01.04.91 THE SUNDAY TIMES


The following article by Robert Sandall appeared in a January 1991 issue of The Sunday Times newspaper...

Star with a wandering attention...

Rock stars with misgivings about the ''star'' bit have become a modern cliche. Sting by contrast and despite some routine disclaimers has always seemed pretty comfortable with the fame, the fans, the Wogans and all the other high-profile privations that come with being a star.

What Sting doesn't like so much is the rock part. And while in the past and notably in The Police a certain ambivalence towards the hand that feeds may have produced a useful creative tension, on his third solo album, 'The Soul Cages' (A&M 396504, all formats), the strain is definitely beginning to show.

If this musically lacklustre and lyrically overwrought nine-track offering sounds in the main like the work of a man who would rather be doing something else, it is worth recalling that Sting has spent most of the three and a half years since he last released a rock album publicly engaged in increasingly non-rock activities. There were the global Good Causes: a world tour with Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel and Tracy Chapman in support of Amnesty International took up much of 1988. Shortly after that Sting was on compassionate leave again, this time doing his bit to save the South American rainforests and their Indian inhabitants by enlisting a group of Brazilian Kayope tribespeople to join him on another widely publicised funds-and-consciousness-raising trip around the world.

No sooner had his Rainforest Foundation come into being than Sting headed off in another direction playing Macheath in John Dexter's Broadway production of Brecht and Weill's 'Threepenny Opera'. Despite being slammed by the New York critics it closed after 150 performances this disappointing board-treading debut did nothing to dampen his newly huge appetite for more adventures in the mainstream of showbusiness.

Whether he was promoting a Newcastle-based gangster film called 'Stormy Monday', cofinancing (with Jeffrey Archer) a London production of Ibsen's 'Enemy of the People', acting in a TV documentary about Quentin Crisp, or taking the lead role in a recording of Stravinsky's 'Soldier's Tale' for his own Pangaea label, Sting suddenly seemed to be everywhere except where the vast majority of his fans still prefer to see and hear him: behind a bass guitar and a microphone fronting some sort of rock band.

Sting's surprising explanation for this long working vacation is perfectly in persona. Forget boredom, complacency, squabbles with collaborators, drug problems and any of the more conventional obstacles which blight the smooth progress of other careers in pop. Sting has recently styled himself not as the jobbing rocker, but as the thoughtful, suffering artist. For this son of a milkman from Newcastle, the goal isn't the familiar rock star-ish one of street credibility; he hankers now after a more rarified type of bourgeois sensitivity. It was, after all, Sting, the articulate New Mannish former schoolteacher, who disbanded The Police ''because I didn't feel the need for this male bonding any more''. He who once filmed himself tearfully cutting the umbilical cord of his newborn son Jake as part of a documentary feature about the making of his debut solo album. Hampstead dweller, staunch ally of the environment and part-time student of the work of Carl Jung, Sting was stuck with a distressing case of writer's block. Nothing less would suit his circumstances.

Now, though, he is back baring his soul again. ''Since the recording of '...Nothing Like the Sun' in 1987 I hadn't written as much as a rhyming couplet, much less a whole song. I took long drives, long baths, long walks still nothing. A couple of people I care about (his parents) were abruptly taken off the planet, plus there was the usual mid-life crisis sort of stuff ...'' With a record contract deadline looming, session musicians and a studio booked in Paris, the answer, he found, was to follow ''that long road back to the beginning of things''. Which led, he says, to his earliest memories of the Newcastle shipyards, and to ''a great big bloody ship, and the river. The river flowed to the sea, and so did the words''.

Well, up to a point. Portentous but vague maritime metaphors, no matter how many songs they reappear in, are not in themselves a guarantee of coherence; and these have a generally awkward air of lower sixth form contrivance about them. Even when, in 'Wild Wild Sea', Sting describes a vision of his father as a sailor on the bridge of a storm-tossed ship, he doesn't really sound like a man dealing with grief; he just sounds self-conscious and emotionally inhibited. And when he starts quoting Macbeth in the apocalyptic mumbo jumbo of 'Jeremiah Blues', you begin to suspect a waffling pseud.

Lyrics, though, have not been Sting's long suit since he gave up writing sharp and wittily observed erotic vignettes of the 'Roxanne', 'Don't Stand So Close To Me' variety. By the time The Police got into paraphrasing the ideas of Arthur Koestler on 1981's Ghost in the Machine album, Sting had clearly withdrawn to the library for inspiration, since which time he has only been glimpsed away from it on short but memorable excursions such as the brooding account of sexual jealousy he gave on Every Breath You Take.

But the prime disappointment on 'The Soul Cages' is not the words, it's the music. Compared to his last CD-length collection, 'Nothing Like the Sun', this is a distinctly small helping. And confidently executed though they are, particularly by the idiosyncratically swinging drummer Manu Katche, the songs here suggest that the three fallow years Sting spent away from the job have not done much for his compositional skills. There is one strong, stately ballad, 'Why Should I Cry For You' beautifully sung and delicately arranged but otherwise the material sounds either threadbare or hurriedly patched together out of whatever fragments came to hand.

The new single, 'All This Time', might have been a Police outtake. The title track lumbers along behind a deeply unconvincing hard rock riff. There is an inconsequential Spanish guitar exercise, pretentiously titled 'St Agnes and The Burning Train'. And 'Jeremiah Blues (Part 1)' must be the most perfunctory jazz-funk workout Sting has ever released.

The shifting time signatures, stylistic diversity and jazzy cleverness which have become his hallmarks as a solo performer are all here, but expressed so baldly that the smooth eclecticism of old now seems as random as the clutter at a bring and buy sale. Sting may well feel obliged by the expectations of his audience to carry on making rock albums for some time yet; if he does, the hope must be that 'The Soul Cages' is a temporary blip not a blueprint for the future.

© The Sunday Times
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