On Second Thought
Bryan Ferry - Mamouna






for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

Devoted, severe, faintly boring, Narcissus and Casanova are the same person, and it was Bryan Ferry’s genius to understand this. Ever since “If There Is Something,” in which he promised his beloved that for her sake he would grow potatoes by the score, Ferry has pledged his devotion to an anonymous, inviolate muse who exists as a perfumed haze of signifiers, confirming either an obstinacy in Ferry that borders on the absurd or the vacuity of his imagination. For young Bryan, life began and ended in the 1960’s: the last time horny guys could idolize cheesecakes like Marilyn Monroe before feminism insisted that she was being dehumanized. Ferry would seem most apt for evisceration, except he was perfectly harmless. He would never eat the cheesecake; he’d sort of hold the plate and ponder it for a while.

By the late eighties Bryan was dedicating more time to his hair than songwriting: Casanova turns into Narcissus when you supply him with a tube of Dep Extra Holding Gel. Blame his backing musicians; we have Roxy Music to thank for creating soundscapes to die for. Whether mocked and amplified by the vulgar flash of Andy Mackay’s saxophone or, by 1982’s Avalon, enfolded in the light skank of Phil Manzanera’s guitar or the gauze of Ferry’s own synthesizers, this splendid ham’s soliloquies were never upstaged by the arrangements. It’s like they were never there—not when Ferry was too busy turning a howler like “looking for love in a looking-glass world” into a manifesto of yearning so powerful that it seemed to erase the presence of the beloved, which was probably the point.

By the time of Boys & Girls (1985) his vision had become lucrative enough to get mass produced by session hacks whose fluffy mullets bespoke a self-absorption almost as worrying as Ferry’s. Its sequel, Bete Noir, was Ferry’s tour of the discos; too bad he lingered in the VIP rooms. Madonna producer Patrick Leonard’s grooves weren’t lurid enough to entice Ferry from the mirrors, in front of which he sculpted the most breathtaking hair in the history of rock. Gelid, as dark and rich as espresso, it trumped rival David Bowie’s easily (glass spiders demand Feargal Sharkey pompadours). Ferry’s 1987 songs were unmemorable for the opposite reason: songcraft was inversely proportional to the quality of his bangs.

Received by the general public with indifference—1994 was not kind to meticulous coifs, unless you were Chris Cornell—Mamouna represented Ferry’s strongest attempt since Avalon to eroticize his self-absorption. Despite tales of writers’ block and sixty-track recording hell with which he charmed interviewers at the time, he really had nothing to complain about: as a Love God, Ferry had the field to himself in 1994. Instead he hooked up with Brian Eno, whose work on albums like Zooropa and Laid eclipsed his own stuff at the time (Eno didn’t have much hair, and in 1994 his songs were as vacant as his scalp). Thanks to Eno’s contributions (given twee names like “sonic emphasis” and “sonic awareness”), Mamouna is dense and thick, the air heavy once more with the cigarette smoke, incense, and love jive of Ferry’s salad days. Producer Robin Trower, a most unlikely choice, puts Ferry’s voice—more tremulous in middle age and pitched at a higher key—front and center; he’s not hiding behind the beats anymore, as he did on Bete Noir, he’s floating above them, a harbinger of the welcome grit he would show on 2002’s Frantic.

Mamouna’s got precious new to say about romance in the ‘90s, recycling tropes from both Roxy and solo albums (“we’re chained and bound” from the great “Slave to Love”), as well as lubricious nonsense Ferry would have belted in his best Bela Lugosi croon on Stranded (lots of tiger skins and lines like “too fast to live”). Yet the warmth of Trower’s mix loosens up this old Casanova. “I could never be the one,” he moans, sans irony, on the title track, a rather fine midtempo shuffle with Shaft rhythm guitar, synthesized choirs, and the loving way in which Ferry draws out the syllables of the nonsense word “mamouna” as if it were kyrie eleison.

What I love best about Mamouna is Ferry’s keyboard work—underrated even during the Roxy days, when he was a pianner pounder rather than a colorist. While Eno gets deserved credit for his ambient fills, on this album Ferry rivals his old sparring partner. The desperation in Ferry’s voice on “Which Way To Turn” dovetails with the eclectic blend of synthesizers weaving in and out of the mix, like Casanova trying and then discarding new techniques in the face of resistance. The simple eight-note piano coda on “Mamouna” might be the most beautiful thing he’s played since the synth swells on “More Than This” transported us away from this island earth.

Finally, let’s not discount the fact that Bryan might have been getting some great poon during the recording sessions. The most ascetic of chanteurs, Ferry has always valued romance over sex; on Mamouna he seems to have unearthed the romance in sex. “The 39 Steps” chugs along, propelled by an unexpected chord change halfway through and Ferry’s unexpected introduction: “Where do we go from here? Your place or mine?” An ontological question recast as a come-on, and fabulous, topped only by the tormented “let’s make it more!” which follows the rather crap “living on borrowed time.” And on “Chain Reaction,” in which Ferry implores some chick to “lovey-dovey” on him, Narcissus reminds us of how years of honing one’s technique in front of the mirror can make him a spectacular lover if he happens to be in the mood.


By: Alfred Soto
Published on: 2005-04-12
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