2018 album also available on CD.
The Bryan Ferry Orchestra release ‘Bitter Sweet’. “Make it new” rang the rallying cry of modernists in the early twentieth century. To be modern in the 1920s, or postmodern in the 1960s, demanded destruction—of conventions, traditions, expectations, representation, even beauty itself. A drawing by Paul Klee captured the rebellious spirit of the age just after World War I. A scribbled stick-figure angel, dubbed “Angelus Novus” (New Angel), stares out, wings aloft, flattened crudely against the page. Pierced by the gaze, philosopher Walter Benjamin imagined the figure to be the Angel of History looking at the debris of the past, looking at us while blown backwards into the future.
Ferry too looks out upon the debris of the past, but with a deep affection and real sympathy that escaped the modernists. He follows a different prescription: not “make it new,” but “make it newly beautiful.” And here beauty lies in bittersweet remembrance, rather than youthful rejection. This art recognizes that the past was once our present, even our future, and this moment too shall melt away into the past.
The art of the past that Ferry embraces includes ragtime, blues, and jazz as well as the clean lines of Art Deco, the heady glamour of early cinema, and the modishness of the 1960s. Jazz in the 1920s was the soundtrack of popular culture—itself a modern invention. Think of swing, the Ziegfeld Follies, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin. Remembering them evokes a sense of nostalgia. “It’s still the same old movie that’s haunting me,” Ferry once said. So what are we watching on this album? What are we hearing?
“Reason or Rhyme” calls to the ear the dark reed timbres and baleful trumpets of Duke Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy”, with a gesture, perhaps, to the tenor saxophone sound of Coleman Hawkins. (Ellington and Hawkins played together on an essential album from 1962.) “Sign of the Times” includes a swinging trumpet solo and a veiled allusion, in the concluding section, to Eddie Lockjaw Davis. “While My Heart Is Still Beating” throws a bridge between the clarinet and alto sax duo of Sidney Bechet and Johnny Hodges to the edgier sound, on the sax, of Benny Carter. An even more haunting transposition of the 1920s is Boys & Girls, which again recalls Bechet and Hodges, now processed through a modernist sensibility. The vibrato in the saxophone line is crisper and more classical, less sensual than cerebral, more like the imitations of jazz that became fashionable among modernist composers.
Thus Kurt Weill’s “Pirate Jenny”, from his iconic “Threepenny Opera”, influences the texture of “Alphaville”, which is also the title of a New Wave film by Jean-Luc Goddard. (The past really does pile up.) The title track, “Bitter-Sweet”, makes the Weill homage more explicit, and even includes lines in German. Dance Away begins like a Scott Joplin Rag, but “New Town” is pure Ferry. He doubles his voice in a song with a slow Charleston feel, yet the harmony, disorienting throughout the album, is here otherworldly.
Ferry returns his great songs to their roots, but they are stranger for it. Thus he captures the uncanny essence of nostalgia—of the familiar made strange, the pang of returning to your childhood home or grade-school classroom. This is an album in the truest sense, like a photobook or scrapbook, and so engages our musical memories. Throughout, Ferry’s dusky, poignant voice shades the meaning of the music like chiaroscuro shadowing in a Renaissance painting (just the kind of details the modernists would eliminate, but Ferry now restores). Horns inhale deeply, dreamily; castanets click in reference to the Romani goddess Carmen; and solo instruments sink, despairingly, casually, in a delirious blend of swing and tango and fantasy. The arrangements, created by Ferry with his long-time music director Colin Good, at once suggest the childhood of jazz in the 1920s and capture its more recent echoes, including those from Ferry’s album ‘The Jazz Age’. The reverb is soggy, the piano lines clean, and the forms prove more complicated than those by the bandmasters of yesteryear.
“Bitter-Sweet” accomplishes what the modernists of the past, in their youthful enthusiasm, could not. Ferry’s music embraces the artifice of art as well as the artlessness of emotion so that the “sad affair” described at the start leads you to “break down and cry” by the end. Thus we are transported to the Berlin of the “Tacheles” club and the “Chamäleon”, to the zeitgeist of that jazz-friendly metropolis in the young 20th century - the hedonistic world of “Babylon Berlin”.