Given the average age of the readership of this site it wouldn’t be surprising to find that some readers most readily think of Bryan Ferry as that former M&S model who covers Bob Dylan songs all the time, rather than the front man for one the most important and influential British bands of all time. In comparison we can we can see Brian Eno’s influence in any number of DiS-friendly bands (just see the 'Children of Eno' section of our Sean’s 6Music takeover). Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Bryan Ferry’s solo output is that for a fellow of such eclectic and cultured taste, he hasn’t done anything terribly original since the New Romantic masterclass of Roxy Music swansong Avalon in 1982. Olympia, his first album of original material since 2002’s Frantic, doesn’t break that mould either; the likes of Tim Buckley cover ‘Song To The Siren’ with its synthetic claves and fug of warm synth strings would sound entirely at home on Avalon; likewise the ponderous piano chords and muted guitar atmospherics of ‘Me Oh My’. Yet, were it not for Ferry’s breathy tremulous voice these songs wouldn’t be distinctively the work of one the greatest British frontmen of all time.
Paradoxically, despite being the biggest stylistic throwback on the record, ‘Song To A Siren’ is also something of a highlight, Ferry’s voice at its most graceful, and for an artist who has spent most of his career playing with notions of artifice, he instils Buckley’s words with impressive emotional gravitas. However, the same song also emphasises the generic nature of the record. Apparently five different guitarists appear on the song with guest appearances by luminaries as disparate as Jonny Greenwood, Dave Gilmour, Nile Rodgers and Roxy guitarist Phil Manzanera. Typically the problem that would arise from such a cast would be a lack of cohesion, yet Olympia suffers from quite the opposite problem; nobody really leaves their stamp on the record at all, in fact they might as well be session musicians. Opening track ‘You Can Dance’ is similarly excessive as far as guest musicians are concerned, featuring no less than three bassists, namely jazz musician Marcus Miller, Mani and Flea. The impressive bass work is certainly central to the song's charm, giving vitality to a mid-paced, lecherous swagger draped in aureate guitar finery and velvet smooth keyboards. Lyrically it recalls the collage of American culture that ‘Virginia Plain’ was, but given a continental European twist, so as well as going “From Reno down to Vegas” where “Casinos never close“ we’ll “…hitch hike into Paris/We’ll zig zag by the Seine”.
Ferry still occasionally betrays his art-rock collage past. Perhaps in something of a Francophile mood, there’s the Godard-inspired ‘Alphaville’(“Nobody knows you’re here, deep undercover”), the noir-ish mood rendered here in husky vocals and wispy white funk with an instrumental passage that’s a nod to the phased treatment frequently utilised by Eno and the first two Roxy records. Once pioneering, it just sounds dated now. It comes as no surprise that Ferry should also name a song after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night (mainly set in France also) given the image of 'privilege' he has always projected. It’s hard to hear the nocturnal piano gradually being uncloaked by ebbing synth washes and not imagine Ferry in bespoke tux, cocktail in hand, looking wistful on a moonlit balcony. He certainly saves the most beautiful song for last.
Yet these moments of intrigue and quality are isolated. Everything else sounds dated and, well, just sort of beige. ‘Me Oh My’ and ‘Reason Or Rhyme’ are purportedly more thoughtful in mood, but fail to transcend their retrogressive stylings, with the latter track burdened by an overlong and listless instrumental passage. ‘Heartache By Numbers’ isn’t even the car crash of tastelessness you’d suspect a collaboration with the Scissor Sisters could be, instead sounding like a cast-off from Brandon Flowers’ solo record, the heavily reverbed synthetic handclaps and (what is surely) Flea’s trebly bass fumbling particularly gauche. ‘BF Bass (Ode To Olympia)’ bears an unfortunate resemblance to ‘Do the Bartman’, while ‘No Face, No Name, No Number’ has Ferry spouting platitudinous nonsense over middle-of-the-road wah-pedal twiddling. I could go on, but the fact of the matter is that Bryan Ferry has produced another album of inessential middle-of-the-road cosmopolitan adult-pop. The only difference is that this time they are his own songs.
5Neil Ashman's Score