Roxy Music has not gone disco.
Roxy Music has not particularly gone anywhere else either.
Manifesto is the band’s first release since it broke up after the obligatory lousy live LP in 1976. Though far more interesting than most such sets (Who can forget the Byrds’ numbing 1973 reunion album? Who can remember a thing that was on it?), it offers only embellishments on the Roxy sound and story. The new record is a lovely footnote, but it can lead nowhere.
That sound and story deserve a footnote: both were among the most glorious and eccentric of the Seventies. The band — especially guitarist Phil Manzanera, saxophonist Andy Mackay, drummer Paul Thompson and Eddie Jobson (missing on Manifesto) on synthesizer — produced railing hard rock or smoky dreamscapes; always the musicians played with precision, individuality and intelligence. Bryan Ferry sang as if he never noticed there was anyone behind him, so lost was he in a strange, abandoned theater of heartbreak, desperate longings and general post-Great Warangst. Roxy Music made it all funny and stirring at the same time, storming through Stranded and finishing up with Siren. Siren was perhaps the most perfectly crafted album of the decade, as well as Ferry’s heart-on-his-sleeve break with the cynicism of the confused hustler’s persona he’d carried so long.
Manifesto is bits and pieces of all that. The songs ending each side fade out with real grace and leave you hanging, wanting more — drenched in a romance out of reach. “Still Falls the Rain” is a quiet, forgiving ballad in the purest Roxy style, full of tiny touches that occur only once, teasing you to wait for a repetition that never comes. Manzanera’s four little notes, almost buried in the distant band sound, underline Ferry’s emotion: those notes are as surprising as anything Manzanera’s ever played, and they carry as strong an echo. “Cry, Cry, Cry” is a horrible piece of old-fashioned soul, and yet, as “Spin Me Round” takes over and closes out the set, you forget all about the mistakes and drift away, just like Dobie Gray said you could.
So the record has its moments — moments few bands even know about — but as with the brazenly (and meaninglessly) titled “Manifesto,” they add up to little. Ferry announces he’s for the guy “who’d rather die than be tied down”; he’s rarely traded on such banality, and he mouths the lyrics as if he hopes no one will hear them. The sound may be alive, but the story is almost silent.
It’s not that Ferry has given it up. He began making solo albums long before Roxy called it a day — starting with his outrageous collection of oldies covers, These Foolish Things, and continuing through last year’s astonishing The Bride Stripped Bare — and on those LPs, the tale of a man struggling to find himself behind his mask, and a lover behind hers, goes on. It’s a tale couched in melodrama but driven by terror and compassion: what it has is the intensity Manifesto never reaches for.
Manifesto betrays no pandering to nostalgia, but on it, Bryan Ferry looks back to old loves, remembers fondly, accepts what he cannot have: he feels safe from the hope those loves stood for, from the dangers of the lust they summoned. As in “Still Falls the Rain,” this is a shining conception, and the people this state of mind calls up come to life in the music. But like Manifesto itself, such a respite can be no more than a respite, a holding action. The struggle is merely out of sight, and on Ferry’s own records, I’d imagine, that struggle will soon be back on center stage.