Bryan Ferry’s best solo works have always been his covers. Since “These Foolish Things” (1973), the onetime voice of Roxy Music has partially devoted himself to giving well-known pop songs his own ultracool gloss. Within that context, his greatest feat is his talent for bringing others’ material into his own rarified world. Songs as signature and rough as Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” have nearly melted under his pristine vocalizations. And on the album “Taxi” (1993), he turned the girlish yearning of the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” into a beautiful yet menacing song about obsession and possession, replacing the jaunty melody of the original with icy, diaphanous layers of strings, vibraphones and hints of fuzzy guitar.
With “As Time Goes By,” Ferry’s fourth album of covers, the crooner meets the songs in their native territory, approaching the collection of ’30s standards as if he were playing a Depression-era nightclub singer in a black-and-white movie. The title cut begins with a piano, giving the tune the same poignant sparseness that it had in “Casablanca.” (These film metaphors actually play throughout the record: All of the songs have the kind of elegant jazz backing so beloved by Woody Allen.)
The material is perfect for Ferry, who’s always traded on his retro jet-set image. In a way, it represents a graceful retreat from contemporary pop, a dodge around the kind of embarrassing obsolescence that has plagued peers like David Bowie in their later years. But “As Time Goes By” is also an affirmation of the idea that, contrary to the doctrine of personal expression that dominates rock ‘n’ roll, great singers needn’t be great songwriters. “As Times Goes By” proves that interpreting a song can as artistic as writing one.
Ferry infuses many of these songs with more concentrated passion than he’s expressed since his Roxy Music days. He sounds choked by tears on his ravishing version of “Where or When,” performed over weeping strings with aching slowness and tenderness. Similarly, on “Falling in Love Again,” Ferry displays a vulnerability he’s hardly seemed capable of on other records. Throughout, he exudes a stylized sensuality that recalls the louche romance of French pop star Serge Gainsbourg.
In fact, part of what makes “As Time Goes By” so appealing is the same thirst for sophistication that led to a revival of sorts for Gainsbourg a few years ago. The album fits in with the neo-cabaret movement exemplified by artists like Rufus Wainwright, or by Marianne Faithfull on her fabulous Kurt Weill cover album, “20th Century Blues.” All three artists are working against the grain of the sophomoric brutality and simpering sentimentality of today’s rock scene, going back in time to find new ways to express a contemporary cosmopolitanism. It’s a tribute both to Ferry and the songs he sings on “As Time Goes By” that the album never sounds like an exercise in nostalgia. Instead, it is a refreshing ode to refinement and wit in an era when both are nearly impossible to find.