The following article by James Hunter appeared in a December 1994 issue of the Village Voice
Gentleman's Agreement: Sting dreams a world without junk...
"In The Police he was a pop star, the best we've had, a potent force delivering blistering reggae-tinged chart-friendly hits apparently to order." That's the new Q on Sting, delivering Britain's attitude about its homeboy. Here, he came across as the lead blond of a fluffy threesome who successfully crafted themselves into heavy new-wavers with AOR cred, and by the time he went solo he was a guaranteed rock-mag cover. He had attempted the oddest new career - jazz, don't you know - with music that, in retrospect, unfolds like a single piece of steel, ignoring orthodoxy yet achieving the field's flexibility and no hot-tub vapor, laughing in the face of rock yet getting on more different sets of nerves than most punks ever manage, skipping pop rules yet selling millions, admitting in public to a yen for Mozart. Inclined toward modernist seriousness, not pop earnestness, he's been the student-punk as gentleman as pop star, an art-directed Pierre Boulez with his own staunch program. Unlike singer-songwriters one generation before him (Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell), he's spoken new wave since birth; unlike pop motivators after him, (L.L. Cool J., Madonna, Liz Phair), he remains untouched, even unmoved, by genre.
Sting is his own vibe. When the mood strikes him, he dresses in clothes from past centuries, not decades. He scores his impeccable melodies to reggaeish floats and perfect silvery dissolves, nodding across continents between choruses. Now and then he revisits Brecht and Broadway. You know that stereotype of English gentlemen never recovering from the Temptations, or, if they're intellectuals, The Fatback Band? Not Sting. ''Be yourself, no matter what they say,'' he advised in a tone that was all fire and confidence in 'Englishman in New York', a tune intended to honor Quentin Crisp but which ends up honoring, you know, Sting.
Over the past decade, the time covered by his impressive new Fields of Gold retrospective, his very name has annoyed people. Comedian Margaret Smith once told David Letterman that if she ran a talk show, she'd seat him next to Tommy Tune. Others have resented how the terra-cotta vocal sweep became a radio mainstay in no time flat. "Sings through his nose, you know," a young L.A. Anglophile once confided. Still others tired of the physique. Throughout everything, along with the politics and the library ads, the benefits and the Chaucer, many disliked the loftiness. "Ah," the man himself once exhaled to an interviewer, "if only to do a few Mahler songs."
Few people past grade school enjoy purely blissful relationships with pop stars. In fact, they irritate us constantly; it's part of their function as cultural emblems. If over the past decade Sting has been the grand master of pop-starannoyance, it hasn't been because of cute new-wave stage names or vocal self-esteem or pumping up or a weakness for good causes. No, it's been because of his relentless sense of what a pop star might bring to his audience - a solid hankering for the traditional liberal arts, a downright iconoclastic obsession these days.
The closest U.S. parallel for Sting isn't in records; it's PBS, which should only be able to sell high-end American culture in such numbers. Although he's long understood the impact of the shirtless encore, in fact Sting's obsessions are as intellectual as his detractors often claim. Throughout his solo career, his pop recipe, a fusion extremely hard to describe, has come straight out of the equally elegant iconoclasm of Gil Evans - clear structure, precisely rendered, with as much freedom and motion as possible, a goal that dictates his taste in sidemen. But unlike Bryan Ferry, another refinement junkie, Sting doesn't care to argue that the stuff of the Shirelles can be art; he wants Jung and Nabokov and whatever else compels him to be pop, or at least his pop. He seems happy to live in a world without junk.
After 1983's Synchronicity - the Police's cheesy masterwork and essentially the first Sting solo album - he teamed with Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland, and others for 'The Dream of the Blue Turtles', an awkward albumof fusion-haunted pop-jazz. It spawned the postliterate smash, 'If You Love Somebody Set Them Free'. Next year came the live version of this experiment, 'Bring on the Night', which forgot about the four-minute form and became a sensational showcase for musicians, charged with the cosmic necessity that Evans's records always had. In 1987, Sting made his big persona play, aiming to leap beyond the geeky guy who'd worried about machines and dinosaurs. He decided that, while others might play the New Pop game or contemplate weird guitar tunings, he would become the Jeremy Irons of international rock. Italy and South America went nuts.
The album was '...Nothing Like the Sun'. Prodigiously produced by Neil Dorffman, it was enriched by curbed vocals, dynamic instrumental conversations and melodies and countermelodies that were pure soul. With this recording, one of the high points of '80s superstar pop, all the bits and pieces of Sting reached critical mass: the quest for musical distinction, the social engagement ('They Dance Alone', a Pinochet-inspired model of politics and drama), the general portrayal of Sting as a pop star lost in a Graham Greene novel. A Greene novel ransacked for irony and ambience, right? No, Sting went for the whole Greene cosmos of personal accountability, accursedness, and spiritual unease.
Sting had his own style, thanks, a mix of pop melody, Russian and Eastern European composers, '70s prog rock, and the remaining new-wave canniness. But as 'Fields of Gold' - a singles anthology, really, including songs from 1991's 'The Soul Cages' and last year's smash 'Ten Summoner's Tales', plus two new tunes suggests, Sting sometimes fails at the thing that can unite his new-wave gifts and old-world obsessions: tone.
Does he intend for the opening seconds of 'When We Dance' - a new song, a lucidly anguished and compellingly constructed ballad about romantic separation and closure - to blare forward with the rise and fall of a nervous young tenor recitalist? It's like the famous last Cold War pop tune 'Russians': Doesn't Sting intend to insinuate affirmation about Soviet families instead of drumming up defensiveness? These are failures of tone.
Yet the best Sting music on 'Fields of Gold' just flows. 'If I Ever Lose My Faith in You' bounces devotion into a series of long-lined melodies that stop to allow for some thumping syncopations. With 'Fragile', everything works: the Braziloid composition, Dorfman's and the band's delicate layerings, and Sting's understated delivery. 'Be Still My Beating Heart' may find no solace in the library, but the basslines are killer. And on the great 'Why Should I Cry For You?' Sting interlocks finely differentiated melodic parts with a master's skill with glue.
What sometimes stops Sting is his occasional impatience with the purely pop. He once told critic Peter Watrous that he loved Madonna and felt that most bad pop was "benign", the result of aesthetic mistakes. This was smart. His own career has not held forth for so long and with such success because he's lacked pop smarts: virtually any tune on 'Fields of Gold' demonstrates this savvy. No, he's flourished because his music remains the passionately clever work of a superstar mongrel traditionalist. He may well be the last of the breed.
© The Village Voice