Roxy Music - Country Life - Review
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critics' view

Imagine my dismay back in 1974. The only available copies of Country Life for sale across the USA had the back cover shrub and nothing more. Its original cover, the one with the scantily-clad girls, had been banned in the land of the free, so Bryan Ferry’s bold conceptual move was hobbled from the get-go. The delightful irony of juxtaposing the title of a posh magazine with a naughty cover photo was lost to the American masses. And yet, despite all that, the music was enough to stir the imagination. Though glamour had been suppressed, it still poured from every track.

Country Life was Roxy Music’s fourth album, their second with Edwin Jobson, who had replaced Brian Eno. It didn’t sell as well as Stranded – not a big deal, considering it made it to No. 3 in the UK charts – but much ado was made of it anyway. Maybe the drop in sales had to do with its risqué cover, which wasn’t a lure to female teenage fans, or the band’s media overexposure. The perception was quite the opposite in America, though. Our bourgeoisie was never given a reason for outrage, and hype never traveled well beyond Manhattan. Here, far from the prying eyes of the British press, the cult around Roxy Music was growing steadily, fueled by strong reviews and word of mouth. American fans loved Country Life, plain and simple, which proves an album’s worth can be fairly appraised when the publicity machine isn’t running.

Country Life is not just a collection of good songs. Thematically, it’s the richest album in the Roxy Music canon. This is Ferry’s Dolce Vita: the man-about-town persona he’d cultivated since the first album becomes flesh and blood. He’s still in search of thrills, but here he looks for sin and redemption in the same places: “Ah, more champagne to lose this pain would be very nice / So I’ll help myself to one more drink and I’ll find myself if it takes all night”.

Ferry is so good at playing the lounge lizard that we often confuse him with his character. Though his background was working class, the pull of art, movies and music became so strong that proletarian living seemed more unreal. It was something to escape from, like Bolan and Bowie did, even at the risk of self-absorption. In Ferry’s case, reinvention was so complete that the transformation shows no fissures. He’s always in character, which is the better for his art, allowing for irony and distance yet keeping the listener engaged in the plot. A song like Three And Nine is about sex and fantasy, but it’s also about misfits creating some new experience from it, imagination being the multiplying factor.

Ferry’s cohorts made his fantasy world complete. These were musicians who had the chops to play in prog-rock combos but chose to align themselves with Ferry’s unique vision. A song like The Thrill Of It All hits you with a mighty wallop thanks to their arrangement, with all instruments going full blast. Like a pop-art collage, you have a juxtaposition of unlikely elements; the Velvet Underground mixed with John Barry. The band recreates the dizzy spin and the high-life ecstasy of Ferry’s lyrics. At this stage of the game, the sound was about polarities, and Roxy Music played all the scales.

Phil Manzanera isn’t your average rock guitarist. While his contemporaries went with the fat chords, Manzanera opted for trebly jangles and high-pitched wails. On All I Want Is You, he builds a wall of sound for Ferry that is equal parts Phil Spector and The Searchers. He goes even farther on Prairie Rose, conjuring an imaginary state of Texas with a slide guitar and frantic western strum. He blends perfectly with Andy Mackay’s sax, their interplay being one of the joys of this record, yet he also knows when to hold back. Though he co-wrote Out Of The Blue, everybody shines on this Roxy favourite: Mackay captivates with a sensuous oboe phrase, the rhythm section provides a fluid groove, and Edwin Jobson hits us with a lysergic violin solo that sounds like Yehudi Menuhin on mescaline.

After all this musical derring-do, If It Takes All Night would sound prosaic with its early R&B beat, but there are layers of meaning here. We doubt that the singer will find truth during his drunken romp, but he’ll have lots of fun trying. There’s even a reference to Madame Claude, who ran a famous call-girl stable in Paris. Ferry the songwriter didn’t skimp on the details back then, always painting vivid pictures. On Bitter-Sweet, for example, he evokes Marlene Dietrich and the Weimar Republic and still adds Jacques Brel melodrama to the mix.

The next songs leave artifice aside, taking us by surprise with their emotional sincerity. The art historian and lapsed Christian find common ground on Triptych, which bowls you over with its stunning imagery and gorgeous melody. For stark contrast, Casanova is a harsh censure: “I see you courting more despair / No hope? Not a glimmer”. Even Alfie had to question, “What’s it all about?”, but there’s no comeuppance for the wretch found here. A Really Good Time is lighter in tone, a romantic comedy scenario set to music. Here we have a seasoned sybarite giving advice to a young man, admitting to him that love is one thing we really need to get by.

After Country Life, Roxy Music only made four more studio albums. Reunion tours aside, the prospect of a new Roxy album is unlikely at best, not to say impossible. Over the years, the band mutated from pop-art group to pop group. Ferry’s song lyrics became minimalist and the sounds shrank with them. You can’t blame a band, or what remains of it, for changing with the times, but given a choice between Avalon and Country Life, I’d prefer a sequel to the latter. The reason is simple: Back in 1974, Roxy was remaking popular music from its foundations, and it changed everyone within earshot.

Angel Aguilar
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