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Bryan Ferry's 'Olympia' Lets Cracks Shine Through

Kate Moss is on the cover of Bryan Ferry's Olympia, spread across a white backdrop -- with lollipop-red lips, her neck encircled by diamonds. It's a typical Bryan Ferry art-directed cover. He's been decorating collections of songs since the '70s -- including the topless women on Country Life and the exotic sea-creature that was his girlfriend, Jerri Hall, on the cover of Siren.

If it seems superficial of me to start off a review by pointing out Ferry's penchant for pretty women -- well, making art out of superficiality is one of Ferry's most distinctively British traits.

The tremble in Ferry's voice in "Heartache by Numbers" adds a degree of fragility to the music. It's not merely the sound of 65-year-old vocal cords -- it's the way Ferry permits his singing to go brittle and crack in the presence of the heartache described by the lyric.

"Heartache by Numbers" is elaborately arranged, with fluted female backup vocals and a mournful oboe supplied by Roxy Music member Andy Mackay. By contrast, "No Face, No Name, No Number" is more stripped-down. It's a cover of a song written in 1967 for the first album by Steve Winwood's band Traffic. Ferry reaches back for the song and pulls its ghost into the present, forcing it to become the lament of a lonely man sifting through memories with an almost pathetic numbness.

I like the way Bryan Ferry isn't afraid to let the cracks show throughout Olympia. I don't just mean in the vocals, as I mentioned earlier. It also shows in the acknowledgment of time passed. Ferry isn't really working in this century. He's surrounded himself with former bandmates and with musicians he admires from earlier decades, such as the superb guitarist and producer Nile Rodgers, from the disco band Chic. The awkwardly titled "BF Bass (Ode to Olympia)" pushes an assiduously slack funk rhythm that summons up the image of an old rogue trying to sweet-talk an audience of one younger woman or court a younger audience. Such a strategy, when accompanied by Brian Eno's synthesizer and the guitars of Chris Spedding and Phil Mananera, isn't nostalgic -- it's excitingly desperate.

Over in his native England, Olympia appeared to decidedly mixed reviews. Ferry is such a familiar star there that his work can be dismissed as old hat -- baroque stateliness in danger of grinding to a halt. Over here, though, Ferry remains a cult artist whose music is pored over for its small distinctions and its finely calibrated shifts in tone as the years go by.

On the ridiculously, brazenly titled song "Tender Is the Night" -- Ferry trying to equate himself with F. Scott Fitzgerald -- he sings the line, "At the best of times I feel misunderstood," and he truly seems baffled. Here, he's a man out of time, wondering where he'll find the next kiss, the next old friend, the next new sound that may arouse interest in his audience and for himself.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.