(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #12 – released November 15, 1974. Originally posted on Kriofske Mix, 8/28/2014)
Track listing: The Thrill of It All / Three and Nine / All I Want Is You / Out of The Blue / If It Takes All Night / Bitter-Sweet / Triptych / Casanova / A Really Good Time / Prairie Rose
As previously noted here, the best pop music is transformative—it can alter moods, color one’s surroundings and sometimes, even change minds. Naturally, the effects vary from artist to artist and from one listener to the next. I can single out music that makes me alternately feel contemplative or nostalgic or beatific and peaceful or cathartic, among other emotional states. As for music that rarely fails to fill me up with giddy, euphoric joy, well, Roxy Music is the first of many artists we’ll be encountering here who do just that .
Not everything the band recorded is necessarily joyous (and you wouldn’t want it to be—too much of any one thing will prove detrimental in the long run), but much of their best music reverberates with a swagger and a joie de vivre that hits one with an ecstatic, adrenalin-like rush. Just listen to the first measures of “The Thrill of It All’, where a riff repeated on both piano and keyboard becomes more urgent and relentless as the bass and guitar appear. You sense something bold and game changing will soon reveal itself, and you can’t help but get caught up in the anticipation and excitement of it. Then, the drums kick in and you hear singer Bryan Ferry’s drawn out, descending wordless moan over the full-bodied arrangement, and you can no longer sit still. Once he gets to the actual lyrics, strings come in, echoing the piano riff. Both the beat and tempo never waver, keeping up their steady, relentless drive. In his inimitable, enthusiastic, exaggerated, debonair croon, Ferry as usual offers abstractions more than specifics, feelings rather than ideas that he spits out in clipped phrases: “Every time I hear / the latest sound / it’s pure whiskey / reeling round and round.” You give yourself over to Ferry without a fight—you even forgive him the moment where he sighs, “Oy veh!”, for the pleasure he sings of is so expressive and tangible you can feel all of it simultaneously with him.
If “The Thrill of It All” does this for you, Roxy Music’s first five albums (recorded in less than four years!) are essential. Even with a major personnel change after the second album and a continual evolution in the band’s sound throughout all five, they are of a piece and perhaps the era’s most consistent album run next to Led Zeppelin or Steely Dan. And yet, whenever I’m in the mood to listen to Roxy, I gravitate towards their fourth album, COUNTRY LIFE, simply because it’s packed front to back with great songs. “The Thrill of It All” would be extremely high on a playlist for pumping myself up to get ready to leave the house and take over the world. “All I Want Is You” is not far behind, propelled by a similarly glam-tastic beat, only with Ferry in yearning heartbreak mode, pleading with his lover not to leave him and making a hell of an urgent case for it. Guitarist Phil Manzanera’s cathedral-like wall of chiming feedback and piercing interjections thoroughly support him without drowning him out. “Out of the Blue” immediately follows, dreamily fading in as if entering our orbit from another star, Andy Mackay’s winding saxophone gracefully softening/preparing us for the inevitable sharp impact when the primary melody emerges at full force and volume. The song then alternates back and forth between these swaying and crashing states until the coda, where Manzanera erupts into a furious, multi-tracked solo, buoyed into the stratosphere by the intense rhythmic foundation underneath.
Ah, but as I mentioned earlier, not everything about Roxy Music is euphoric. Ferry often balances this idea of transcending the ordinary and mundane with a whiff of longing for an ideal that cannot possibly be attained. In his lighter, less tortured moments, he’s an observer and a critic of the very thing he often celebrates. He’s mysterious and abstract when musing on nostalgia (“Three and Nine”) or spirituality (at least I think that’s what “Triptych” is about), saving his most astute observations for matters of romance and desire. On “A Really Good Time”, he lends a sympathetic but shrewd glance at a figure who is more of a taker than a giver. The strutting “Casanova” finds him dressing down a lothario (“Now you’re nothing but second hand / in glove with second rate now”) who could either be a scheming rival or perhaps a mirror image. This self-awareness also plays into the epic, lovesick ballad “Bitter-Sweet”, where he ruefully dismisses a soon-to-be ex (“Lovers, you consume, my friend / as others, their wine”) while he himself seems “quite amused” to see love “twist and turn” and taste “both sweet and dry.”
If the album’s more upbeat tracks are in line with categorizing the band as glam rock, the moodier stuff suggests that Roxy, like their closest contemporary David Bowie, isn’t easily pigeonholed. The haunting, forlorn “Bitter-Sweet” proceeds as one would expect, until the middle-eight, where the rhythm shifts to an oompah march and Ferry reels off a whole chorus in German. “A Really Good Time” oozes tension from how the relatively genteel arrangement gets repeatedly punctuated by intense blasts of a deliberately Eastern six-note motif which both complements and opens up the song’s melody. The baroque instrumentation of “Triptych” (seething with harpsichord and oboe) serves as a reminder of Roxy’s art-rock origins, coming off more as hymn or a tone poem than a pop song. Conversely, “If It Takes All Night” is unapologetically pop, a 1950s rock and roll homage that avoids mothball nostalgia partially because Ferry sounds so modern, but mostly because it just sounds like the band is having a really good time.
And, for all of Roxy’s pretentions and ambitions, they often temper their arty side with camp, good humor and fun (as if the scantily-clad-models-made-up-like-male-drag-queens album covers didn’t already tip you off.) “Prairie Rose” is one of my favorite album closers ever—returning to the sheer joy of “The Thrill of It All”, it finds Ferry at last abstaining from analysis and any hint of cool reserve. A lustful paean to his then-new girlfriend, model Jerry Hall (she’d eventually leave him for Mick Jagger) and her home state of Texas, it’s purely celebratory—the rare Roxy love song with a happy ending in part because it’s all about the beginning. It’s nearly disarming to hear Ferry falling unabashedly in love (his “you’re tan-TAH-lizing me!” is for the ages) and to also hear the band eagerly reciprocate: the song’s wicked slide riff, the extended guitar and sax solos, the massive yet lithe percussion all complement and enhance Ferry’s delirious happiness. It’s a stunning example of pop music’s transformative power; it’ll resurface in many different shades from other artists throughout this project (including, eventually, Roxy Music themselves again.)
Up next: the yang to Bryan Ferry’s yin.
“The Thrill of It All”: