Friday, October 8, 2010

The Soul Cages

Island of Souls - Sting (mp3)

I’ve always just been told that Gordon Sumner is completely full of himself and that his solo career -- you might know him as STING -- ruined what could have been a much better denouement for the band known as The Police.

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.)

Lately I’ve spent some time rediscovering those first four Sting solo albums*. Most especially, I’ve found myself listening to his third album in that group, The Soul Cages. The third anniversary of my father’s death arrives in about a week, and Sting’s song “Why Should I Cry for You?” landed on my iPod shuffle a week or so ago, and I remembered that Sting wrote The Soul Cages as his own form of musical therapy in coping with the death of his own father.

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!)

Anyone looking for “Synchronicity II” or “Canary in a Coalmine” or certainly “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” was gonna be sorely disappointed with ...Nothing, because only one song even approaches that kind of BPM level.

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.


Daisy said...

What? No mention of "The Dream of the Blue Turtles?"

Bob said...

There are two highlights of Sting's solo career that I'm aware of:

1. Eva Cassidy's cover of "Fields of Gold"

2. Alison Kraus' rendering of "Your Ain True Love."

The man can write a pretty melody, I'll grant him that.

troutking said...

I still like Dream of the Blue Turtles--jazz, political statements, Police-style pop (Fortress Around Your Heart), songs about WWI. I think it holds up to his ambition. I don't own any of his others.

Eva Cassidy is good. Sting did a pretty good The Rising at Bruce's Kennedy Center honors...

Billy said...

@daisy & @trout: "Dream..." is a very accessible album and plenty fine. It's much catchier than the two that follow, as is "Ten Summoner's Tales." If you don't have any songs from ...Nothing, I'd highly recommend trying a few of 'em. "Fragile," "Little Wing" (solid if not great cover of the Hendrix song IMO) and definitely "They Dance Alone."

@Bob: You, my friend, are a harsh grader. In this instance.

BeckEye said...

When I think of Sting's solo career, I try to think of something else.

Actually, I quite like "We'll Be Together." That's a nice poppy tune. And there are probably a handful of others, but nothing that I'd run out and buy. I bought "Nothing Like the Sun" when it came out, listened to it once and sold it years later.

Anonymous said...

I found your post while googling for an image of the album cover, and really enjoyed reading it. I agree it's far too easy to write Sting off based on the media caricature of him, but those four albums in particular show him as a very assured and skilled songwriter. "The Soul Cages" is my favourite album, and one I returned to (we're probably far from alone in this) in processing my own father's death.

The funny thing about Sting is that after all the middle-of-the-road stuff, he's veered back down the old risky paths. A couple of years ago he made an album of winter-themed songs - a few of his own tracks reworked, plus lots of covers of folk and classical pieces - which reminds me very much of "The Soul Cages" in its instrumentation and mood. If you try one track, make it "Christmas At Sea" - it's Sting going back to his old maritime obsessions, setting a Stevenson poem to music, and to my mind, giving fans of TSC a little extra... well, that and the fact a musical is being made based on TSC. It's called "The Last Ship"...

vinícius said...

I totally agree with anonymous. I had the very same feeling about "christmas at sea". it goes great along with the images from "why should I cry for you?".

and TSC is my all-time favorite sting's ANYTHING. I've spent the last few days trying to remember how was to listen to it the first time. I recall that the first 2 minutes of "island of souls" were really shocking. I was a 9 years old boy, much used to sting's often uptempo album's opening tracks, and I kind of felt betrayed... I had the sleeve in my hands, which was visually cold, sad, and wondered he had done an acoustic album. but then, at 2min30s of "ground preparation", the drums broke heavily in and I was automatically dominated by the sound. it was soulful, powerful. and it was, ultimately, true. and there's nothing more beautiful than a man that got true to himself. specially in his hardest times.