hy the God of Love yielded to an irresistible urge to cover more songs by the God of Song is less a mystery than an inevitability. Bryan Ferry may dress better than Bob Dylan, and probably plays better piano too, but like his idol he understands the paradoxical demands of a great cover: subsume your personality yet don’t ever let your audience forget who’s singing. Re-listen to Ferry’s 1973 version of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Although Ferry transforms the original’s plodding accumulation of nightmarish images into what Robert Christgau called “high camp” that nevertheless “reaffirms its essential power,” there’s also a sense in which the impending doom Dylan evokes seems more terrifying when barked by a singer who sounds like a masculinized drag queen alternately charmed and nonplussed by the sound effects and girl backup vocals. The ironies are telling: it's a hard rain, alright, if a singer this grotesque can get away with this farrago.
“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is the greatest cover in rock history, as scary and wondrous now as it ever was. No one expects Ferry to wrinkle his pants any more—no one expects an exertion of any sort—but we do demand, even through the velour, flashes of vulgar wit, of the kind he showed on 2002’s cover of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” How sad then that Dylanesque resigns itself to being merely a better-sung, better-played Bete Noire, an album committed to irrelevance and Ferry’s sui generis conflation of pedigree and competence. To be fair, you try wringing something worthwhile out of “All Along the Watchtower” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” in 2007. He does better with a glacial "Gates of Eden," on which his talent for languor infuses every line with a sinister preemptoriness; for once the space between Ferry and his boring band is committed, not unintentional. They also alchemize the vitriol of "Positively Fourth Street" into something approaching pique—the only emotion Ferry understands in 2007. You suspect that Ferry insults the hapless target of Dylan's barbs because she had the misfortune to attack his fashion sense (one glance at the album cover and you'll think she had a point), so one wonders why his version doesn't go far enough.
Ferry's in an enviable position. Tiptoeing daintily past one contemporary trend after another, extending polite hauteur to his followers, he's free of any ties. No other artist from his generation can rally his powers for some kind of autumnal triumph. It's clear that the contemporary pop landscape frightens him; that's why returning to Dylan provides a little succor. That Dylanesque finds him unfit to a task his own idol—as equally repulsed by Modern Times—succeeded in transcending makes me worry about his future.