Imagine a disembodied pair of jazz hands. Now imagine that those hands, as they flutter and preen, are bringing the world into existence, tweaking the air here and grabbing it there as they create experience. And those hands have also created themselves, white gloves from whole cloth, ex nihilo.
Now, play that image in reverse. Those disembodied hands are not creating, but destroying the world, pulling it down and into itself until it disappears to an event horizon, then a dot which becomes a mere speck of dust on a tailored forefinger.
Which is it to be? We could say that there is no such thing as a simple act of creation or destruction — one encompasses and produces the other, endlessly. We live in an age in which a lack of destruction is itself the cause of destruction. As data pile up to unmanageable quantities, pop has no choice but to eat itself, Ouroboros-like, and grow fat in the process. Music lives (so the lament goes), but only as a monstrous revenant, capable of mimesis and mitosis, but not reproduction. Meld those two hands, mirror clones, into one, and then multiply them to a dazzling Busby Berkeley figure of intricate complexity, a snowflake.
A snowdrift piles up and becomes a thing, and the question becomes: in this bereft yet cornucopian circumstance, whence the material from which creation can occur? From what ground can clay be gathered and fashioned, when creation — making there what was not there — is precisely what is in question? Bryan Ferry is nothing if not elegant — indeed, he embodies “nothing if not elegant.” And in The Jazz Age, he has found an elegant solution to this problem: 20s-style jazz covers of his own material. Ferry’s choices span his career (up to and including “Reason or Rhyme” from 2010’s Olympia) and encompass both Roxy Music and solo numbers. Some Ferry standards are virtually unrecognizable (“Love Is The Drug,” “Virginia Plain”), while others are transformed into their opposite (“The Bogus Man,” from a nine-minute hypnotic exploration, becomes a charming 128-second shuffle). Others hew closer to the original, the standout being a devil-may-care “Slave To Love.”
The Jazz Age both embodies Ferry’s political conservatism — a return to a nostalgic past, a valorization of what is now canonical — while also referring to an (or perhaps the) era of “cool.” The choice to record such an album in itself reflects this division: on the one hand, slavishly recreating the past is now precisely what pop music does; while on the other, the unusual particularity of the age and aesthetic chosen for reconstruction works against the typical paradigm — as does the holus-bolus reinterpretation of one’s own work, a kind of self-cannibalism (Ouroboros redux) but with a side of Baby Ruths and Wonder Bread. Ferry and other seminal artists of his time (most notably Bowie) have, paradoxically, taken reinvention as their only fixed point. On The Jazz Age, then, we have a literal reinvention of Ferry’s own material, but one embodied in the absolutely and unashamedly unoriginal, and in delving back ever closer to the zero point of popular music — which seems like a logical endpoint to the process.
The project can easily be compared to other left-fieldly archaic interpretations and cratediggings — R. Crumb’s justifiably well-received compilation That’s What I Call Sweet Music, for example. I was consistently reminded of The Jolly Boys’ Great Expectation, a Mento (pre-ska Jamaican folk) interpretation of indie standards from Iggy Pop to Amy Winehouse. And there is a precedent within Ferry’s own oeuvre, in his long-held penchant for jazz standards — think of 1999’s As Time Goes By.
But in another sense, The Jazz Age is more fruitfully understood through the lens of acts like The Caretaker (in much the same way as Ferry’s regrettable album of Dylan covers might be reinterpreted as a soundtrack to Todd Haynes’ Dylan art-biopic I’m Not There). Admittedly, the album is not overtly to be considered an avant-garde project, but neither should it be thought of as a novelty piece. Rather than Leyland Kirby’s careful, subtle manipulation of the melodies and crackles of vintage 45s, Ferry is working with the jazz genre itself considered as loopy, a deconstruction that transposes one lushness (that is, Ferry’s signature style) for another. And the distressed patina of age is not re-presented, but purposefully reconstructed — not so much shabby chic as swanky chic — the heartache without which no dream home is now complete.
But there’s a final void at the center of the work: for many, Ferry’s voice is the drug, and The Jazz Age is haunted by its doubly-disembodied absence. Indeed, collapsing absence upon absence, not only does Ferry not sing on the album; he does not play at all. And it’s this very lack, a sonically literal death of the author, which finally and absolutely redeems the piece from the whiff of gimmickry and makes its sound come alive. In his book Sinister Resonance, David Toop suggests that sound itself (let alone recorded sound) is a haunting. But what we have on The Jazz Age is music that’s haunting itself. And as if that wasn’t paradoxical enough, the ghost is older than its own embodiment — which it thereby sets in aspic. It’s a return trip from this side of paradise.