The following article by Stephen McCarty appeared in a September 1999 issue ofThe South China Morning Post
Sting's album 'Brand New Day' embraces a subject close to his heart...
Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs, as Paul McCartney once sang. And from Shakespeare to Showaddywaddy, the noblest of emotions has inspired some of the best, and abject worst, of artists.
Now it's Sting's turn, as the ex-Police chief looks to love to fill his latest disc. But 'Brand New Day' has no naff drippiness in its desire; there's nary a line of bad poetry in its passion or misplaced moralising in Sting's certainty that "love is the only thing that keeps the universe together. Everything else is just atoms flying around".
Considering the impulses behind his just-completed eighth solo album, Sting said in a recent interview that he considered love to be "the prime motivating factor... the only constant in existence".
"I didn't set out to write lyrics just about love," he added, "yet almost all the songs have the theme of broken lives that can be mended by love.
"My challenge was to write a happy love song without being banal or smug. Maybe it's harder to write a love song when you're happy... you can write a good love song when you're completely broken-hearted, when someone's left you and everything's gone wrong.
"The title track, for example, begins with a jaundiced view and moves towards acceptance. It's basically the thought that falling in love is an act of optimism - and I think if the album has a tone, it's an optimistic one."
Incorporating everything from strains of Miles Davis to Algerian-French reggae to down-home country music to guest star Stevie Wonder on harmonica, the record swaggers through a catalogue of styles. It swings from gospel to pop to Latin, and comes dressed up in the appropriate musical finery according to track.
"'Big Lie, Small World' is in nine-eight time. It's a kind of twisted, perverse bossa nova," said Sting. "One of the things I've become celebrated, or pilloried, for is my desire to write simple pop melodies over complex rhythms. I like seven-eight a lot. I like five-four. The trick is to make it seem as if nothing's happening, but to find the beat you really have to work hard because it keeps tripping over itself. That interests me; who said music has to be in four-four time? I'll continue to write complex time signatures until there's a law against it, which is coming in next year, I think."
Complementing the musical complications of each piece, the lyrics reflect Sting's coming of age as a master storyteller. But the music, he says, guided his hand when it came to character and plot.
"Normally I write lyrics, melodies and harmonies at the same time. This album is different because I had an hour of music and no idea what the lyrical content would be, if any. I hadn't written a word. I went for long walks through the woods with my headphones trying to figure out what stories it was telling me, what personalities would emerge.
"It's a bit like sculpting a piece of rock: it's a formless thing but maybe the shape suggests a leg or a nose or a foot. You chip away and you find, sure enough, you've got one. Here, the music wrote the stories."
Steered by that mystical influence - and with a little help from friends like Branford Marsalis, who set down his alto sax for the clarinet, celebrated singer-songwriter James Taylor and drummer Manu Katche - Sting created a weird world of offbeat characters... all linked by love.
"There's a song about a ghost and a living person," said Sting. "There's one, amusing I hope, about a dog and his mistress. If I had to choose an animal... some people are cats, some are birds, and I'm a dog. I'm loyal, trustworthy and honest. Dogs do love, and their feelings can be hurt. They get jealous if another person comes into a relationship, so I wrote 'Perfect Love Gone Wrong' from the point of view of the dog.
"I was putting myself into other people's skins. 'Tomorrow We'll See' goes to a strange place - it's about a transsexual. I first came across the phenomenon in Paris, when we were recording the album. We'd go back to the hotel, past the Bois de Boulogne, and it would be full of these exotic creatures, mainly male, a lot of them Brazilian, very tall, statuesque men dressed as women - incredible creatures, eyelashes, wigs, beautiful dresses, fantastic figures. You'd drive by and go: 'Wow!' But then you'd look a little closer... I was fascinated by that aspect of show business.
"So I'm singing the part, being a transvestite," he added. "I can empathise with that situation, and the lyric is saying: don't judge me, you could be me in different circumstances.
"The gospel-country song, 'Fill Her Up', is about a guy who steals the cash box from the petrol station where he works so he can take his girl to Las Vegas and get married. He's halfway there when angels appear and tell him happiness and the love of the girl will not come from stealing. So he turns back. Love conquers all: that's the message.
"I think I've reached that point now where no one has to look for autobiographical details in my work," said Sting. "I'm not writing about myself. It's not important."
© The South China Morning Post