The Observer OCTOBER 24, 2010 - by Kitty Empire


It is usually unwise to judge an album by its cover. But in the case of Bryan Ferry's Olympia - and many of his works as part of Roxy Music and solo - such a verdict would not be out of place. The surfaces of Ferry's works have always been as significant as their interiors.

Here's Kate Moss, reclining, necklace and lipstick glittering, maintaining the status quo of Ferry album covers past. Two girls in their pants (and some none-too-subtle bushes) adorned the cover of Roxy Music's Country Life (1974), part of a run of soft porn that prefigured the style mag photography of the '90s, and included Jerry Hall painted blue (Siren, 1975).

Ferry has always been feted as one of Britain's great art school pop creatives; he intends the artwork for Olympia (the location of his studio in London, incidentally) as a tribute to Manet's painting of the same name. Visually, it is quite a loose one. That Olympia scandalised French society in 1865 because Manet updated the classical image of a reclining female nude with a courtesan. This high-fashion pose of Moss oversells an album whose track-listing struggles to live up to the fantasist bling of its packaging.

The guest list, meanwhile, resembles one of those Vanity Fair group shots in which the smug and entitled pose indolently, assured of their own merits. Here are various Roxys, including Brian Eno, who left the group in 1973. They are joined by Nile Rodgers, David Gilmour, Flea, Scissor Sisters (who co-wrote the lumpen Heartache By Numbers) Groove Armada (midwives to the surprisingly good Shameless) and - feel free to double-take here - Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, who presumably didn't let the man's support for hunting and Conservatism get in the way of an intriguing collaboration.

Greenwood and four other guitarists play on Song To The Siren, a cover that follows This Mortal Coil's ethereal version of 1983, rather than Tim Buckley's 1970 original. It's not hard to imagine what Ferry might be trying to achieve. His best-known work - and Slave To Love is as remarkable as early Roxy - has long excelled at exuding languor in which human effort, strife and unpleasantness have all been conquered. Indeed, you might argue that Ferry has authored a kind of heavy-lidded, arcadian heroin pop for the cocaine set. Here, he tries to apply that sensual grace to one of the most otherworldly songs ever penned. But his barely-there croon is wasted on a track replete with self-satisfied soloing, rampant textures and anachronistic funk.

You Can Dance is another track whose treatment elsewhere points up Ferry's penchant for gilding lilies so comprehensively they keel over. Teutonic techno don DJ Hell's version, released last January whetted appetites for this album with its stark, sleek, nocturnal vision of perdition. Ferry's update is silted up with extraneous guitars and percussion. So, ultimately, is much of Olympia, an album whose ideal of sublime effortlessness is marred by the listener's forced march through a swamp of overweening sound.