Roxy Music – Avalon
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Ostensibly the last great Roxy Music album, Avalon receives high marks for sophisticated synth-pop mannishness, cementing Bryan Ferry’s sensitive machismo minutes before he would vanish into the hearts of collectors and cultists. Ferry’s voice was always too wide and deep to properly navigate Roxy Music’s fidgety pop moments—however valiantly he coped—so it seems natural that Ferry ended up in Avalon’s panoramic scan. Approaching his late thirties, oversexed, and iconic, Ferry’s watch was ticking. Inasmuch as he finally played to his strengths, Avalon was a natural progression.
Bullshit. Avalon stinks of varnish. It is obscured by lubricant and cologne. Prophet-5s and oily hair. Set aside for a moment its reputation as an album that makes lovers rock; Avalon is Roxy Music as atmosphere, a sly betrayal of a decade’s worth of work as a frontrunning avant-pop act. Judge an album by its cover: compare the art work of the first four Roxy Music albums—Vargas poses, bunnies, leather—to Avalon’s second-rate Piers Anthony blush. His licentiousness gone brassy blue, his jawline softened, Avalon saw Ferry shelf his hound-dog posturing and formally accept a bench role.
No joke: “Avalon” was playing in Banana Republic’s dressing room this afternoon. It sounded pretty good. The album’s reputation as digestible love-pop is fitting but not in itself damning. Contentment needs its champions, surely, but at what cost? Had Ferry merely conceded defeat and turned sage (“To Turn You On”), Avalon’s faults might wash out as academic tedium. Ferry wants to maintain an allure and an edge, but he doesn’t have the legs for it. A decade earlier, Stranded—a work with significantly more grit and hustle than Avalon—muscled through its balladry. Compare the gothic vignette of “A Song for Europe” to the lite-jazz trepidation of “While My Heart Is Still Beating.” The album-to-album comparison isn’t quite fair, but when Ferry sings, “I’d better have pity / I’d better go easy,” well, yeah. Then there's this, somewhat out of context, from the title track: “Now the party’s over / I’m so tired.” Middle age, sure, but Ferry used to really get after fear and insecurity; on Avalon he merely lies with them.
Nods, then, to Ferry’s age and waning relevancy are the music’s alone. Avalon’s Prophet-5 machinations are supposedly examples of programming excellence, but after Bowie’s Berlin trilogy and John Cale? We don’t believe you. Bryan Ferry and his small army of other dudes who are not Bryan Ferry (or Brian Eno) over-simplify Avalon, arrogantly presuming that synthesizers would never snarl and chomp, only glide and occupy.
Most of the blame falls to Ferry, who plays the keyboards himself and effectively brushes aside saxophonist/oboist Andy Mackay and guitarist Phil Manzanera in favor of session musicians. “While My Heart Is Still Beating” erects cardboard walls…of saxophone. “Take a Chance With Me” betrays its title by skipping along guitar fills presumably cast off by Joe Walsh. “True to Life” and “The Space Between” embarrassingly fly over any promises synth-pop ever held as a genre—reveling in the joys of computer-generated sounds—and instead cut a surgical line to the middle of the road. Feeble attempts at mood—“India” and “Tara”—are too reliant on pleasantness, never elbowing their way into the album’s sonic or emotional core. Half a decade later, Talk Talk would strain the fat from Avalon and live off the gristle, but throughout, Avalon is pudgy and ill-fitting.
Give Ferry this: Avalon is his masterstroke as a vocalist. The absence of Mackay and Manzanera pulled the herky-jerky out of Roxy’s sound, leaving even, considered crevasses for Ferry’s yolky tenor. “More Than This” is a true beaut’, and the patience he exhibits throughout “To Turn You On” is a marvel. The tremoloed oscillations of “True to Life” are as cozy a shelter for Ferry’s lilt as he’d yet seen; this slow waving is a better fit for him than “Virginia Plain” or “Ladytron." Somewhere between there and “The Main Thing” he sired Morrisey, Mark Hollis, and Antony Hegarty.
Counting offspring ten years into Ferry’s career is like spitting in the ocean: it’s fucking pointless. To admit that Ferry is a professional singer a decade in is no more revelatory than “the man had nice hair.” Ribald pomp: also not new. Avalon is affected? They don’t make vitamins for relevance-deficiency. Retirement? Do you mock the man? (“81, Used and New from…”) Any talk of Avalon as a gateway to Ferry’s solo career is so obvious it approaches banality. Everyone ages, but we don’t all trade in a decade of pop brilliance for hammy keyboard patches. Contentment is the price that Ferry pays for his looks, his women, his influence—Avalon is his receipt.