The Comfortable Elegance of Roxy Music’s Avalon
A couple of nights ago I was hanging out with some friends and listening to a lot of Paul Weller and Bryan Ferry. There’s so much that’s striking about the body of work each of them have produced. I’ll have to put off explaining my love for all three incarnations of Weller: in the Jam, in the Style Council, and as a solo artist. Today is Ferry’s day. Rather than expound at length about all he’s done, I’ll restrict myself to what some might regard as a strange choice for a favorite Roxy Music recording: their swan song Avalon.
When I first encountered them, the band was more visually than sonically striking to me. This would be when the videos for “More than This” and “Angel Eyes” were in MTV’s (video-only) rotation. In the latter, if I remember correctly, Ferry was wearing a pink leathery suit and managing somehow not to appear ridiculous. But something about the scrims over the lenses, the play with color, light and angles, and sheer glitziness of it all, made me pay attention.
The sounds that greeted me, especially when I finally got my hands on a copy of the recording, were so lush, so shimmery, yet pointed and distinct, that I immediately understood what inspired the video concepts. Among the many words one might use, for example, to describe “To Turn You On” is melodramatic. Listen to how the percussive intro and subdued first verse build, almost without warning, into the chorus. The fuller arrangement in the second verse makes it feel as though the first build was only a premonition. You might say the same about the thin, reedy synth pad undergirding the verses. It creates a sense of foreboding, even desperation. You want there to be more in the sound because you can hear that something’s missing. The elegiac guitar solo, drowned in tears of reverb, only compounds the anxiety. The lift, of course, comes soon enough. The solo gives way to a mode change. The brighter key almost makes it seem as though, bleak though the words may be, there may be another way of hearing them. “I’d do anything to turn you on,” rather than being read as stalker-like inducement might be read as a promise. Indeed, the confident way Ferry sings the first of the concluding choruses supports this reading (I’d guess it also supports the creepy alternative). What’s even more cool, though, is that by the time he utters those words for the last time, he’s singing in a seductive near-whisper. Masterful.
The title track, not included here, is another slow builder that disguises how that build actually takes place. If you listen closely, what at first seems to be an exceptionally sparse and clear arrangement is absolutely crammed with sounds. In the first verse alone, I hear Ferry’s voice, a synth on the right, a different one on the left, a muted guitar in the center, a slightly distorted guitar on the left (playing mostly on the final upbeats of measures), bass, drums and percussion (check out the faint congas and woodblock panned hard right!). And things get a little creepy in the chorus when the low-pitched synth pad (also heard in the intro) enters in the middle and is joined by the tremeloed guitar on the right. The background vocals are soulfully dreamy. (Note to self: use “soulfully dreamy” as a way to describe the music I’d like to make.) And the guitar response to the vocal call, washed in reverb and delay, has its own deep feeling and mystery. Indeed, that’s probably a good way to sum up what I love about this song. At one and the same time, it evokes both the exhilaration and the wistfulness that might follow a glimpse of paradise. What does one do, where does one go, after having an intense experience? How can regular life compare to those moments spent almost out of time, out of place? But rather than dwell on the potentially depressing, the song also takes us back into that experience, sinuously intimating the rhythmic and bodily pleasures in our memories. Interestingly, the listener is left to ponder who this person was with whom the singer had “much communication in a motion without conversation or a notion.” What exactly was communicated? And why does it seem, by the final verse, that the singer is using the word “you” to refer to himself?
I could go on, but the point is made. This song is a study is considered, effective songcraft, arrangement and production. Well worth another listen, I’d say…