Twenty seconds into Olympia, Bryan Ferry makes it abundantly clear where you are as the listener:
“In a discotheque at dawn…”
Couldn’t have put it better myself.
If you’ve heard even one Ferry track (or one from Roxy Music, the critically lauded art-rock act which spawned both Ferry and some producer guy named Brian Eno), you know this is one weird dude –an artist who never pauses for a second to question following his own bizarre musical muse. Back in the 70’s, as part of Roxy Music, Ferry had a hand in some of the most freakishly unique rock and roll ever put to wax, the songs heavily drenched in synthesizers and unusual textures, occasionally expanding the conventions of “pop music”.
As a solo artist, Ferry’s remained fairly grounded on the less turbulent side of the freak fence, trimming away the glammy excess of his previous work in favor of more accessible, less complex pop. Through it all, though (the brushes with commercial success, the Bob Dylan covers albums), one element has remained consistent (and consistently intriguing) in Ferry’s music: that haunting, quivering tenor–an utterly unique, riveting voice that, at its most focused, sounds like nothing else on this planet.
Even though Ferry isn’t a “solo album” rookie, you could hardly say he’s done it on his own. His solo works are filled with guest musicians and songwriters (including some of his Roxy Music bandmates), and he’s also been known to record a cover song or 20 (he didn’t release an album of original songs until his fourth, 1977’s In Your Mind). Olympia, his first album of at least partly original music since 2002’s Frantic, finds Ferry once again flexing his collaborative muscles, bringing in some of the world’s most widely respected musicians for some overdubs –Brian Eno, Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, just to name a few. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Olympia is one of the year’s best headphone albums.
“You Can Dance” opens with Ferry in funk mode, a nimble synth groove firing underneath the plea, “I need some inspiration.” There’s also a random answering machine message spilling what could be some kind of secretly embedded information…or just utilizing a classic art-rock gag. “Heartache by Numbers” is effortlessly catchy, with Ferry’s nervous voice undulating over a classy, danceable synth pulse and some naughty slap-bass interjections. The slick, layered production calls to mind 80’s-era Roxy Music, which ironically sounds a hell of a lot like the trendy throwback production techniques utilized by a ton of today’s trend-setting indie hipsters.
Ferry’s never exactly been the most upbeat guy, but he’s sure in a sour mood here. The music, most always funky and radio-worthy, is in sheer contrast with the lyrics. “I can’t stop from thinking that love makes no sense,” goes one line from “Heartache by Numbers” –on “Me Oh My”, the programmed handclaps and piano prop up the lament: “Life is tough no matter how I try/Tell me that I’m dreaming/Tell me it’s a lie.” Funny thing is, he’d cheer right up if he’d just listen to his own music –Olympia is a sonic tour de force, reveling in smooth textures and dense details that warrant (and reward) repeated listening.
It’s not all great. The collaborations, while adding plenty of muscle to Ferry’s whimsy (in particular, Flea’s reliably melodic bass playing), occasionally distract from the core of a given song. Despite its pleasant instrumental backing, “Me Oh My” is ruined by some corny, out-of-place, faux-soulful female vocalizing. “Nobody Knows You’re Here” is a funky number, for sure, but the oddly passionate yearning in Ferry’s vocal delivery is bogged down by the cool, overly calculated music, which feels more sterile than spirited.
With “Tender is the Night”, the album closes in shockingly direct form, trimming back the clusterfuck of sounds that dominate the earlier tracks. “Is this the end? Let me know,” Ferry reflects, his trademark tenor shaking over minimal sound effects and ethereal piano. As the final shimmering shards of Olympia evaporate, it’s more than clear: Ferry’s singular vision has a lot of life left yet.