ‘Amazing Grace’ on Taxi, although one has to say that it’s a very good try.