Sean Nelson (Harvey Danger) Talks Bryan Ferry’s Avonmore

On an album that’s far better overheard than scrutinized, the iconic art-rocker proves he still has art to make.

When I finally got real about diving into Roxy Music, I’d had the benefit of a few false starts — reconciling the sound and logic of Bryan Ferry’s outré early vocal mannerisms was not exactly reflexive — as well as a lifetime of rock-critic Virgils to help me internalize their mythos and steer me toward a truly personal connection with the band. That connection has deepened into a lasting and passionate love for the first five records, a growing affection for the later ones, and an almost certainly annoying tendency to evangelize them to friends who refuse to surrender to the same epiphany I had when Country Life finally revealed itself to me as both a masterwork and a master key that unlocked all their other treasures. The more I cracked the band’s code, the more enigmatic their relationship with standard-issue rock & roll modes and meanings became. Their style-and-substance dialectic reveals more resonant truths about the inner life than a lot of more obviously “sincere” music that came both before and after them. Dealing in surfaces and ironies, as they clearly did, didn’t prevent them from sounding some awfully deep notes.

Bluntly speaking, I have failed to locate the same metaphysical plangency in Ferry’s solo material. Absent the revolutionary creative menagerie of the band — and yes, it was obviously a band, but even Eno will tell you which Bryan was the captain — solo Ferry seemed to be just, you know, an incongruously beautiful lead singer using his band’s downtime to step out as a pop star. The gulf between the group aesthetic and Ferry’s weird versions of other people’s great songs was vast. In Roxy Music he sang like he was making fun of all singing while also flagrantly relishing his own wrist-flip insouciance — ace critic Douglas Wolk called this “blurring the line between romantic and ‘romantic’” — but he could also find genuinely powerful emotional depths in songs like “A Really Good Time” and “Just Another High.” He sang in the same fabulist style on his early solo records, but seemingly with lower purpose, and less durable results. In applying himself to covers that had originally been inscribed with earnest conviction, the smile embedded within the sneer sounded more like a smirk. Was it novelty? Tribute? A retroactive deconstruction of pop history in keeping with Roxy’s demolition of its present? My fear is that it was just him loving songs he obviously loved in his own British art-schooly way, which, for good or ill, made it hard to tell if he was mocking them too.

The dialogue between diffidence and cynicism was in keeping with the times — his famous 1974 cover of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” wasn’t radically different from the version Dylan was playing on stage in the Rolling Thunder Review. And I can never decide what to make of his version of “Jealous Guy.” Still, the non-Roxy records he made while the band was still active remain difficult for the pattern-seeking, puzzle-solving, narrative-needing part of my fan-brain to reckon with.

Of course, nowadays it’s a different matter, because Roxy Music is 30 years gone, and Bryan Ferry is an icon of a certain age whose legacy and looks are both strikingly well-preserved. Tory political evolution and obeisance to the fashion industry aside, Ferry the physical specimen has aged better than nearly everyone in his profession, and in nearly any other profession too. I mention this because his indefatigable handsomeness is a key ingredient of his musical identity — with the arguable exception of a brief mustache dalliance, he’s had the good sense never to interfere with it. Since the ’80s, Ferry’s music has increasingly sounded like an effort to provide the apposite soundtrack to his irony-free suavity, with a dolorous sheen at the edges of his deft, expensive sound. When he nails it (most of Avalon, obviously, but elsewhere too), he really nails it, but when he doesn’t, the melancholy feels disingenuous, sort of like when you’re supposed to muster sympathy for Frank Sinatra over Ava Gardner. We all know suffering is relative, but Bryan Ferry being all-the-way sad is hard to feature.

His new album Avonmore is a perfect case study in the depths and shallows of late Ferry. In some ways, the record is a sure-handed continuation of 2010’s supposed-to-be-a-Roxy-reunion-record Olympia. The tracks are expertly assembled, and punctuated with cameos by an all-star cast, including Johnny Marr, Nile Rodgers, Flea, Mark Knopfler, Maceo Parker and Ronnie Spector. If you’re not looking at a fact sheet while you listen, it can be difficult to identify their individual contributions, but in that precise way, the guest list says plenty about the album’s textural mélange. Try to add up the characteristic sounds you associate with all those disparate players and the traditions they represent, then divide the sum by the imperturbably dapper host smoldering by the microphone. If you’re on its side going in, you can find a lot of pleasing moves, but like a lot of Ferry albums, Avonmore is far better overheard than scrutinized. The opening duet of “Loop De Li” and “Midnight Train” offers a one-two feint of mellow, groovy caucasoid funk that wouldn’t feel out of place on the soundtrack of a late-’80s Adrian Lyne film. Sharp hooks, moody downtown atmosphere, but not the kind of nightclub you’d care to linger in. Likewise with “Soldier of Fortune,” co-written by Marr, which feels like an effective heartbreak song, until you notice the words. “I’m a soldier of fortune,” Ferry whispers, “ambassador of pain/I had the world on a string/and I threw it all away.” Blur your vision hard enough and you can almost frame the use of heroic cliché as a knowing gesture toward a torchy, wee-small-hours pop lineage. But if you look closely, the heartache becomes unconvincing. The middle of the album is strong and kinetic, with seductive beats and vocals mixed low enough that their subtle melodies and rhythmic cadences register as suggestions, not commands — like a conversation with a captivating stranger whom you can’t quite hear over the din of a party.

Avonmore’s truly audacious turn comes in the form of a show tune. In the context of Broadway, Steven Sondheim’s “Send In the Clowns” (from A Little Night Music, 1973) is a perfect organism that practically reaches into your skull and throttles your tear ducts. Outside of musical theater, the song represents a blindfolded tightrope-walk over the abyss of bathos when essayed by even the most committed vocalist. Giants from Sinatra to Sarah Vaughan to Grace Jones have given “Send In the Clowns” their all and still come up mawkish. Bryan Ferry, of all people, plays it miraculously straight, harmonizing with himself over a gently dancey pop arrangement that straightens out Sondheim’s rhythmic complexities and steers well clear of the wide-eyed emotive posturing most singers who tear into this song live to strike. He almost shrugs it off, the way you might nod coolly when you unexpectedly bump into the former love of your life on the street. By eliding the lugubrious emotional moisture the song leads you to expect, by letting it be an album track instead of a lachrymose showstopper, he delivers the album’s most affecting moment.

People love to employ the phrase “return to form” when describing artists like Ferry, who manage to hang around long enough to enjoy multiple vogue phases and still make an effort. But this cover of a song I love and hate equally, simultaneously, was a clear demonstration that Ferry — whom I find I can only love, even if I’m not so crazy about this or that album, or even this or that decade — still has art to make after more than 40 years of headlining. It also sent me to the record shelf, not to pull out Country Life and Stranded, as I did after finally seeing him play live earlier this year (p.s.: it was fantastic), but to dust off These Foolish Things and The Bride Stripped Bare. Bryan Ferry always merits another listen.

Sean Nelson is a writer, musician, and actor. His solo album, Make Good Choices, is available on Really Records. He is an editor at The Stranger. He currently lives in Seattle. You can follow him on Twitter here.