For Your Pleasure

A song-by-song analysis of the lyrics and music of Roxy Music and the solo work of Bryan Ferry, Brian Eno, Andy Mackay and Phil Manzanera in the 1970s

Sunset

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Sunset (Ferry), Stranded Roxy Music 1973

I think it’s fair to say this album ends strongly.

Roxy Fan, Online Forum

Roxy Music’s 1973 album Stranded concludes on a tranquil and highly poetic note with the Bryan Ferry composition ‘Sunset‘. Following a long line of excellent – and sometimes overlooked – closing tracks, ‘Sunset‘ is the precursor to ‘Just Another High‘ (Siren) and the excellent ‘Spin Me Round‘ (Manifesto), both book-end songs that manage in their reflective state to sum up the themes of the album or, at the very least, give final hearing to the thoughts of the narrator and lyricist.  If the history of story-telling requires a change in character in order to resolve conflict, Ferry chooses to close Stranded with the most clear-cut, unambiguous and concise poetry of his career. To that end, it’s worth quoting the song in full at the outset:

Oh look at the sun – it’s all a-glow
Slow burning star – sinking low
Heaven knows where you go
Out of sight, out of minds eye, no

Aw such a shame – you must leave
All day long you were a friend to me
Still – the moon´s company
Until morning when larks will sing

Horizon´s appointment you´ll keep
For sunswept flamingos must sleep
Scenes like these from my dreams
Cover cutting-room floors all over …..

Warm heart we spin slowly from view
Why are you sad – do you disapprove?
How we´ve wasted our time
Sunset – end of my day – my decline

Postscript you trace colours the sky
Red-letter light fades, is filed away
Sunburst fingers you raise
One last sigh of farewell – goodbye

If you took it upon yourself to teach a poetry class, you could do no better than present ‘Sunset‘ for analysis: composed in classic format – five four-line quatrains presented in even meter – Ferry and Roxy PR man and English PhD holder Simon Puxley went for clarity of expression, inclusive imagery and straight-forward sentiment. (After five years of translating Roxy Music‘s often dense postmodern verse, I mention this with considerable relief).

A beautiful evening sunset provides a number of metaphorical opportunities for writers: it can signify the end of the day, the end of the line, end of proceedings, exhaustion, terminus – or, conversely, the promise of a new day or beginning (see: Midnight Cowboy). If this was Ernest Hemingway it would mean death. (As did just about everything). If it was Emily Dickinson, then it would mean enduring and relentless poetry – “Sunset“, “The Juggler of Day”, “The Coming of Night”, “The Sea of Sunset” – and so on.

Bryan Ferry’s favourite poets include the metaphysical John Donne and the brilliant modernist T.S. Eliot (Eliot was sharp enough to keep anyone’s attention – The Waste Land is spectacular). John Donne wrote ‘The Sun Rising’, and this may well have been an influence for ‘Sunset‘ (“Busy old fool, unruly sun“). Similarly Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock‘ looms heavy in ‘Sunset’, in inspiration if not execution. Prufrock’s world view is melancholic, funny in its darkness, anxious about aging, mortality, and how best to spend our time (“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”). This is a favored Ferry trope and his narrators always invite the audience to listen in and share in the roguish melancholy:

Then I step back thinking of life´s inner meaning and my latest fling” (‘Mother of Pearl’);

Here as I sit at this empty cafe, Thinking of you” (A Song for Europe);

I hope something special will step into my life” (‘Editions of You‘)

“Valerie please believe it never could work out…” (‘Beauty Queen‘)

And so on.

What is notable about Ferry’s lyrics – in addition to their honesty and camp high Romanticism (“I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” Shelley) – is their haunting atmospheres and compelling imagery. Early Roxy Music (1972-1973) was the high water mark of early Ferry lyricism, as For Your Pleasure and Stranded presented archetypal literary symbolism to convey strong feelings of emotion, like a painter choosing chiaroscuro to highlight the contrasts between light and dark. If the energy of Stranded emanates in shades of red and gold, sun-kissed glamour and slow smouldering flames, then sister album For Your Pleasure mediates on encroaching darkness, personal guilt, worry, shyness, even embarrassment (“tongue tied, the thread of conversation“). For Ferry, darkness shifts to light as a means of working through a problem:

Until the cloak of evening shadow
Changes to mantle of the dawn
Will it be sunny then I wonder?

Strictly Confidential

In the morning
Things you worried about last night
Will seem lighter
I hope things will turn out all right

For Your Pleasure

The cyclical pattern of day/night, darkness/light is utilized by the singer-songwriter with the sensitivity of a Romantic troubadour, providing compelling contrast to the pop-art sensationalism of Roxy gems such as ‘Virginia Plain‘, ‘Do the Strand‘, ‘Re-Make/Re-Model‘ or even ‘Street Life‘. Beginning with ‘Chance Meeting‘ from first album Roxy Music, Ferry delighted in taking us into those darker interior states seen on For Your Pleasure (‘In Every Dream Home’, ‘The Bogus Man’, ‘Strictly Confidential’). And while troubled ghosts still wander the corridors of Stranded, (‘Psalm’, ‘Amazona’, ‘Mother of Pearl’), it feels like we’re getting to the end of Ferry’s obsession with existential analysis – an interrogation of modernity as it relates to spiritual and moral concerns – in favor of a more self-focused scrutiny.

Essentially, by early 1974 Ferry had cracked it, had achieved his goals in terms of celebrity, influence and art – yet couldn’t quite see where to go next. The problems of living in the world – affairs of the heart, human stupidity, physical decay – were insolvable. Suicide wasn’t an option.  The cultural revolution that he, Brian Eno and Andy Mackay had given voice to in British pop music hadn’t really changed anything, except setting a higher standard for what could be accepted as ‘Pop music’ (Roxy were a brainy group; and lyrically, Ferry had introduced pop-art and literary ideas to a very wide audience). The experience of creating art remained largely schizophrenic in nature. The bright lights no longer confused, but the highs didn’t take you beyond the Milky Way either. Love and commitment did not come any easier, in fact relationships now came with risk, agendas, the possibility of public betrayal. “Don’t ask why I’m feeling blue,” Ferry asked at the beginning of Strandedyet by the close of the record he had come to recognize the truth – that he was indeed stranded: “With every goddess a let down, every idol a bring down. It gets you down.

And so, by shifting to third-person omniscient mode for ‘Sunset’ – ergo, author-as-God, creator of worlds – Ferry raises his arms to the heavens to engage with the Big Questions – destiny, morality, fate. We’ve been here before with ‘In Every Dream Home, a Heartache (“Is there a heaven? / I’d like to think so“). Similarly, in ‘Just Like You‘ the narrator wonders if Lady Luck (“old and sage“) will continue to smile down on his secular antics (“to gamble with fate is my crime“). And so too ‘Sunset‘ is designed to address questions of Universality, of inclusiveness, closing the book on the day’s events while also metaphorically bringing the Stranded album to a close:

Oh look at the sun – it’s all a-glow
Slow burning star – sinking low
Heaven knows where you go
Out of sight, out of minds eye, no


This beautiful sunset
burns brightly in its dying moments “all a-glow” as the final rupture of light illuminates the sky before nightfall. The metaphor references both our Earthly sun – that huge celestial body of hydrogen and helium – and Ferry’s own “slow burning star” – the man, the myth – as he journeys on his ‘solo trip’ beyond the stars (“Where do we go? We’ll never know“). Carefully balancing the cosmic with the personal, Ferry assures us that the sun and the bright lights will never be forgotten as long as he (and his creativity) lives: “Out of mind’s eye, no” – he says with a wink, punning on the phrase ‘Mind’s I’ – that line of philosophical inquiry that examines the nature of the Self.

This shift to the internal is intentional as the sunset settles behind the horizon and Ferry shifts his (and our) attention towards the act of authorship and the writing process:

Horizon´s appointment you´ll keep
For sunswept flamingos must sleep
Scenes like these from my dreams
Cover cutting-room floors all over …..

Those “sunset flamingos” are an important marker for the singer-songwriter, having made their first appearance in Roxy Music’s hit single ‘Virginia Plain‘ – the song that provided the template for Ferry’s persona-shifting, celebrity-crashing manifesto (“What’s real and make believe“). “Dance the cha-cha through til sunrise,” we were told with energy and bravado, an exciting future unfolding for the band (and audience): “Just like flamingos, look the same, So me and you, just we two, Got to search for something new.”

By the time of ‘Sunset’ and Stranded‘s release 15 months later, the time to retire this idea had come – the sun is shutting down, keeping its “horizon’s appointment“, and those glamorous sunswept flamingos “must sleep.” The next lines are stunning in their statement of defiant creativity, facing down an unruly and uncaring universe, the author situates himself in the work – like Rembrandt painting himself into Raising of the Cross:

Scenes like these from my dreams
Cover cutting-room floors all over …..

The cinematic aspect of Ferry’s fever-dream, the creation of Roxy Music (literally, ‘cinema music’), is made explicit with reference to scenes that litter “cutting room floors“. This is the dramatist-behind-the curtain, turning ideas into art – or better yet – chasing down the art inspiration: those flavors of the mountain streamline, the Cha-cha and sunswept flamingos. The sentiment is delicate (“Warm heart“), but also a little paranoid, fearful. Classic Ferry:

Warm heart we spin slowly from view
Why are you sad – do you disapprove?
How we´ve wasted our time
Sunset – end of my day – my decline

Postscript:

Postscript you trace colours the sky
Red-letter light fades, is filed away
Sunburst fingers you raise
One last sigh of farewell – goodbye

The beautiful ‘Sunset’ postscript concludes Stranded with a final sigh of farewell. The serene and powerful music ebbs, the production winds to a close, the author looks to the future. 1974 would be a busy year for Roxy Music and solo band projects, and Ferry would continue to chase down his experiences and share them with his audience. In this regard ‘Sunset’ marks the culmination of a period in Roxy Music’s development and output. There is much magic to come, but from here on in Ferry’s persona-shifting would settle – for better or worse – on that white tuxedo. Subject matter increasingly focuses on the myth of the newly created Idol ‘Bryan Ferry’ as told and experienced by Bryan Ferry. (Good work if you can get it).

By the close of Stranded, the author puts down his paints (“trace colours the sky“), sets aside his lyrics (“red-letter light fades, is filed away“), and waves a personal farewell to his audience in the same fading blaze of red that has dominated the album:

Sunburst fingers you raise
One last sigh of farewell – goodbye

It’s all tremendously moving. Not a simple song by any means, ‘Sunset’ makes simplicity look easy, as all sunsets must do as their power brightens before lowering inexorably towards the horizon at the end of our days.

“We were convinced that we were in pursuit of a will-o’-the-wisp, ever receding, ever changing, ever beckoning”

– Donald Baxter MacMillan on his futile search for Crocker Island, Artic Suns, Greenland (1913-1917)

Credits:  First shot, last shot: Explorer’s stunning photographs of the Arctic Sun from 110 years ago, Flashbak; Fan comment comes from Steve Hoffman forums, here; capture from Art’s Greatest Kisses, BBC; Bryan Ferry deep in thought Bournemouth beach NME 1974 (I think photo credit is Penny Smith, will check); neon pink Flamingo for sale (I quite like it – where can I buy); montage: a really fabulous American artist, Jeff Burgess – his view of the Mind’s I, artistic process (here: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-minds-eye-jeff-burgess.html).

Special thank you for Jonathan Rigby’s excellent entry on ‘Sunset’ in his book Roxy Music: Both Ends Burning. “The lyric is one of Ferry’s best”. No argument there, Jonathan. (Though time is ripe for a reprint on your book – current price is $172 CDN!).

Next: I love Stranded even more now than when I started writing about it a year ago. The album marked the end of the high-water mark of the English literary tradition in Bryan Ferry’s lyrics, and the beginning of a harder edge glamour that fused rock spectacle with Weimar decadence. Country Life is in the mail, folks! First things first: we’ll stop by Brian Eno‘s first foray post-Roxy – the brilliant collaboration ‘No Pussyfooting’ (1973) with Robert Fripp. Let’s settle in with a little Heavenly Music Corporation for a bit. Til next time!

2 thoughts on “Sunset

  1. Trust Bryan Ferry to end album with an art song elegy to the setting sun. For it is an art song, with the string bass of Chris Laurence and Andy Mackay’s oboe – so austere, so touching – in the final verses. A song I first heard in winter and still associate with that season, the time of the shortest daylight. I was once asked to explain Sunset and all I could say was that in the midst of incredible beauty there could be heartbreak.

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