by Perry Meisel
If "lipstick and leather" are a "sign of the times," as Bryan Ferry says they are on his new album, The Bride Stripped Bare, they are also a sign of the two impulses that have been struggling for supremacy in his music since his solo career began in 1973, three years before he dismantled Roxy Music for good. Effete machismo or some paradox like it is probably the best way to characterize this queer and tense personal drama - the quivering, pleading singer/persona and his labor against a current of thick and thundering rhythms from a band that exalts and oppresses him at the same time. If it sounds like just a dressed-up instance of British rock and roll at its most fundamental (Page squeezes Plant and Plant squeals), in Ferry's case the mouth-and-metal dichotomy gets redefined in what is an exemplary but dark success in the familiar story of the shagetz and the blues.
The new album is a first for Ferry in a couple of ways. It is the first time he has recorded with American session musicians (chief among them here guitarist Waddy Wachtel and drummer Rick Marotta), and also the first time the production is collaborative rather than Ferry's alone. And yet it hasn't changed a thing in the definitive Ferry sound. That raw depth with luster superadded is there on all the thumping rockers - "Sign of the Times," "What Goes On," "Can't Let Go" - and on three more sterling Ferry covers, this time "Hold On (I'm Coming)," "That's How Strong My Love Is," and "Take Me to the River." What the entrance of the (usually) dread sessionman to Ferry's Art Rock suggests - especially with no substantial change in the nature and texture of the sound - is that the feeling that Ferry is an ironist and trivializer of rock and roll is only half the story. At least one part of Ferry believes so implicitly in the Big Beat and in wisecracking guitars that he has enlisted mainline members of the session establishment to help him maintain it.
If British rock used to enact the battle of human singer and technological band - the battle of organic self against repressive culture - Ferry has moved the argument further along so that it now enacts the plight of singer struggling with the rock medium itself. Here a belated Ferry hesitates in terror before the tradition, turning pale in classic Decadent literary fashion, taking upon himself the exhaustion of the entire medium in what is already a late stage in its chronologically tiny history as an art. With the classic and anonymous rhythms (hence the same sound with a different band) rising beneath him on "Can't Let Go," "Sign of the Times," and all the soul numbers, Ferry is obliged to commit himself to the full rigors of the form, to a musical landscape conventionally epic in scope, and one that demands the strength of an Otis Redding - notably on "That's How Strong My Love Is" - to fill it properly. And though languour, Decadence, shortness of breath, a tendency to whine are Ferry's defensive reactions to this impossible demand, they also turn out to be his stylistic resources.
On the melodic level, hesitation becomes a kind of disciplined foreplay written into the very structure of Ferry's own songs. Hooks most commonly come on the bridge rather than the chorus, and the verses are often musical interrogations of the possible chord sequences that can follow from the first one sounded in a given song ("Sign of the Times," "Island Earth"). It's as though the arrangements are designed to monitor the available harmonic permutations and look for combinations never voiced before. This is also Wachtel's active discipline as a guitarist, and he solos on the jazzman's principle of turning chords and licks inside out for new orderings of their old materials.
Ferry's loony ambition as a musician has always been clearest when he becomes a cover artist - he is probably the most imaginative one in the business. Like the movie director filming a novel, Ferry knows his only bet is to recast the original phrasing of the stone classics he habitually chooses to do and make the song acceptable to his own voice. If he funkified "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" on Bryan Ferry, he tightens and darkens "Hold On (I'm Coming)" on The Bride Stripped Bare. Genealogically, this is a Buddy Holly/Elvis take on soulin'; the seemingly drab, almost flabby Guy Lombardo quiver in the vocals has a sobbing logic all its own. Al Green's "Take Me to the River" already has that kind of sobbing built in. On the album's ultimate self-challenge, "That's How Strong My Love Is," the taut and discreet ejaculations of feelings and the decidedly unsyncopated phrasing on the chorus keep Ferry secure from the awesome gusts of the band, which come to represent the blast of Otis himself from the past. It is a coy strategy - building the threat into the sound and then dancing to avoid it. Such defensive power may be the only kind of power still available in a medium that daily grows denser as a system and more diffuse as a phenomenon.
Originally published in The Village Voice, December 4, 1978