Ferry does Dylan – and not very well.

By | August 11, 2014

ferry does dylan

Album review – Bryan Ferry ‘Dylanesque’.

In a series of very occasional album reviews on this site, here are my reflections on ‘Dylanesque’, Bryan Ferry’s homage to Bob Dylan.

Granted it is about 7 years too late to be reviewing it and I suppose anyone who thought about buying it either did so at the time or has since forgotten all about it. For those who did stump up and pay full price back then I doubt it has had heavy rotation. I cannot imagine it was a big seller and now I have heard it a few times I can see why. Still the $5 bargain bin lured me in and, let’s face it, with that sticker price there was never going to be much cognitive dissonance if it was rubbish.

Dylan needs little introduction, coverage or eulogies. Most critics would agree that he is one of the most iconic singer-songwriters ever and he has been highly influential in the development of rock music from its folksy origins in the early 60s and is still going strong with new and challenging material. However from a singing voice perspective, he does rather polarize. I think it would be hard to argue that he is a classy singer. That raspy, sort of whiny voice belies that. However I would defend to the hilt the notion that he has written some of the best music ever recorded. He is a story teller par excellence with a good ear for a hookable tune. In his time, one of the grand innovators.

So for a classy singer like Bryan Ferry, Dylan represents a significant opportunity. The prospect of first class songs sung by a first class singing act should be awesome. Ferry’s smooth vocals ought be able to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse, if that’s your view of Dylan’s work.

Does it work? Well in a word ‘no’. Ferry can be forgiven for pretty much most things – he is of course the epitome of cool. Even today at 70 he is still has a timeless suavity, let alone in his early 60s when he recorded this. This year I saw him perform at Glastonbury and at the Henley Festival and he didn’t disappoint doing his Roxy Music repertoire.
Choosing 11 of Dylan’s vast oeuvre to cover cannot have been that easy but Ferry plays it safe, very safe. Even casual Dylan fans will be familiar with most of the songs he chose to cover.

Generally speaking, Dylan’s work has attitude. It is edgy. It pushes against the pricks. It couldn’t be further from lounge music if it tried. The idea of going into The Beverley Hills Hotel or The Savoy in London and hearing ‘Idiot Wind’ blasting out is laughable. Unfortunately Ferry is the master of classy lounge music. ‘Avalon’, ‘Jealous Guy’, ‘Slave to Love’, yeah I can imagine hearing any of those as I sip my Pina Colada at the Grand Hyatt on Poipou Beach. And that’s the problem. He sounds like a self-satisfied, upper class lounge singer, which is fine except he’s attempting music that needs attitude. That’s how those songs were sung back in the 60s.

And so when Ferry attempts ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’ one cannot help think how lame it is compared not just to the original but to two other rather better covers – Clapton’s and Guns n’ Roses’ which both brought something extra to it. A youthful Clapton, master guitarist though he is, is no A grade singer either, but his version has emotion layered into it. As for Axel Rose, well there is little more to be said to the assault that he and Slash manage to evoke on the ears with their rendition. Ferry manages to make it sound like ‘Avalon’ all over again. To steal what one Twitter writer said of a Coldplay gig a few years ago, ‘now I know what beige sounds like’.

‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’ and ‘All I Really Want To Do’ sound like they have been dialed in and add nothing to either of the originals. Passable covers of ‘If Not For You’ and ‘Simple Twist Of Fate’ do somewhat redress the balance, especially once a rather fine ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ has been thrown into the mix.

However the crime of the century (to steal Supertramp’s line) is the cover of ‘Positively 4th Street’. Surely this is one of the most vituperative songs ever written? Together with ‘Idiot Wind’ it would have to be a definite on the team sheet for the most spiteful songs of all time. It is full of venom and hate and Dylan sings it accordingly. Ferry out-lounges himself on covering it. Gone is the threat and is replaced by a warm, hot-chocolately, mogadon-laden rendition. It is like being assaulted by a sheep. This is probably the one song he should not have covered from the Dylan cannon. Only the sneering of The Sex Pistols or Oasis could do that song justice.Can you imagine Bryan ever saying to a lady “I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes, you’d know what a drag it is to see you”. Of course not. His manners are far too polished to ever utter such a cruel sentence. It just has no verisimilitude to it.

On the whole, I appreciate Ferry’s music and most of what he and his Roxy Music band delivered, from their glam rock origins to their mainstream rock output. However this is one vanity project that he should have left well alone.

Post Script: For a professional critic’s view see Pitchfork’s review here – which I saw after penning the above. It is broadly in line with mine, if a lot better written. Douglas Volk is generally harsher in his criticism although kinder about Positively 4th Street

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