Throughout his post-Roxy Music solo career, Bryan Ferry has rarely stood still. Aside from an ill-advised collection of Dylan covers in 2007, his recorded output generally represents a series of assured steps forward. His last record, 2013’s The Jazz Age, allowed Ferry to play around with big band takes on his expansive back catalog, a project that could have potentially been dismal (and unnecessary), but instead came off as both fun and surprisingly inspired. Now, nearly a year later, Ferry releases Avonmore—his 15th solo album and his first collection of new songs in nearly four years.
On Avonmore, Ferry enlists the help of an all-star cast of players and producers—Todd Terje,Nile Rodgers, Johnny Marr, Flea, Ronnie Spector, Mark Knopfler, and Maceo Parker. With the exception of Rodgers (whose graceful guitar work pops up all over the record) and Terje, most of the special guests are all but invisible on Avonmore, their presence muted by Ferry’s unmistakable voice and the lush production. As Ferry has become known increasingly for his impeccable covers, it’s refreshing that Avonmore is comprised almost exclusively of original material, most of which hearkens back to his most classic sounds.
Some of the tracks could have drifted off of one of Ferry’s mid-’80s solo records. “Loop de Li” and “Midnight Train” come complete with tastefully employed chimes and a smattering of low key horns. Both are dark and romantic with the kind of breathless quality that only Ferry can offer. Going even further, “A Special Kind of Guy” is so intensely Ferry-ish that it borders on parody, as he croons “When you’re with me every problem seems to disappear/ Fields of roses burst into flower and everyone a tear.” Almost no one else could get away with this, but Ferry manages to sell it perfectly almost every time.
Avonmore flounders when the music, which routinely flirts with a kind of adult contemporary smoothness, leans over into blandness. Co-written by Johnny Marr, “Soldier of Fortune” would be forgettable were it not for Ferry’s tremulous voice, which manages to make a line like “Girl stop rockin, you’re driving me insane” sound more compelling than it actually is. “Driving Me Wild” and “Lost”, while not terrible, lack the surging mystique of the record’s better songs, while “One Night Stand” mines ’80s tropes in the worst possible way—honking sax, a chorus of sassed up backup singers, and an un-funky Ferry going on about tiger skin rugs. It nearly negates all the amorous glamour that makes the rest of the record such a delicious swoon.
The two covers on Avonmore provide some of the weirdest surprises. Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” could have been rendered as a bit of grandly devastating melodrama, but instead gets mostly buried under a load of damp electronica. While it’s admirable that Ferry might give the venerable bit of camp a modern spin, the end result is something limp and mostly drama-free. He has more success with his cover of Robert Palmer’s “Johnny and Mary”—collaboration with Norwegian producer Todd Terje that first appeared on Terje’s excellent It’s Album Time earlier this year. It’s one of the album’s most gorgeous moments, a melancholic ode to romantic ennui that actually allows Ferry to sound his age.
Ultimately, Avonmore is a fine addition to Bryan Ferry’s oeuvre, if not necessarily a terribly challenging one. At this point, Ferry’s well-documented good taste is both an asset and possibly a curse. While this new record is slick and often quite lovely—recalling ’80’s masterworks like Boys and Girls or Bête Noire—one can’t help but wish that Ferry might go spend a little more time in the studio with someone like Terje. His voice remains one of the most singular and finely-honed sounds in popular music, it would just be nice to hear it dropped into new settings more often.