It should be no surprise that elegant British crooner-composer Bryan Ferry has been influenced by Weimar Republic cabaret, Scott Joplin rags and Duke Ellington’s snazzy jazz throughout his 48-year-old career, both as Roxy Music’s frontman and as a solo artist. There have forever been hints of Brecht/Weill, Ellington and such in Ferry’s music and lyrics. From the avant-glam of 1973’s “Do the Strand” and its gloomy sister “A Song for Europe” to the disco swing of 1987’s “Kiss and Tell” and the rakish art rock of 2014’s “A Special Kind of Guy,” Ferry proved that he can turn inspiration into innovation.
Yet it wasn’t until 2012’s old-timey, all-instrumental album “The Jazz Age,” and that slinky set’s version of “Love Is the Drug” (included in director Baz Luhrmann’s film “The Great Gatsby”), that the dots were connected. The old world panache behind the wild Roxy Music and Ferry’s sleek solo catalog, when stripped of its modernist Euro-pop veneer, was but a heartbeat away from what author Christopher Isherwood created in his “Berlin Stories” and that Kander & Ebb refined for “Cabaret.” There is a shared love of the sensual and the sinister between Isherwood and Ferry, as well as a fascination with the romantic and the ruined.
A recent teaming with Netflix on the Weimar period drama “Babylon Berlin” guided Ferry’s hand in creating (in the words of one of his songs) a “remake/remodel” of music from his past with “Bitter-Sweet,” an album that builds on the premise of “The Jazz Age” while reintroducing his voice into the mix.There are moments, vocal and instrumental, on “Bitter-Sweet” that move so far and flightily from his originals that you all but forget Ferry’s own source material.
For instance, “Zamba”, from 1987’s “Bête Noire”: What was once a spare but shimmering synth-filled interlude kissed by his deep baritone voice has become lustrous and dramatic, a full-blown epic of sweeping live strings, ragtime reeds and a hoarsely theatrical whisper. The dreamy disco of “Limbo,” in its new instrumental form, features a tap dance-worthy rhythm, crashed cymbals and dueling clarinets. “Alphaphille” is clipped and zig-zagging with its arrangement of staccato violins, strummed banjo and tick-tock wood blocks acting as a percussive counterpoint to Ferry’s quiet vocals.
And yet, Ferry’s longtime signature — the lounge lizard on the prowl — remains. Part of that lingering mood comes from the fact that Ferry melodies are always rich and romantic, even when blunted by aggressive rhythms. Take the title track, with its slow reverie and its brass band break. The song’s pulses are jarring, but Ferry’s whispered tale of a love affair that must end never wavers from its sensual but sorrow-filled intent. “While My Heart is Still Beating,” from Roxy Music’s swirling final studio album “Avalon,” now pivots and punches with a jutting string section and a vocal more aggravated than the ache of its origins. “New Town” sways, slightly and sweetly, to a Charleston beat, but its doubled-up harmonies (both voices Ferry’s) lend the track a brusque sense of menace, and turn this “Town” into a place you wouldn’t want to visit twice.
A large part of the theatrical swagger of “Bitter-Sweet” comes down to Ferry’s voice. What is usually the tone of a slick, strange lover man — a resonating baritone you can still hear at any Ferry live gig — is here, purposely hushed to emphasize his songs’ world-weariest qualities and draw you closer. “Of the loneliness I hide / Open your heart and let me live,” he sings with a dusky breeziness on “Reason or Rhyme,” an eerie cabaret cut filled with tenor saxophone and muted trumpet battling behind him.
If all this is Ferry’s idea of how the old days sound — even when attached to his songs — it proves he cares nothing for nostalgia. Instead, “Bitter-Sweet” is as inventive and mod as anything in his catalog.
Bryan Ferry and His Orchestra