Bryan Ferry, lead singer and prime mover of Roxy Music, and Elton John might not appear to have much in common. Ferry has had limited commercial success, remaining the darling of the smart set, while John's den is lined with platinum records. Yet both are unabashed crooners. Although both "Flesh and Blood," Roxy Music's new album, and "21 at 33," John's latest, rock with aplomb, the best material on both records demonstrates that Ferry and John are most comfortable with a good old-fashioned love song. They are among rock's foremost torch singers.
It has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between Roxy Music albums and Bryan Ferry solo albums. With "Flesh and Blood," the band is reduced to little more than a vehicle for Ferry's romantic muse, never obtrusive but always there. On "Midnight Hour," for instance, Phil Manzanera's and Neil Hubbard's intertwined echoed guitars provide the backdrop for Ferry to turn yet another '60s soul classic into a personal love call. Similarly, the album's best cut, "Over You," is built around a simple guitar figure, leaving Ferry to pine over a lost love. The spare understated solos on these two cuts serve only to bide our time until Ferry returns to the mike. Slightly more ornate, but still refined, is "Oh Yeah," a clever song about itself: Ferry finds love and loses it while listening to his own song over a car radio. With the tastefully sweeping strings and lilting vocals, one can only hope that the airplay is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Disco owes much to the psychedelic music of the '60s, and Ferry acknowledges that debt with an ill-advised cover of The Byrds' "Eight Miles High." One can see where the existential wastedness of the song appealed to a decadent like Ferry, but it really doesn't hold up well. Instead of making D.O.R. (Dance Oriented Rock), Roxy delivers this song D.O.A. There are a couple of other disco-tinged tracks ("Same Old Scene," "My Only Love") but Ferry borrows only the trappings. Unlike others who have plundered but been sucked in by disco's vapidity, Ferry can steal with equanimity because, for him, style is substance. Even on the album's lesser cuts, there is always Ferry's elegant warble, his indubitable charm, to smooth over the rough spots. He may not have much to say, but it's a pleasure to hear him say it.
While matinee idol Ferry sweet-talks his way into your heart, good-natured Elton John aspires to be your friend. Lacking the physical or psychological demeanor to be a romantic leading man, John compensates with craftsmanship and showmanship. On "21 at 33," his catchy hooks and seamless arrangements make even the most facile rockers ("Chasing the Crown." "Two Rooms at the End of the World," "Give Me the Love") irresistible radio fare. On stage, without the protective layers of studio sweetners, he dons oversized sunglasses and vamps.
John also overcompensates for not writing his own lyrics, working overtime to put his personal stamp on every song. On the ballads, where he has the vocal space to prove his sincerity, he is often successful. But when he rocks, and there is no time to wrench emotion from every line, the words only seem to get in the way. So the most convincing songs on "21 at 33" are the down-tempo "Little Jeannie" and "Never Gonna Fall in Love Again." The former, already a hit, proves the old musical-biz adage, "If it works, do it to death," sounding like a composite of "Daniel," "Your Song" and several other chestnuts from John's stockpile. The latter is a giant cop-out, a Tom Robinson song about gay promiscuity that John sings from a strictly heterosexual standpoint. But the melody (John's) is so lovely and the basic sentiment so universal that the song hardly loses anything in the concession.
Gary Osborne, who wrote the lyrics for "Little Jeannie," gives John another universal theme on "Take Me Back," a mid-tempo cut as smooth and sweet as, well, a hit single. But he also wrote the puerile "Dear God." If you're going to speak to God on a record, you had better be tongue-in-cheek (Randy Newman) or utterly serious (Bob Dylan). John is neither, and when the backing chorale chimes in, it's either pick up the needle or risk losing your lunch. Even worse is "White Lady White Powder," a turgid throwaway about the joys of cocaine sniffing penned by Bernie Taupin (one begins to understand why John Parted with him in the first place). Fittingly, The Eagles sing back-up on this track.
If rock stars are the matinee idols of today, then Bryan Ferry is a cross between Rudolph Valentino and Noel Coward. Debonair, witty and urbane, he may not be the right guy to take home to meet the parents, but he's ideal for a torrid love affair. And even though Elton has learned some restraint, he's too much of a Mickey Rooney sidekick -- even your parents wouldn't take him seriously. But if you're in the mood for a romantic seranade, these guys will rhapsodize all night. Listen to "Flesh and Blood" and "21 at 33" (at least the ballads) by candlelight.