Decadence is nothing new in rock. The original Velvet Underground flaunted it, David Bowie exploited it, the New York Dolls seem to have sunk in it. What is different about Roxy Music, pop’s latest specialists in depravity, is the wit with which Bryan Ferry, Roxy’s guiding light and lead vocalist, evokes not only decay but also a last fling in the face of fate. To quote the opening track on Country Life, Ferry, standing on the precipice, relishes “the thrill of it all.”
Ferry approaches decadence, not through tales of self-destruction or redemption, but by depicting romance corrupted. It’s easy to moan about heroin, like Lou Reed, or trumpet the coming superman, like Bowie; the prescribed response is either shock or, if one is inured to such antics, a yawn. But to fashion an album filled, like Country Life, with relatively straightforward love songs that come out sounding like the Decline of the West is no mean feat.
It is as if Ferry ran a cabaret for psychotics, featuring chanteurs in a state of shock. The words, which speak only of l’amour, tumble effortlessly, but the Novocained lips smack of dementia. Clearly, this is not everybody’s cup of tea. Yet Roxy Music has been a sensation in Bowiephile Britain ever since their first album was released in 1972.
In the past two years, Ferry has refined Roxy’s sound, eliminating the group’s original electronic veneer, moving toward a slicker pop product. Although the group’s instrumental attack remains elemental, the basic tracks are now finely honed, without frills. Meanwhile, Ferry’s own voice, an instrument of no great dimensions, has come to mine a distinctively brittle quaver.
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Torch songs from the crypt: Perhaps that is the disquieting aspect to Ferry’s dandyism. It also explains why Roxy Music can be so hard to digest. After all, what is one to make of a grown man fluttering in a style not dissimilar to Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s on “Monster Mash,” cooing about loves lost and “these vintage years”? With Ferry at the helm, Roxy often sounds silly and pompous simultaneously; when he interpolates a German verse on “Bitter-Sweet” (“Das Ende der Welt“), the effect is merely gauche.
But even here, the pose may be intentional. Ferry oscillates unpredictably between camping it up and sounding dead serious—and when Roxy Music gets serious, they can be scary, even repugnant.
Ferry himself has mastered the role of the sallow blueblood, pitting l’amour against l’ennui. Yet as he depicts his modern “hero” in “Casanova,” the compulsive hedonist is doomed to a life of ephemeral satisfactions. In this context, the most benignly romantic lyrics can assume a threatening significance. When Ferry warbles, “All I want is the real thing/And a night that lasts for years,” the clattering guitars and drums help him transform a cliché into a desperate plea.
Eros here becomes an uncertain escape, rather than a means of fulfilling desire. As Ferry promises his partner in “The Thrill of It All,” “All the pleasure that’s surrounding you/Should compensate for all you’re going through.”* In the end, Ferry’s l’amour is reduced to an idle fantasy: Small wonder that he closes the album in a powerful hard rock stupor, babbling about his “prairie rose” in Texas. It is precisely this reduction of affection to salon masturbation that makes Country Life, like its predecessors, an album about decadence.
Thus far, American listeners have been cool toward Roxy’s brand of dissolute rock, perhaps because of the band’s pretensions. Some critics even seem to prefer Ferry’s solo efforts (These Foolish Things and Another Time, Another Place), with their bizarre recastings of such familiar oldies as “The ‘In’ Crowd.” But what is interesting about Ferry is not so much his singing (that, taken by itself, is at best a curiosity); rather it is his total conception. To date, Ferry’s chosen vehicle for that conception has been Roxy Music, not his solo ventures.
Mindful of his difficulties in cracking the American market, Ferry has designed Country Life with an eye to commercial acceptance. He may in fact have succeeded: Thanks to the glossy production and direct lyrics, Country Life makes about as accessible an introduction to Roxy Music as Ferry is likely to cut. While it may lack the dark mysteries of Stranded, 1973’s Roxy LP, the album does boast an aura of malignant lust all its own.
It’s hard to see where Ferry and Roxy can go from here, however. Although his solo trips down memory lane wear thin quickly, rumors abound that Ferry may leave Roxy to concentrate on his own career. Meanwhile Roxy Music itself, given the nature of Ferry’s posturing, risks sterility by reiterating the same themes for much longer. Despite such limitations, Stranded and Country Life together mark the zenith of contemporary British art rock.