TERRY GROSS, host:
Bryan Ferry has a new album called "Olympia" that reunites him with some of the key players in the band that made him famous, Roxy Music, including Brian Eno. But rock critic Ken Tucker says "Olympia" remains very much a Bryan Ferry creation: romantic, wry and vulnerable to the passage of time.
(Soundbite of song "You Can Dance")
Mr. BRYAN FERRY (Singer-songwriter) (Singing) In a discotheque at dawn is when it came to me. I'd been raving through the night, looking for some company. It was the Mambo talking. It's got a lot to say. Do you come here often? Do you want to play?
KEN TUCKER: Kate Moss is on the cover of Bryan Ferry's "Olympia," spread across a white backdrop with lollipop-red lips, her neck encircled by diamonds. It's a typical Bryan Ferry art-directed cover. He's been decorating collections of songs since the '70s, including the topless women on the cover of "Country Life" and the exotic sea-creature that was his girlfriend Jerry Hall on the cover of "Siren."
(Soundbite of song "Heartache by Numbers")
TUCKER: If it seems superficial of me to start off a review by pointing out Ferry's penchant for pretty women, well, making art out of superficiality is one of Ferry's most distinctively British traits.
(Soundbite of song "Heartache by Numbers")
Mr. FERRY: (Singing) I can't stop from thinking that love makes no sense. I'm burned out from dreaming about nobody else. Midnight to daybreak, I can't believe the pain. The way you look, the way you talk, the way you walk away -oh, I can't take.
Heartache by numbers from violet to grey. I paint all your colors. I wash them away. I live for the moment. I long for the day you walk in my garden, you lie in my shade.
TUCKER: The tremble in Ferry's voice on that song, "Heartache by Numbers," adds a degree of fragility to the music. It's not merely the sound of 65-year-old vocal cords. It's the way Ferry permits his singing to go brittle and crack in the presence of the heartache described by the lyric.
"Heartache by Numbers" is elaborately arranged, with fluted female backup vocals and a mournful oboe supplied by Roxy Music member Andy Mackay. By contrast, "No Face, No Name, No Number" is more stripped-down. It's a cover of a song written in 1967 for the first album by the Steve Winwood band Traffic. Ferry reaches back for the song and pulls its ghost into the present, forcing it to become a lament of a lonely man sifting through memories with an almost pathetic numbness.
(Soundbite of song "No Face, No Name, No Number")
Mr. FERRY: (Singing) I'm looking for a girl who has no face. She has no name or number. And so I search within this lonely place, knowing that I won't find her.
TUCKER: I like the way Bryan Ferry isn't afraid to let the cracks show throughout "Olympia," and I don't just mean in the vocals. It also shows in the acknowledgment of time passed. Ferry isn't really working in this century. He's surrounded himself with former bandmates and with musicians he admires from earlier decades, such as the superb guitarist and producer Nile Rodgers from the disco band Chic. The awkwardly titled "BF Bass (Ode to Olympia)" pushes an assiduously slack funk rhythm that summons up the image of an old roue trying to sweet-talk an audience of one younger woman or courting a younger audience. Such a strategy, when accompanied by Brian Eno's synthesizer and the guitars of Chris Spedding and Phil Manzanera, isn't nostalgic. It's excitingly desperate.
(Soundbite of song "BF Bass (Ode to Olympia)")
Mr. FERRY: (Singing) Trouble is your middle name. That's a dangerous place to be. Within your mise-en-scene, there is no sobriety. No dancing in the street. No roaming on your phone. Your taste is bittersweet. And your Facebook is your home.
Unidentified Group: (Singing) Love, love, you fit me like a glove. You fit me like a glove. Love, love...
TUCKER: In his native England, "Olympia" appeared to mixed reviews. Ferry is such a familiar star there that his work can be dismissed as old hat - as baroque stateliness in danger of grinding to a halt. Over here, though, Ferry remains a cult artist whose music is pored over for its small distinctions, its finely calibrated shifts in tone as the years go by.
On the ridiculously, brazenly titled song "Tender is the Night" - Ferry trying to equate himself with F. Scott Fitzgerald - he sings the line: at the best of times, I feel misunderstood. And he truly seems baffled, a man out of time. He's wondering where he'll find the next kiss, the next old friend, the next new sound that may arouse interest in his audience and for himself.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Bryan Ferry's new album, "Olympia." You can hear three tracks from the album on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show.