THE CHICAGO SUN-TIMESFebruary 21, 1988
The worst thing about Sting's music is Sting himself.
OK, I know. I realize that Sting is responsible for bringing these musicians together, that the marvelous band that will back him at the UIC Pavilion on Feb. 28 simply wouldn't exist without him. I know that he writes the songs and establishes the musical terrain - the combination of melodic sophistication, hot-blowing intensity and rhythmic internationalism that extends the territory he first mapped for himself with the Police. I'll even grant that he has a certain allure onstage and on the screen, what passes for charisma in some quarters.
Still, when I hear his breathy warble on 'Be Still My Beating Heart', it makes me want to take his poetic sensitivity and shove it down his throat. And when he lectures that 'History Will Teach Us Nothing', I want to still his bleating mouth. I think I could like Sting's music just fine, if it weren't for Sting.
I came to this conclusion while sitting in Madison Square Garden, in the midst of a rapturous capacity crowd for Sting's only Manhattan appearance. As is generally the case with concerts in sports arenas, Sting seemed little bigger than a prancing, preening dot from my half-court seat. Except for a hook here and there, his lyrics were largely unintelligible, and his between-song patter was hit-and-miss.
Such conditions usually work against musical enjoyment. In this instance, they were a blessing. The music carried the concert, allowing the listener to ride the groove. At its best, the band sizzled and soared. Although a video camera followed Sting's every move, projecting his oversized image onto the screen above the stage, one really didn't need to pay much attention to him at all - except, of course, when the shirtless singer stripped off his jacket, and all the little girls went nuts.
On album, Sting is always in the listener's face, brandishing his erudition, his range of experience, his romanticism and his moral vision like badges of artistic merit. His sense of self-importance seems to transcend standard rock egotism; he's more like the musical equivalent of Charles de Gaulle. He doesn't write songs so much as issue cultural pronouncements. If truth is beauty, and beauty truth, Sting sounds as if he has cornered the market on both.
Though he took the title for his recent 'Nothing Like the Sun' album from a sonnet by William Shakespeare, his lyrics read more like artifice than art. Though he built his band around musicians he recruited from Wynton Marsalis, his recorded arrangements are jazzy rather than jazz. What poetry and jazz share is the communicative power to slice past convention toward essence; Sting seems more involved with embellishment and prettification.
Despite the Shakespearean reference, for an understanding of Sting's brand of songwriting we might better begin with a line from Emily Dickinson: "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant." There's a hint of irony here, for Dickinson was responsible for some of the most startlingly direct verse in all of American poetry.
For those who think of it as something you study in school and then forget, poetry might truly seem like writing that is slant or evasive or unnecessarily oblique - writing that says something that could have been said simpler. Some students think of poetry as a puzzle or a code, with a one-to-one correspondence between a metaphoric symbol and what the poet really means.
In fact, great poetry defies paraphrase. The language, the rhythm, the sound, the structure achieve meaning that transcends linear, rational prose. Poetry doesn't obscure, it reveals. Circumventing convention, it hits at the heart of human experience.
For Sting, the heart is simply another metaphor, a verbal valentine. The album begins with 'The Lazarus Heart', which is followed by 'Be Still My Beating Heart' and eventually proceeds to 'Straight to My Heart'. For all of its lyrical concentration on heart, the material itself seems bloodless, as if the imagery were merely artistic contrivance.
With rare exception, the album's material represents an extended meditation on mothers, lovers, lovers who are also mothers, and womankind in general. Even 'They Dance Alone (Gueca Solo)', inspired by human rights violations in Chile, focuses on the women left behind rather than the "disappeared" themselves. Effectively understated, in contrast to the flowery writing that dominates the album's material, it is the most moving song that Sting has ever written.
The album is dedicated to Sting's own mother, who died during the recording sessions, and to "all those who loved her." While I have no doubt that the death moved him deeply, the way he has chosen to write about it serves to distance both the artist and the listener from the experience, rather than to vivify its significance through words.
The track that most obviously concerns his mother is 'The Lazarus Heart', where Sting invokes the biblical story to declare his everlasting devotion. The song is peppered with the sort of imagery that beginning writers learn in Creative Writing 101 - swords and wounds and birds in flight; flower, power and darkest hour - and which better writers soon discard. Such writing is ornamental: It establishes a layer of artifice that leaves real feeling or actual experience safely removed.
I realize that the following comparison has an apples-and-oranges quality to it, but let's contrast Sting's album with John Lennon's 'Plastic Ono Band'. Much of Lennon's post-Beatles studio debut was also an expression of feeling for his dead mother. Rather than cloaking his songs in a sensibility that is self-consciously literary, Lennon let them stand naked - naked as the defenseless infant who still lived within the man. Lyrically and musically, the album is a masterpiece on rock's own terms: unsparingly honest, unflinchingly direct. The emotional grip of Lennon's music makes Sting sound like a drawing-room aesthete.
When Sting recruited musicians with jazz credentials for 'The Dream of the Blue Turtles', his 1985 solo debut, there was hope that their improvisational abilities would open his music to some challenging new possibilities. Instead of a true collaboration, he has more often employed his musicians on both of his solo albums like he employs his words - for ornamentation, as signs of sophistication.
There is a fire within the most inspired jazz that is lacking on Sting's studio recordings. The arrangements are pristine, polished to the point of lifelessness. There is rarely an element of surprise, a sign of the ability that these musicians have to transport the listener to somewhere unexpected. Now that Sting feels that he has matured beyond the urgency and immediacy of rock, he seems content to provide the contemporary equivalent of chamber music.
In concert, this music is a different matter altogether. When given the chance, the band at Madison Square Garden played with a giddy exhilaration, turning songs that sound constrained in their studio versions into richly textured rhythmic celebrations. Much of the band changed between the first and the second albums, and many of the musicians for the tour are even newer recruits.
Remaining are saxophonist Branford Marsalis and keyboardist Kenny Kirkland, formerly of the Wynton Marsalis band. With musicians of this caliber keying his nine-piece band, Sting has the good sense in concert to let them loose. In live performance, the fusion of improvisational interplay, international rhythms and pop craftsmanship achieves a power far beyond the empty promises of the albums.
Even those who love Sting the pop star - as much as he sometimes appears to love himself - should be satisfied by the time he whips off his jacket and bares his chest.
© Chicago Sun-Times by Don McLeese