Critical Karaoke: “More Than This” (04/2004)

Bryan Ferry is a god, and Roxy Music was his court. As a stylist—and that’s what he is, not an icon, not a performer, not Lesley Gore, not Bob Dylan, people he would love to be—or to have been—no one touches him, just as no one touches Neil Young. They have their own styles. Their styles are narrow, so much so that they can seem merely self-referential.

Maybe so. “More Than This,” from Roxy Music’s Avalon, from 1982, twenty-two years ago that can feel like last night, summed up everything the band’s style ever implied, everything it ever wanted. “More Than This” is the essence of the story the band told, and at least half of the story Ferry always meant to tell—no, you can’t fit his version of Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” into “More Than This.”

It begins with Phil Manzanera’s high-stepping guitar, and then Bryan Ferry on a swing, pumping slowly, going just a foot higher with each pass—all you can do is sigh. All you can do is shake your head, that anything could be so perfect.

Now, this is my karaoke number because I love it. When asked to pick a song this popped into my head without a thought. But after I chose it, I realized that behind that choice really was karaoke—Bill Murray in a Tokyo karaoke bar singing “More Than This” in Lost in Translation. For this moment, anyway, the title of the movie is strange: in this moment, every word is enunciated, singled out as a thing in itself, made plain: every word is exposed. You realize that the man Bill Murray is playing, in his attempt to seduce the woman played by Scarlett Johanssen, in his attempt to seduce himself, to convince himself that he is still sexually alive, cannot afford to miss, even to elide, a single word. The song is the truth; in this moment, the only way Muray’s character can imagine telling the truth is literally. But the truth of “More Than This” is anything but literal; the truth of the song is that to remake the song as fact is to show how afraid of the song you really are.

For me anyway, after twenty-two dissolving years of listening to the tune, Bill Murray’s halting, heartfelt version was a shock: the shock of discovering that “More Than This” has words. Lyrics. Absolutely terrible lyrics, on the order of “Castles in the sky/ Castles made of sand/ You and I will last forever/ My ring upon your hand.” You hear not a word of this when Bryan Ferry sings the words that he himself wrote. More than this—nothing. Those are the words to “More Than This.” As far as I’m willing to go, that is the complete lyric.

Roxy Music’s “More Than This” is a drift, a float. The sounds coming out of Ferry’s mouth, except for the chorus, when the whirlpool is stopped, when it’s centered, when he steps out as if to make a speech, are a golden smear.

Four minutes and fifteen seconds long, the song begins to fade after two minutes and thirty-two seconds. You hear “More than this—nothing”—and then Phil Manzanera, who has simply been counting off the rhythm behind Ferry, play his solo. It’s maybe eleven bent blues notes—there and gone in under three seconds. It is the most elegant and ephemeral distillation of the guitar solo, any guitar solo, imaginable, and it brings up a question. What is a guitar solo? What happens when the singer steps back and gives the song—its themes, its argument, its imagery, its story—to a musician?

What happens is the admission that certain things can’t be said in words, but they can be said. Almost always, when this happens in a song, there’s a sudden thrill, a catch in the heart—even if what follows is bland, blank, time and no more than time.

Critical Karaoke number, presented live at EMP Pop Music Conference, April 2004

3 thoughts on “Critical Karaoke: “More Than This” (04/2004)

  1. What a fucking moronic and un-educated commentary on a subject you OBVIOUSLY no nothing about…!! And more importantly, Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music!! In future, ….please keep your ignorance… yourself!! T H A T’s ….S..E..L..F…..for you slow fucks.

  2. Waxing ecstatic about syrupy piffle,and attempting to imbue it with a wider cultural significance is the literary art form that perfectly captures the essence of the music in these clips.G.M. is the consummate master of associative critical impressionism.The musical landscapes are distorted a la Van Gogh. And remember =everyone knows Van Gogh was a great artist-& he had a good ear also.

  3. What a thoughtless review.

    More than this — nothing.

    Yeah, that IS the lyric. And anyone who doesn’t feel the weight of that realization right through their soul…is dead to understanding.

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