New York Times JUNE 2, 1985 - by Jon Pareles


Bryan Ferry has been writing the same song, with variations, for more than a decade. It's a song about a man in love despite himself - a melancholy guy who's at the mercy of passion, knowing that it can't last and he'll be miserable again in no time. His titles tell the story: The Thrill Of It All, Love Me Madly Again, Can't Let Go and - on his new album, Boys And Girls - Slave To Love. Love is a pop-song staple, but Mr. Ferry has defined his specialty as narrowly as a laser neurosurgeon.

He started out with a broader world view. As the lead singer and keyboardist in Roxy Music, which he co-founded in 1971, Mr. Ferry wrote lyrics that measured daily life against literary and cinematic fantasy images; he could wax elegiac about not being Humphrey Bogart. He sang in a quavery, brittle-toned voice - the sound of a man battling his own inhibitions.

The early Roxy Music arranged his songs as rock anarchy. Incited by Brian Eno, who altered and juggled instrumental timbres, the band besieged its mock-debonair lead singer with aleatoric noise. After Mr. Eno left the group in 1973, Roxy Music eliminated extraneous sounds and became a more conventional rock band - until it had its first United States hit, Love Is The Drug, and split up in 1975. Mr. Ferry had already begun making solo albums of pop and soul cover songs; when Roxy Music disbanded, he switched to his own material.

In the next few years, British punk bands began to take up Roxy Music's edgier ideas, and pop bands such as The Cars perfected a more commercial version of Mr. Ferry's message. Meanwhile, as Mr. Ferry made solo albums, his notions of romance and disillusion jelled - he transformed himself into his own world-weary fantasy figure. When Roxy Music reconvened in 1979, it was a smooth backup band; Mr. Ferry was a kind of modernist crooner, dressing in tuxedos and singing, in that odd voice, about loss and the distance between lovers. While Duran Duran, ABC and the Thompson Twins reworked Roxy Music's rock, circa 1974, Roxy Music redefined itself as subdued, liquid and elegantly mournful.

Of course, doomed romance can be as much a cliche as pop's usual variety of love, immediate and everlasting bliss. Onstage, Roxy Music II risked turning into a lounge band, its gentle angst becoming a formula. Now the group has disbanded again, but Mr. Ferry is sticking to his topic. In fact, he has once again narrowed his focus. His new songs still examine romance, yet they now steer clear of anticipation and reflection. From start to finish, Boys And Girls is devoted to the moment at the peak of infatuation.

Innumerable pop songs have been written about falling in love or lust. Hardly any, however, greet the prospect with Mr. Ferry's dread. Most tunes on Boys And Girls are in gloomy minor or modal keys, at tempos designed for swaying rather than dancing. The tone is calmly fatalistic. In song after song, Mr. Ferry surrenders - to "Sensation" or "feeling swept away" (Windswept) or "the river of no return" (Stone Woman). Yet at that point, instead of reaching the ecstatic release promised by most pop songs (and not a few romances), Mr. Ferry simply finds himself adrift.

For Mr. Ferry, passion suspends time - and given his Proustian task, he has realised that music can recreate a momentary feeling better than words. Boys And Girls is even more atmospheric than Roxy Music's Avalon; although it's a singer's solo album, many of its songs are just a few verses floating in meticulously arranged rhythm tracks, with extended intros and outros that don't sound an instant too long.

There's a reggae song (Valentine), a rock samba (Don't Stop The Dance), a tune that updates the disco beat of Chic (Sensation) and an ominous, Middle Eastern-flavoured song, The Chosen One, that recalls the Talking Heads' and Marvin Gaye's experiments with African funk. Vamps and groove rhythms, infinitely repeatable, are rock's ways of extending time, and Mr. Ferry and his co-producer, Rhett Davies, manipulate them expertly; they bob and weave as hypnotically as a snake charmer at work. Drums tick away; guitars and percussion murmur like co-conspirators; echoes, backup choruses and sustained keyboard sounds roll past Mr. Ferry's forlorn voice.

It is seductive music - so seductive that it saves Mr. Ferry from his occasional platitudes, such as a lyric that says, "Here today, and gone tomorrow." But aspiring Don Juans who might be tempted to use Boys And Girls as mood music should think twice. Mr. Ferry's lovers are hollow; they say "Let's be cool about it," convince themselves that "Make believin' is the real thing," and inevitably pursue "Sensation" rather than affection. Mr. Ferry has restricted himself to one desperate kind of romance. Yet if he has painted himself into a corner, it may be the best-decorated corner in rock.