Island of Souls - Sting (mp3)
Now, my pal Bob doesn’t much care for The Police, but I categorize them as “a very good band with a handful of supremely great pop songs.”
Having been a modest Police disciple in my late teens, I hopped on board the Sting solo wagon and bought all of his first four solo albums soon after their release dates. Yet I’ve always sat back and accepted the common proclamation that Sting’s solo work lost something, that he was too full of himself, that ditching Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers came at too high a price.
(I also bought Stewart’s following side project, Animal Logic, and absolutely loved it, so in hindsight their break-up just cost me more money.)
So I’ve gone back and listened to his stuff, most especially this one album. And I’m gonna step out on a limb: Sting’s first-stage solo work is on par, quality-wise, with The Police. His best poppy songs might not quite compete with The Police’s poppiest, but that next level down, the second-best of the best? I think they’re every bit as good if not a little better. A little deeper. A little more complex. A little more soulful.
Fine, maybe they’re also a little more full of Sting being full of himself. But hell, Frank Sinatra names places as his kind of town and does things his way, and somehow an ego the size of Jupiter didn’t seem to destroy his ability to tattoo himself into the pop culture history books, so why should that quality make us hate ol' Gordon?
Sting’s first four solo albums show a musician and songwriter willing to take serious risks with his status. He leapt into faux jazzville with his debut. The next, ...Nothing Like the Sun, was mega-mellow. Like, it was soooo mellow it could’ve been called ...Everything Like Sta-Puft. I can totally envision Sting drunk and wearing shades and leaning against a street light for five straight months while composing this album.
...Nothing Like the Sun was great for an English major wannabe like me, because he was all literary-like and heavy and dabbled in politics. I can still very intensely remember watching my classmates from my sister school perform a dance to “They Dance Alone.” I loved that song already, but it moved up another notch when combined with girls I’d regularly drooled over moving around in skin-grabbing leotards. (And just how terribly wrong and guilt-inducing it is to have to try and hide one's excitement about watching girls dancing to a song about women dancing for their dead sons?? That's sick! That's wrong! I was so ashamed!)
If ...Nothing was mellow, then The Soul Cages sinks into a deep depression. It’s a super-mellow concept album about mortality with a shitload -- or boatload, if you will -- of thematic imagery surrounding the sea, sailing, and life in coastal harbourtowns. It’s a mere nine stinkin’ songs. The title song contains an entire section reprising the chorus from the first song. Standard concept album conceit.
The Soul Cages wasn’t remotely a safe play. It was a man on a very deep personal journey willing to risk most of his fame to exorcise something. That he even mostly pulled it off is amazing and admirable and attests to a level of talent some critics seem loathe to acknowledge. I went to his sold out show in Chapel Hill on his Soul Cages tour and absolutely loved it. The album was perfect counter-programming for the grunge and intense guitar rock of Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins and STP that occupied speakers everywhere on campus.
Sting emerged from the bottom of that dark Scottish loch to create Ten Summoner’s Tales, which is a straight-ahead pop album full of pop songs. And mighty catchy, I might add.
So maybe Sting wouldn’t be the greatest guy to invite over for dinner. Maybe he’d spend the whole time talking about how awesome he is. And I’d definitely avoid asking him any questions or having any conversations with him where the word “tantric” might come up (unless you have a 10 or so hours to spare... ba-dump-kssh!).
But as a solo artist? Sting had one seriously impressive 8-year stretch.
* -- Sting helmed several solo albums after Ten Summoner’s Tales, but it’s my humble and confident opinion that I hopped off his bandwagon right before it began its descent down a very steep and crap-riddled cliff.