The king of pain(ful self-consciousness), Sting has always seemed both older and younger than the music he is making. In the Police, he was a former schoolteacher trying to seem dignified while still leaping around in a blonde bleach job singing lyrics like “De do do do, de da da da.” Capable of monstrous pomposity yet ultimately addicted to the humiliating showmanship and intrinsic stupidity of rock’n’roll, he is permanently a man outside his art. Unlike David Bowie, who effortlessly appears to be a mature, civil adult even at moments of extreme theatrical silliness, Sting (Gordon Sumner) can’t buff up that aspect of his image the way he has pumped up his biceps; the elbow grease and sweat equity he puts into his music has created a permanent dissonance between his highbrow studio pretensions and his audience-pleasing poster-boy pandering. What he sings and why he sings it have never really been in synch.
Sting’s solo career very clearly reflects his enormous creative ambition, the personal issues that drive him in real life and the burning need to be taken seriously and admired. Few artists have ever struggled so hard to have hit records that could (hypothetically speaking of course…right?) hang in the Louvre — and rectify some of society’s ills along the way. The nakedness of his desires is touching at times, except when he’s being an absolute jerk about the way he’s gone about achieving them.
In 1985, with the Police on hiatus and heading for an unannounced fin, Sting produced his multi-platinum solo debut, The Dream of the Blue Turtles. Enlisting a seasoned collection of top-notch American players (Branford Marsalis, Omar Hakim, Kenny Kirkland and Darryl Jones), the pop star attempted to distance himself from the common vulgarity of mere rock music by introducing jazz trappings to a new set of songs, including the Police couldhavebeen “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free,” “Love Is the Seventh Wave,” “Fortress Around Your Heart” and the unbelievably stupid “Russians” (“based on a theme by Sergei Prokofiev”). The auteur sounds like he’s having a bloody fine time jamming with such cool cats, but the results mainly point up the narrow possibilities of his singing. And despite the illustrious company and his switch from bass to guitar, Sting alone is still like Sting in the Police: smug and pretentious.
Sting then took some of the same musicians out on the road and brought back the dull-as-a-dentist’s-office two-CD Bring on the Night. Recorded at several 1985 European concerts, the album does prove that Sting can pull it off live. Mainly drawing on Blue Turtles, the LP also revamps some old Police songs (e.g., “Driven to Tears,” “I Burn for You,” “Demolition Man”) with airy refinement and a measured gait. The sound quality is spectacular, the instrumental arrangements and performances unassailably accomplished. Sting’s liner notes even reveal a glimmer of self-effacing humility. Progress?
Uh, no. Alighting in Switzerland, Sting produced the effete intellectual masturbation of Nothing Like the Sun, one of the most self-important records on record. Aided by a new batch of virtuosos and famous guests (Andy Summers, Gil Evans, Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler and Rubén Blades, credited on one track with “Spanish”), Sting stretches a dozen delicate songs over two short discs, coming down off his high horse long enough to show Jimi Hendrix aficionados a numbingly dull way to perform “Little Wing.” It’s a tedious, bankrupt and vacuous cavern of a record. Even as the nouveau sophisticate sings “History Will Teach Us Nothing,” his pedantic instincts and bulging ego inform the lyrics at every turn with political dilettantism, literary namedropping and prolix pseudo-profundities. In what passes for light relief (but is, in fact, outlandish pomposity), Sting fancies himself a theatrical toff, singing the culturally autobiographical “Englishman in New York” over plucked violins and tootling horns as if the nouveau dandy had acquired Noel Coward’s soul on approval.
For some reason (condescension? avarice? arrogance? practice?), Sting cut Spanish-language versions of “Little Wing,” “We’ll Be Together,” “They Dance Alone” and “Fragile” (also in Portuguese) and released the five as Nada Como el Sol, thereby allowing a sizable portion of the non-English-speaking world to join the rest of us in wondering just what he’s prattling on about.
Setting aside his guitar and his global pretensions, Sting made The Soul Cages more personal and reflective, alternating obvious pop singles (“All This Time” sounds like the Police performing a Paul Simon song; “Why Should I Cry for You?” is an elegantly atmospheric ballad; the romantic title track touches old Police ground with new sophistication) and expansive theatrical meanderings (“Island of Souls,” “Mad About You,” “The Wild Wild Sea”) that are individually handsome but cry out for a context which the album fails to provide. With repeated references to his late father, The Soul Cages — antiseptically produced with Hugh Padgham — has solemn emotional resonance and a settled maturity unheard in Sting’s previous work, but the contradiction between fine art and commercial demography is the album’s strongest message.
Ten Summoner’s Tales is the first Sting album on which he seems able to bring his music and mindset within spitting distance of each other. An oddly conceived blend of nostalgic jazz stylings (“It’s Probably Me,” co-written with Michael Kamen and Eric Clapton, reaches for the elegance of Cole Porter only to tip over his martini glass) and elegiac pop, the album is by no means a wall-to-wall winner (the clumsy ballad “Love Is Stronger Than Justice,” the poorly sung would-be jump blues of “She’s Too Good for Me” and David Foxxe’s narration see to that). Still, it has a higher proportion of appealing songs than usual, and the grandiosity of their presentation is at least scaled back to manageable proportions. The jaunty bounce of “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You” actually strengthens the song’s inherent desolation, bolstering the unlikelihood of the title’s conditional prospect by buoying it on a melody that uplifts too sweetly to encourage such notions. The handsome folk essence of “Fields of Gold” doesn’t make it original, but Sting intones the lyrics with winning solemnity; the acoustic “Shape of My Heart” crosses Antonio Carlos Jobim and Jim Croce and still winds up on the right side of a good thing.
The first four albums are recapitulated on Fields of Gold, which contains two new items — the lugubrious and cliché-packed “When We Dance” and “This Cowboy Song” — plus an alternate version of “We’ll Be Together” and eleven fairly obvious back catalogue selections.
When the title of an old Police song, “Demolition Man,” was borrowed for a Stallone/Snipes futuristic action movie in 1993, Sting recut the track for the soundtrack; an EP of that horrendous, lifeless remake slaps on five live cuts — “King of Pain,” a fussy and badly sung rendition of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” and three of Ten Summoner’s Tales, all of which benefit from the staged simplicity.
Never having evinced a shred of humility in the past, Sting proudly keeps his leonine head up through the devastating romantic rejection (real or imagined) chronicled on Mercury Falling. He can’t even offer the satisfaction of simple misery in “I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying,” a snappy Nashville jaunt that provides the album’s most direct consideration of the seeming changes in his life. “Seven weeks have passed now since she left me/She shows her face to ask me how I am/She says the kids are fine and that they miss me/Maybe I could come and baby- sit sometime.” The personal cluelessness — a mix of egotism and willful self-delusion — which Sting inadvertently admits when he uses the same song to offer a generalized complaint about the role of “Sunday fathers” (“What can a father do but baby-sit sometimes?”) can also be read into the casualness with which the album flits among Squeeze-y pop-soul (“You Still Touch Me” and “All Four Seasons,” a wry but respectful love song), theatrical suavity (“The Hounds of Winter”), simple pop (“Lithium Sunset”), adult mush (“I Was Brought to My Senses,” “Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot”), old-time tragic folk balladry (“I Hung My Head,” a catchy put-on that causes good ol’ Sting to invent a backwoods brother named Jeb) and a laughable Berlitz French accent mangle (“La Belle Dame Sans Regrets”). A glib, by-the-numbers exercise in insincerity, Mercury Falling barely scrapes the surface of deep feelings. Ask any mature woman how she feels about emotional forthrightness — no wonder Sting’s in the doghouse.