What’s going on with Sting, exactly? Is it some form of dementia? Is it a matter of greed? Is it the George Lucas syndrome – the urge to endlessly tinker with your work until it dissolves into a puddle of irrelevance?
Once Upon a Time...
If you’re young enough, you may not believe this, but Sting mattered once – really mattered. Like, “shaped everything about contemporary music” mattered. Like “made rock music that blazed artistic trails” mattered. And no one was ever a bigger fan than I was. In 1991, my college roommate, Ted, and I scored tickets to see Sting in Dallas and made the six-hour drive from the University of Arkansas, playing Sting albums and singing at the top of our lungs the entire way. We talked, only somewhat in jest, of founding a “Church of Sting.” We arrived in Dallas, as obnoxiously hyper as only two 19 year-old budding music aficionados on their first concert roadtrip can be, to discover the whole thing had been canceled. We were absolutely crushed. And here’s the thing; we got back in the car and sang Sting tunes all the way home.
The Police were among the first real rock bands I discovered during my teenage years in the 80s. In 1989, during my first year of college, Sting’s first two solo albums, The Dream of The Blue Turtles and Nothing Like the Sun, helped mold me into a human being. His third album, The Soul Cages, is among the most important albums about death and grief ever recorded. The guy dissolved a band that included Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland, then made Branford Marsalis his sideman and completely reinvented himself and pop music.
I’ve written in this space before about Sting’s innovative lyrics and in my book on new wave, New Wave: Image is Everything, I argue that The Police almost single-handedly bridged the gap between punk and new wave, setting up virtually every musical movement that followed.
Nothing Lasts Forever
And yet here we are: I’m wondering where my musical hero went. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a hero, not a saint. There’s never been a question, for example, that Sting is arrogant. Ask his former band mates. Check out Chris Campion’s book, Walking on the Moon. Read articles from the 1980s in which he speaks earnestly of the global overpopulation crisis while simultaneously producing six children of his own. Check out the time he planned to give back his grammys to protest how Milli Vanilli were being treated.
But we forgave him because he was always one of those guys who had the musical chops to back it up, the lyrical sophistication to forgive his foibles. Artists, right? What can you do?
After his time ruling the world, it seemed like Sting was going to be one of those rock artists who entered a “mature” phase. There were new greatest hits packages; he released albums full of English folk tunes; he produced a Tony-nominated musical. He did the kinds of things that a musical statesman does.
Then there was the Police reunion – perhaps the most highly-anticipated disappointing concert tour in history, ultimately panned by critics and audiences alike. But not everyone can hold on to their rock chops like Elvis Costello or The Rolling Stones, and, after all, the Police in their prime had an energy it’s difficult to go back and just re-create.
His last album of new solo material, 57th & 9th (2016) did well enough in the charts, but it was definitely missing something. Last year, he decided that something was Shaggy and put out the collaborative 44/876. It’s a good Shaggy album. As Pitchfork pointed out, Sting mostly just sounds “out of place.” That review is generous enough to argue that Sting is being deliberately “uncool” and it goes on to declare this “one of Sting’s more enjoyable albums, simply because he’s actually having fun here.” Of course, Pitchfork's entire ethos is making provocative statements, but still, I’m willing to accept that maybe “out of place” isn’t the same as “ridiculous.”
A Step Too Far
But now there’s My Songs, and I find I just have to draw the line somewhere. I just don’t have any excuses left. The title of this “collection” of re-engineered and sometimes re-recorded tunes rubbed me the wrong way right from the start: surely someway or another Copeland and Summer must have contributed something to “Message in a Bottle”’s success?
My experience of the album went downhill from there.
This isn’t just a blatant attempt to cash in, an attempt to make himself relevant again. This is an album full of cartoon music, and not in the good Gorillaz sort of way. It’s amateurish-sounding music that deliberately disrespects a body of brilliant work. He can’t even be bothered to end a song properly. They all just sort of fizzle out when he decides he’s reached the end. It feels lazy.
What Revision Can Be
Re-visiting old material doesn’t have to be a tired attempt to seem relevant, though it often has been (check out Barenaked Ladies’ on point skewering of boxed sets in their song of that title). Other artists have managed it. The novelist Henry James actually used the republication of his complete works to teach readers how a Henry James novel should be read. Some of the prefaces he wrote for this edition are superior to the novels themselves.
Paul Simon’s recent In the Blue Light brilliantly re-imagines some of his songs. It helped that Simon chose to re-think songs that aren’t necessarily the most beloved of his oeuvre. For him the exercise was serious and genuine, an attempt to correct things he felt he hadn’t gotten just right the first time around. I’m not sure any of us would have noticed really. But that’s the thing, isn’t it. The effort had nothing much to do with money or reminding anyone just what an amazing songwriter he is. It was the work of a dedicated professional finishing up a few odds and end. As a result, the album contains just the right amount of gravitas. Simon takes risks on his final recording. And he’s enough of an artist to pull them off, and confident enough in his craft to know that he will.
If you want to have real fun with self-revision, though, I’d recommend Colin Hay’s Man at Work, an album that didn’t receive half as much praise as Sting’s almost certainly will. Hay – who I often think of as a poor man’s Sting – has never been given enough credit as a songwriter or for his influence on new wave. His album isn’t perfect. As more than one reviewer suggested, the re-recordings of “Be Good Johnny” and “It’s A Mistake” are so close to the originals as to be unnecessary. But acoustic versions of “Down Under” and “Overkill” are standouts, and his remake of “Down Under” with Cecilia Noel and the Clams will make you forget how many times you’ve already heard the original.
Maybe it’s me. Maybe My Songs is a sophisticated deconstruction of a career. Maybe Pitchfork was on to something and I’m supposed to see this new collection as a lark, a sort of musical joke played by a man who has finally stopped taking himself so seriously. But it’s an awful lot of mediocre tracks to slog through for a punchline.
MK Adkins has a Ph.D in English that he occasionally uses to think about literature, but more often uses to think about television, music and film. Adkins is the author of two popular culture books as well as numerous articles and reviews. Until recently, he worked as a college professor but made the decision to devote himself full-time to writing and podcasting in January 2019.
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