Friday, May 15, 2009

Sting the Pop Perfectionist

Look up the phrase "pop perfectionist" in the dictionary, and you'll probably find a picture of seasoned singer-songwriter Sting staring back at you with that smirking, holier-than-thou demeanour of his. Through the course of three-and-a-half decades in the business (counting his time serving as Police chief), Gordon Sumner has made an art out of perfecting the nuances of the pop song. This craft includes, but is not limited to tasks like smoothing out its rougher edges, flavouring it with exotic ingredients like jazz, country, Latin, and even classical, and basically trying to establish himself as a master purveyor of consummate popular music. Of course, this also means that Sting has been accused (more than once) of being a major pretentious bastard, but it's all part of the package. Let's take a look at what his back catalogue has to offer.

This debut album was as far removed from Sting's work with The Police as can be. A studied, jazz-influenced approach is adopted, backed by distinguished jazz sessionists like Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland, Omar Hakim and Darryl Jones. Still, there are a handful of pop-oriented baubles scattered around, like the mockingly joyous 'If You Love Somebody Set Them Free' and the sunny, reggae-influenced 'Love is the Seventh Wave', and the wearily autobiographical, relentlessly martial 'Fortress Around Your Heart'. Elsewhere, the record meets its quota of musical sophistication in things like the Prokofiev rip-off 'Russians' (an anti-Soviet rant made obsolete by the ending of the Cold War) and the smoky Thelonious Monk approximation 'Moon Over Bourbon Street' .

Latin-American cadences form the bedrock of this sophomore effort, and this aesthetic does work for the most part, but the surfeit of political and social subjects tackled here does make the proceedings rather heavy-going after a while. The blond intellectual giant deals with issues of the day in his usual high-handed, erudite fashion, whether it's lamenting the plight of Amazonian Indians ('Fragile'), castigating the brutalities of Chile's Pinochet regime ('They Dance Alone') or berating the world in general (the self-explanatory 'History Will Teach Us Nothing'). Thankfully, the record is redeemed by relatively straightforward pop crackers like 'Englishman in New York', 'We'll Be Together' and 'Straight to My Heart'.

Dredging up childhood memories of growing up in the grim seaside metropolis of Newcastle resulted in this nautically themed album, which was a windswept and joyless opus detailing loss and mortality. Nonetheless, there are standouts on this rather inaccessible, cathartic work, including the ghostly beauty of 'Island of Souls', the storybook atmospherics of 'Mad About You', the meditative classical Latin-guitar piece 'St. Agnes and the Burning Train', and the ramshackle blues structure of 'Jeremiah Blues'.

Having exorcised his personal demons, a newly invigorated Sting in 1993 released his most accessible endeavour thus far, where his penchant for crafting impeccable pop melodies really came to the fore. The albums is filled to the brim with perfect, pop-tastic gems like the straight-ahead pop-rock of 'If I Ever Lose My Faith in You', the fatally infectious melody of 'Fields of Gold', the tongue-in-cheek country-and-western fun of 'Love is Stronger Than Justice' and the lilting Latin pop of 'Shape of My Heart'. A sense of humour is also evident in the insanely scathing 'Saint Augustine in Hell', where he takes a pot shot at his eternal nemeses, music critics, counting them amongst the various denizens of hell.

Toning down the joviality prevalent on 'Ten Summoner's Tales' and adopting a more sombre outlook, this was basically Sting's mid-life crisis album, with a decidedly greyscale and sombre feel throughout. Songs like the ponderous 'The Hounds of Winter', the thoughtful 'I Was Brought to My Senses' and the mournful sea shanty 'Valparaiso' all attest to the general feeling of trepidation and circumspection, but at least the closing acoustic ballad 'Lithium Sunset' provided a much-needed sense of cautious optimism.

Ostensibly effervescent and possessed of an unrelentingly buoyant (but forced) elan, this was Sting's most diverse piece of work. Closer observation however exposes it as having more style than substance, with the overlaying of more electronics and overdubs than an Enya album. The preachy, pseudo-majestic 'A Thousnad Years', the techno-rockish 'After the Rain Has Fallen' and the faux-North African, intentionally radio-friendly textures of 'Desert Rose' all prove that Sting had become more interested in purveying a fashionable, chart-bound record, rather than challenging the boundaries of popular music.

Continuing in pretty much the same artistic vein as 'Brand New Day', but without the user-friendly melodies, this shockingly patchy work is arguably Sting's worst, suffering from a severe case of musical schizophrenia. Stilted folk ('Dead Man's Rope'), ethno-techno ('Send Your Love'), gospel hip-hop ('Whenever I Say Your Name') and awkward drum n' bass ('Never Coming Home') are all forcibly merged in a puzzling and ultimately meaningless "artistic" stew that is the musical equivalent of indigestion.

A stopgap record that has the ageing pop perfectionist making a leftfield foray into Elizabethan-era Renaissance music. It's not exactly a bad record by itself, although the 23 tunes here (interspersed with affected spoken-word interludes) eventually blend into one, without any real distinguishing characteristics to differentiate one from the other. This inevitably makes for an oddly mannered work that sounds too aloof and predictably lacking in any real emotion.


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