Bryan Ferry
Frantic
Virgin
2002
A-

disappointed fans regularly recite the familiar notion that Bryan Ferry essentially dried up artistically following Roxy Music's first five classic albums, give or take a few interesting records in the late 1970's. And on the basis of the recorded evidence, they'd be right to think so. While the finely layered smoochfests of Avalon and post-Roxy Boys and Girls may have sold boatloads of Brie and Merlot, they only enhanced the sense that the lascivious and brilliant swinger that gave the world “Re-make/Remodel,” “In Every Dream Home A Heartache” and “Love Is the Drug” had been swallowed whole by the treacly windblown romantic that had always lurked dangerously beneath the surface. The undisputed prototype of the modern, British voice in popular music— not to mention his status as perhaps the primary influence on David Bowie— was reduced to overseeing a series of lush soundtracks for bored housewives watching E!.


Of course, with hindsight, the Nineties did witness a minor, if hesitant, infusion of energy into the old smoothie's repertoire, though little of it made it onto record. Taxi (1993) and 1994's Mamouna confirmed that writer's block continued to plague Ferry, with the former a collection of largely uninteresting and overproduced covers while the latter found him searching in vain for inspiration of any kind. Only a brief songwriting reunion with fellow Roxy-alum, Brian Eno, hinted at even the faintest spark whilst toiling in the studio.


Instead, it was Ferry's live performances that reinvigorated him, drawing him back to the same energy which had infused early Roxy Music. This began with the Mamouna tour in 1995, where “Dream Home” and “Drug” resurfaced, with Ferry making minor waves in the British press as he recalled his fondness for the first two, Eno-fied records of Roxy's (which he had disdained following the pair's mutual parting of the ways in 1973). Indeed, a tour in late-'99 featuring radical orchestral re-workings of Roxy songs from records such as Country Life only confirmed his growing interest in revisiting the older material, leading to a full-scale and critically-lauded Roxy Music reunion tour in 2001. Far from a courtly stroll down memory lane, those lucky enough to attend the shows (sadly, not I) were reportedly treated to something quite special.


And on the evidence of Frantic, the 57 year-old Ferry's first collection of (mostly) original material since 1995, the spark of the live dates helped Ferry revisit the intensity and a bit of the long-lost visceral weirdness of his most classic work, albeit somewhat more refined and mature than we may remember. The sense of rediscovery is immediately apparent in opener “It's All Over Now, Baby Blue,” one of two sparkling Dylan covers, which jumps out of the speakers with the vigor of a man a third his age. The same goes for follower, “Cruel,” in which Ferry returns to the vaguely broken (and decidedly un-PC) syntax he employed on classics like “Virginia Plain” and “Tokyo Joe” so many years ago, with melodic twists and surprises to boot.


The queasy “Hiroshima...” its bleak sci-fi imagery augmented by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood and what sound like Japanese schoolgirls on the chorus, only confirms the sense that the disengagement that had plagued Ferry for so many years has all but dissipated. Amidst forbidding atmospherics and sweeping melody, even the worrying songwriting presence of Eurythmic Dave Stewart can't spoil the affair.


But beyond the rejuvenated songwriting, perhaps the most significant rebirth on Frantic is the return of Ferry's uniquely fascinating lyrical imagery, something he hasn't done this well since Roxy Mark-1's masterpiece/swansong, Siren. Saturated in washed-out Hollywood glamour, brokedown romance and empty palaces, one suspects Ferry no longer merely sings his words, but, nearing sixty, has lived them as well. The same goes for his velvety baritone, always an instrument of great persuasive powers, now a bit more rough-hewn than we remember, but no less potent.


Nowhere is the sense of past more present than on the mysterious “San Simeon,” named after William Randolph Hearst's castle (the inspiration for Welles' Xanadu in Citizen Kane) and Frantic's centerpiece. Itself cobbled together from lyrics left over from “Dream Home,” with “San Simeon,” Ferry guides us through a ghostly walking tour of unimaginable wealth replete with tiger skin rugs, executive leather and other assorted “delicate touches,” as he paints a picture of cavernous isolation trapped in an era long since past. Simply put, it's Ferry at his iconic best and brilliant.


As can be expected, the production is smooth, but with more bite than we've become accustomed to. In addition to Greenwood, that's largely due to the presence of old friends like 70's session guitar-hero, Chris Spedding, and Roxy drummer Paul Thompson, not to mention the Master of Mischief, Eno, who clearly brings out Ferry's best with closer, “I Thought,” co-written and performed by the old adversaries. With the bald one's patented Casiotone electronics elegantly intertwining with Ferry's supple croon over a tune of bittersweet loss, “I Thought,” too, is among Ferry's finest.


There is so much to say about an album by an artist as influential and long-dormant as Bryan Ferry, one is tempted to go on and on: the dubiously faithful blues covers, the fantastic harmonica playing, the medieval theme composed by Richard the Lionheart(!!). No period of Ferry's extraordinary career goes untouched on Frantic, easily his most rewarding solo work since Roxy's disbandment in 1983. Likely to be more of a fascination for those still passionately in love with early-Roxy than fans of Avalon and ”Slave To Love,” Frantic does take a few times through, its myriad charms revealing themselves with repeated listens.


A deeply mature work and enormously welcome return to form, let it simply be said that, myths and maxims to the contrary, Frantic proves you can go home again. Just don't be surprised if you find the ghost of Orson Welles sitting in your easy chair with his feet up, scarfing a bowl of chips and watching Some Like It Hot on the tube when you get there. While you may not get lucky, it should certainly make for interesting conversation.


Reviewed by: Matthew Weiner
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01
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