Q OCTOBER 1994 - by Stuart Maconie


Farewell then, writer's block, hello topiary.

You've either got or you haven't got style. Bryan Ferry, the old devil, has. Often, it has worked in his favour, has secured him the company of beautiful women and charmed many a gauche rock interviewer. But over the last ten years, Ferry's stock as a real musical force has depleted worryingly. Naturally, he is always guaranteed an obsequious gush in glossy gentlemen's journals and The Evening Standard diary will never tire of chronicling his social progress - little wonder he rates telling a journalist that his son's name was down for Eton as one of his biggest mistakes - but confidence in him as a musician has been undermined both through his laggard productivity rate and uninspiring albums like Bête Noire and last year's deflating set of covers, sorry "interpretations", Taxi. It's all the more sad because there has always been a great deal more to Bryan Ferry than Rolex watches and knowing what wine goes best with turbot mousse.

Back in the 1970s, during the dispiriting hiatus that occupied British pop between the dotage of underground rock and the violent onset of punk, provincial discos would hold what they called Roxy/Bowie nights. Nascent punk scenes developed here as small towns' misfit youth would gather to listen to Kraftwerk's Trans-Europe Express, Deaf School, The New York Dolls and, of course, "Heroes", Pyjamarama and Do The Strand. It's worth mentioning just to remind ourselves that Bryan Ferry was once very much ahead of the game, a radical who combined chart popularity with risky innovation, an art-rocker with hits that even brickies could whistle.

Roxy Music were a great and enjoyable British curiosity, alongside which Ferry ran a diverting parallel solo business. But whereas his assumed soul mate David Bowie spent the 1980s is a state of highly public flux, from which real good did sometimes emerge, such as the Let's Dance album, Bryan Ferry's career began to come to pieces with progressively less and less to show for it. Boys And Girls in 1985 and 1987s Bête Noire, though championed in some quarters, left hardly any lasting impression on pundits or public alike.

The circumstances of Mamouna's recording will colour all assessments of its worth. It's even possible to hold entirely contradictory prejudices towards it at the same time. Should we listen more favourably knowing what sweat and toil attended its creation, or should we fold our arms huffily, thinking, This had better be good, Bry mate? Because, put simply, Mamouna has taken longer to make than any pop album can reasonably be expected to: seven years, not counting the stop-gap of Taxi. Ferry's own explanation for this is unambiguous. He had writer's block. "Bête Noire was the start of the dark ages for me," he has said. "I finished the tour exhausted but really buzzing and thought, I'm going to make an album and it's going to be wrapped up in six months. But then I hit the old lyrical brick wall."

That the lyrics of Mamouna were a crucial stumbling block is a point worth returning to. But there were other troubles. Petrified almost literally by the endless possibilities of the modern studio, Ferry watched as the project, at this point called Horoscope, distended monstrously in fifty-six-track recording hell. A finished album was apparently delivered but confounded Virgin by the absence of any radio-friendly tracks. The lack of any obvious single, acknowledged by Ferry himself, sent him, on his wife Lucy's advice, back to his record collection for inspiration - a tactic which in the end led to the quick, low-budget Taxi.

Taxi was released to decidedly mixed reviews last year. Since then, the time has been seemingly spent reworking Horoscope as Mamouna with some very eminent assistance. Robin Trower co-produces, Brian Eno contributes what is variously and obliquely described as sonic "distress", "swoops", "ambience", "emphasis" and "awareness". There is also an impressive cat of musicians ranging from Nile Rodgers, Maceo Parker, Steve Ferrone and Chester Kamen to old Roxy sparring partners such as Phil Manzanera and Andy Mackay.

So let's say emphatically then that Mamouna is not merely an adroit piece of salvage, it's a good, occasionally excellent album continuing but refining the tenor of sophisticated, etiolated rootlessness that has preoccupied Ferry since Avalon, the high-water mark of the second Roxy Music. Some of the dance leaning of Bête Noire have been successfully excised in favour of a more ambiguous, equivocal sound/feel that would seem to bear Eno's stamp. As soon as Don't Want To Know begins, an emotional territory is mapped out that encompasses the whole fifty minutes: a well-cut but tangible sense of angst; a jaded sensuousness. Don't Want To Know, a forlorn, descending melody line egged on by a clipped, impatient guitar lick, is good but it's not the best thing here. There's more, as Jimmy Cricket (probably not a favourite of Bryan's) would say.

Mamouna itself - something to do with Moroccan Sahara as we all knew - is one of the best thing's he's attempted since the marvellous Avalon: some splendidly gloomy bass tolls usher in a charming refrain where the title is chorused by Ferry and Carleen Anderson. Wildcat Days, co-written with Eno, has a pleasingly agitated brio to it, and Which Way To Turn shows off his great gift for nobly-borne melancholy. Admire, too, the shivery, amoral dimension to The 39 Steps, where, in the middle of his singles bar chat-up routine, Ferry seems to be having a nervous breakdown or at least a hefty dose of second thoughts about his chosen lifestyle.

The lyric to The 39 Steps is brilliant. Ferry bends the meaning of the time-worn query "Where do we go from here?" so that the question becomes both spiritual and merely practical i.e. "Your place or mine?" Smart stuff. But some of Mamouna's other lyrics are more problematic. Is he using cliché as a device - the album is full of "dogs eating dogs", "painted smiles" and "living on borrowed time", or is he just stuck for something new and arresting to say? Has he arrived at a Haiku-like compression or is the cupboard just bare?

Continuing in this carping vein, three tracks here are, frankly, bad. Even with a bright, ear-pricking sax splash and lissome, brisk rhythm guitar by Nile Rodgers, NYC is as stale as every other paean to New York, though Ferry ups the ante by including the word "topiary" for no clear reason. Your Painted Smile is a negligible thing and a moment's thought should tell a writer that "a perfumed sigh" is a revolting image. A song called Gemini Moon doesn't bode well either and such fears are well-founded.

How shrewd, though, to end the album with the closest it gets to joy. Chain Reaction's title, too, doesn't augur much but it turns out to be simply exquisite. Ferry's delectable vocal brings out warm, implied sexiness in a silly phrase like "lovey dovey" or the playground joshing of "pass it on". He's in good, anguished voice throughout and this is his best performance on Mamouna.

Mamouna falls short of greatness, although sometimes not by much. It's Bryan Ferry's most interesting and attractive work in a decade and maybe just needs some lateral thinking and a little less antique '80s nightclub gloss. Tin Machine made Bowie a laughing stock but at least it gave him the room to rattle some cages and go a little mad. Perhaps the camaraderie and tension of being in a group might complete Ferry's revitalisation. And perhaps some of the people here, whose phone numbers he probably knows off by heart, could help him on this one.