Waltzing from Roxy's latest-to-earliest history, this new collection's revealing spin starts with still-chic cover art. Who, besides Ferry, would think of featuring an emerald crystal ball to look back into the past? Perhaps to make us green with envy of old glories, wishing to relive them. Every track remains exquisite?whether exquisitely smooth ("Angel Eyes") or exquisitely intense ("Virginia Plain"). The furious invention of the final track, 1972's "Re-make/Re-model," reveals the secret to "Avalon." Telling the story backwards has the effect of deconstructing Roxy's perfect late recordings. You realize the musicianship buried deep in Avalon's glib artifice and the years of experimentation that went into producing its pop elegance.
Hear the change as 1979's "Dance Away" gives way to 1975's "Both Ends Burning." The latter was never a single, but in FM radio's heyday it overtook "Love Is the Drug" (the group's first U.S. chart-marker) and became the favorite Roxy track for American rock-and-soul palates. "Dance Away"'s suave romanticism is the intoxicating smoke ring floating up from "Both Ends Burning"'s postcoital ashes ("Who can sleep/In this heat/This night," reasoned loverman Ferry). Roxy had achieved Motown's rock-steady majesty in "Both Ends Burning," keeping pace with disco's beginnings. But once the late-70s world awakened to disco, Roxy?inventive pop esthetes including guitarist Phil Manzanera and saxophonist Andy Mackay?knew to step lightly. From then on, their previous pop and sex theorizing became cannily modern nostalgia. Burning out segued into dancing away. Romantic expectation transformed into the memory of romantic experience. (That's why the aftertaste of moviegoing and radio-listening trigger magnificent regret in "Oh Yeah," from 1980's Flesh + Blood.)
Visionary Ferry was no more self-aware than any other glam rock star, but he made better use of pop self-consciousness. The British music press' recent preference for early Roxy over late Roxy undervalues Ferry's constant artistic and spiritual push. He kept exploring the legacy of pop music even while still creating it. (Catch that mini-riff of "Daytripper" in the first Roxy single "Virginia Plain.") Ferry is committed to the idea that what makes art pop is the need to always invent terms, imagery, process, affection, music. Roxy's albums elevated record production and last year's remastered editions confirm the high standard. This absolute note-to-note engagement with the making of pop art showed that pop's surface frivolity and deep pleasure were legitimate and commanding pursuits. "Avalon," an ode to lovemaking, is as much a view of life as the dance styles catalogued in "Do the Strand." One is always a code for the other.
Great as the CD begins, Roxy's stature grows as it plays. Two tracks from Country Life?"Out of the Blue" and "All I Want is You"?only hint at that album's being the group's most exultant moment (its true epiphanies, "The Thrill of It All" with its sensational charge-and-retreat and the roiling "Prairie Rose" remain to be savored in the full album context). "Mother of Pearl" from Stranded is back after being excluded from previous Roxy compilations (It last appeared on 1977's vinyl-only Greatest Hits), making this one a more satisfying representation of how the group mixed eclectic music styles with diverse strains of philosophical inquiry (alas, the essential "Editions of You" is excluded). "Mother of Pearl" was (like the dark, celebrated "In Every Dream Home a Heartache") a deliberate bid for greatness?a forgotten but remarkable ambition. It's art rock but dexterous and witty. Ferry sings, "Serpentine sleekness/Was always my weakness/Like a simple tune," then plays gentle piano notes that remain throughout the song's melody. For six minutes, it's what the best pop records ought to be: an adventure.
As the vintage "Re-make/Re-model" ended this CD's journey, I smiled at the apparent lesson. Hearing how Roxy's early fertile chaos matches its later potent lyricism proves we can indeed have both.