On May 28, 1982 i Roxy Music from Bryan Ferry publish the last chapter of their artistic story, Avalon, a record that has split the critics and united the public as only great works of art can do – and perhaps never as in their case has the word “art” been more suitable to describe a musical group.
According to the critic Simon A. Morrison – who dedicated an entire essay to the disc – all the work of the band can be ascribed to the aesthetic-philosophical current of Anglo-American modernism and Bryan Ferry officially appointed a “modernist of our days”. Although the critical category of modernism is characterized by a certain degree of vagueness and ambiguity, whatever its field of application – from architecture to literature to painting and modern conceptual art – there is always a will to to push the limits of traditional aesthetic construction, pushing them a little further. “Make It new” it was the famous injunction of the poet Ezra Pound and Roxy Music took it literally right away. The band, in fact, born from the meeting between three art students (Bryan Ferry, Brian Eno And Andy Mackay), it was conceived to be itself a work of art that fused music, fashion and visual art into something never seen and never heard before. From the clothing to the iconic covers of their records – a memorable one with Amanda Lear leading a panther on a leash – nothing has ever been left to chance in the aesthetic construction of the band, which at first seemed to come from an alien planet, so much so that at the time some described them as “late 1950s rockers in love with Star Trek”.
Even from a strictly sound point of view it is difficult, if not impossible, to find in the decade preceding their debut something similar to the sophisticated pop art of the first Roxy Music, when the “non-musician” was still alongside their leader. Brian Eno to direct the sound along unpredictable oblique strategies. To tell the truth, Roxy Music also used the stylistic features of the past, renewing and remodeling them, however, in a way that was always new and extraordinarily original: it is no coincidence that the opening track of their debut album was entitled, precisely, Re-Make, Re-modeL. Simon Reynolds tried to define all this as “visionary retrofuturism”, while Brian Eno said that Roxy Music “looked at the past in a kitschy way and tried to imagine the future […] perhaps in an equally kitschy way “.
But of all this initial histrionics, little remains in the final chapter of their career. Avalon, in fact, it is a record with a mythical-mystical flavor that (ap) seems (re) emerged from the dreamlike mists of fantasy. Or maybe it would be better to say just since Fantasy or from the legendary tale, to which explicit reference is made from the title and the cover image, which abandons the previous aesthetics of Roxy Music, which always put female beauty in the foreground, filtered by a certain male gazeplacing the woman at the intersection of the objet d’art and the sexual object.
This time the woman is turned away and wears a medieval helmet; at her side she has a hawk with which she scans the horizon, where an island in the middle of the sea stands out in the distance with the reflection of the sky on the water that creates an optical effect that makes you seem to be among the clouds at a I pass from heaven. The photo was actually taken near a lake in Ireland, but in the disc’s imagination it is Avalon, the mythical island where King Arthur is said to have been buried. It was Ferry himself who specified this in an old interview with Rolling Stone:
“I had often thought of an album where the songs were tied together in a West Side Story style, but it seemed too boring to work that way. Instead, I had these ten poems, or short stories, on my hands, which with a little work could have become a short story. Avalon is part of the legend of King Arthur. When the king died, a ship from the queen took him to Avalon, an enchanted island. It is the place of romantic fantasy par excellence. “
For those who grew up in the 80s, the image arouses a further pop suggestion. The combination of woman and hawk, in fact, brings to mind the scenes of the film Ladyhawke, another medieval fantasy story in which two lovers can never meet because she lives only at night and during the day she transforms into a hawk, while he lives only during the day and at night she transforms into a wolf, which is why the two lovers they manage to cross each other only for a few moments at sunset and sunrise. Also in the official video of the song of the same name a hawk appears, circling around a romantic fantasy: this time we are at a dance, but the party’s overimmediately sings Bryan Ferry, before seeing the girl who will attract his attention: Then I see you coming / Out of nowhere.
The song is configured as a seductive ballad that translates a courtship made of voices into music (that of Ferry’s navigated crooner to which the choirs of the Haitian singer are counterbalanced. Yanik Étienne), but above all of looks, which underlie veiled promises and daydreams destined to vanish into thin air. The game of seduction and the mysterious atmosphere of the song (Much communication, in a motion / Without conversation, or a notion) go perfectly with the images of the video, placing themselves halfway between the masked ball of David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly in Labyrinth (another cult film from the 80s) e Death in Venice from Thomas Mann brought to the cinema by Luchino Viscontito which the director Howard Guard he was admittedly inspired.
But the most famous and ideologically most representative song of the disc is undoubtedly More Than This. The song, chosen as the opening of the album and first official single, was released with an even more artistic cover than usual, depicting a detail of the painting Veronica Veronesemade in 1872 by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The work was most likely chosen because it represents the artistic soul in the act of musical creation; on the frame of the original, in fact, there is an engraving in French with the following words:
Suddenly leaning forward, Lady Veronica quickly wrote the first notes on the blank page. She then she took the violin bow to make her dream of reality; but before he began to play the instrument hanging from her hand, she was silent for a few moments, listening to her inspiring bird, as her left hand trailed along her strings in search of the supreme, still elusive melody. It was the marriage of the voices of nature and the soul – the dawn of a mystical creation. “
So this was what the latest Roxy Music were aiming for: mystical creation and the search for the supreme melody. It is incredible to note how two eminences of music criticism have expressed an opposite thought in this regard: while for Greil Marcus More Than This constitutes the essence of the entire musical history of the band, however Simon Reynolds everything Avalon (More Than This included) is nothing more than a shimmering patina without substance, an “immaculate background music” in which Bryan Ferry has managed to erase not only the personalities of the other members of the band, but even his own.
If you want to take a stand, we recommend that you listen to the karaoke version of More Than This sung by Bill Murray to Scarlett Johansson in the cult film of Sofia Coppola Lost In Translation. As widely explained by Greil Marcus in a usual illuminating article, in this version every word of the song is pronounced as if it were a thing in its own right, i.e. every word is almost declaimed and is overexposed, while in the original version one is so enraptured by the (supreme?) melody that you don’t even realize there is a text. You almost don’t feel it. At least you remember the triad of the chorus: More than this / You know there’s nothing / More than this / Tell me one thing / More than this / Ooh there’s nothing. But what really remains in your head is a simple concept that can be expressed in a single sentence: “More than that, there is nothing.” Nothing else matters.
The other fundamental element in the analysis of Greil Marcus is that in the middle of the song the song already begins to fade, after which the guitar solo of Phil Manzanera which is described as “the most elegant and ephemeral distillation of guitar solo, of any imaginable guitar solo” – such as to lead one to ask «what is a guitar solo? What happens when the singer takes a step back and hands over the song – its themes, its arguments, its imagery, its history – to a musician? ‘ The answer that Marcus gives himself is that the meaning in this case is an admission of the superiority of the music over the text, the proof that certain things cannot be said with words (“more than this there is nothing”), but they can still be said.
This is perhaps the deepest meaning of an entire record in which the lyrics are so short and evocative that at times they almost seem like Japanese haiku – Ferry explicitly stated that he was heavily influenced by oriental poetry at that time – if not pure sound. (no way, no why / no care, no cry). The songs resemble uninhabited houses (as in the video for the single ghost While My Heart Is Still Beating, first announced and then replaced at the last by Take A Chance With Me); indeed they are houses inhabited by ghosts who do not speak, but move and “make themselves heard” (Much communication, in a motion – there is more communication in a movement, right?).
The demonstration of the superiority of the music over the text reaches its peak in the two instrumental pieces India And Tare, nothing but a groove (the first) and an improvisation on the sax (the second) which constitute the two poles of a single integrated musical experience. Tare it is also the song chosen to close the disc with a single magic word, closely connected to the culture and history of Ireland, where in different eras and in different languages it has taken on the meaning of “star”, “light”, “diamond” , “Farewell” and “goddess of the sea”. It is no coincidence that the piece opens and closes with the sound of the waves recorded directly from the beach near the recording studio. A dream within a dream, a magic within a magic. Forty years later, Avalon it is still the sound of the calm sea after the storm of heaven.
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