THE BALTIMORE SUNMarch 01, 1996
The following article by J D Considine appeared in a March 1996 issue of The Baltimore Sun newspaper...
Stealing the Music.
All rock stars have their kinky side, but few would ever admit to the sort of unusual interests Sting pursues.
No, it's nothing to do with underage girls or Turkish geese. Sting, it seems, prefers to fool around with music, perverting pop idioms at every opportunity. For him, there's no better fun than teasing a country tune, undermining a waltz or leading a samba astray.
"Well, this is part of my perversion," he says with a devilish grin. "I love the idea of music forms being elastic. You can stretch them, stretch them and stretch them until they become something different entirely, and yet you can't see where this folk song becomes a weird bossa nova."
Needless to say, Sting isn't exactly shy about indulging this taste. His new album, 'Mercury Falling', which arrives in record stores Tuesday, is full of mischief and musical miscegenation. There's 'I Hung My Head', which would seem a classic cowboy tune except for the fact that it lopes along in a very un-western 9/8 rhythm; 'Valparaiso', which starts off like a Celtic lament but ends like a Latin-jazz waltz; and 'La Belle Dame Sans Regrets', a classic French ballad that somehow can't seem to decide whether it's a bossa nova or a salsa tune.
It's all wickedly clever, and quite obviously the most fun Sting has had in a while.
"That really amuses me as a musician," he says, as he sits in his spacious New York apartment. "Because I really don't see music in these sort of Balkanised blocs. 'Rock and roll.' 'Soul music.' It's so didactic. For me, music is this sort of common language, and it's all available to steal from. I think musicians should admit that we're the greatest thieves on earth. We steal from everything."
Sting has profited quite handsomely from such plunder, too. Between the millions of albums sold when he was a member of the Police and the piles of platinum titles he's amassed since going out on his own, the 46-year-old singer has become as rich as he is famous.
His place in Manhattan, for instance, is wonderfully opulent - a two-story flat overlooking Central Park with a marble staircase, a small studio and a sitting room large enough to dwarf his concert grand - but it's a pied-a-terre. His true home is in England, a country estate large enough to leave plenty of room for his wife, children and horses.
Yet as easy as it would be for Sting to live the rock-star life, he takes a fairly casual attitude toward his celebrity. He dresses simply (a black ski sweater, black leather jeans and white, button-down shirt), and doesn't keep an entourage to insulate him from the realities of Manhattan life.
"I still walk the streets," he says. "People recognise me, but probably more than any other country in the world, they seem to accept who you are as a celebrity, and actually enjoy the fact that you are on the street as a celebrity. And that's better than any other country in the world.
"So I actually quite enjoy being famous in America. It's not unpleasant at all. People are generally polite, and when they're not" - he laughs - "I'm perfectly prepared to be rude."
Still, though he's anything but rude at the moment, it's clear he'd rather talk about music than his own celebrity. Clearly, some of that has to do with his desire to promote his new album - Sting is nothing if not focused - and the fact that Rock Star Sting has relatively little to do with the actual man who writes these songs and makes these albums. Only the name's the same.
"There's somebody trying to write a book about me at the moment," he says. "A sleazy book about my secret life or something. It's taken from the tabloids, and it's going to be bizarre, because it's not me. It's just a creation, you know?
"I can't really control it anyway, so I don't really concern myself with it. But I try to maintain a sense of humour, and say, 'Well, we share the same name, but actually, that's not me.' My solace comes from being known and loved by about six people, really," he adds. "Six or seven people. And that's enough to carry on. I mean, that's what anybody has. Why you should be known and loved by millions of people - well, that's just impossible, for a start. And you don't need it. You don't need to be loved by any more than that small group of people, of family or close friends."
Maybe that's why Sting's recent work seems less concerned with crowd-pleasing singles than with the subtler pleasures of resonance and allusion. Unlike the typical Top-40 hit, Sting's songs rarely reveal all on a single hearing; there are always additional layers of lyrical content and musical ingenuity lurking beneath the surface.
That, he thinks, is what people like about his music. "The enjoyment for the listener, I'm sure, must be to pull aside the cobwebs and find something underneath," he says. "And maybe something beneath that."
"I like music to have a lot of references. They're there deliberately, as clues. For example, on 'Englishman in New York', Branford [Marsalis] plays 'God Save the Queen' in a minor key at one point. I think that's really what an audience would want. I hope. A sophisticated audience. Rather than just, 'This song is about sex.' That's fine, but is there something underneath that?"
That's not a worry with 'Mercury Falling'. Simply start with the way Sting uses that phrase to both open and close the album - a device that not only shows off his intellectual agility, but gives the listener food for thought.
"There are so many references attached to mercury," Sting points out. "I mean, it's a metal, it's a liquid, it's an element, it's a god, it's a planet. It's an idea - 'mercurial,' I think, is a valuable description. I use the phrase initially very literally. You know, it's getting cold, the thermometer's falling. And then I use it symbolically at the end. I love the phrase. It's very resonant, full of so many things."
It's obvious that Sting enjoys wordplay almost as much as he does his musical jokes. But the best moments on Mercury Falling offer more than mere wit.
In 'I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying', Sting tells the tale of a man whose marriage is ending, as his wife takes the children and leaves him for another man. At first, he's so bitter, embarrassed and resentful that when his wife calls to ask how he's doing, he snaps 'I'm so happy, I can't stop crying.' The character says those words very cynically," says Sting, who himself went through divorce before marrying his current wife, the actress Trudie Styler. "But I feel that by the end of the song, he's reached an understanding about the situation where he actually means it. He's realised that the line between happiness and sadness is very thin, and whatever happens in his life, he will be supported by the universe a bit."
Indeed, the song's bridge finds the protagonist looking up at the sky and choosing a star for himself, then stars for his wife and kids, and even a star for the other man. And as he stands beneath that vast, celestial swirl, he feels unexpectedly at peace with the situation. 'Something made me smile/Something seemed to ease the pain,' sings Sting. 'Something 'bout the universe, and how it's all connected.' Then the music shimmers behind him, and you can almost hear the character's change of heart.
"I find that quite moving," he says. "I know I wrote it, but I listen to it and actually find it quite moving, because it makes a journey.
"I don't know. Maybe it's a song for people who have been divorced, you know?" He chuckles. "People who haven't been divorced, well, maybe they won't understand it. But I'm quite proud of that song. I think that's my favourite song on the record, actually."
'I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying' isn't the only song on 'Mercury Falling' to convey a sort of emotional journey. 'I Hung My Head' finds him taking the perspective of a young man in the old West who borrows his brother's rifle one afternoon. Seeing a rider in the distance, he decides to practice his aim, and draws a bead on the fellow. Suddenly, the gun goes off, the rider falls, and the young man takes off like a rabbit. Clearly, he hadn't set out to kill that man on horseback. But when he's brought to trial, Sting's protagonist can't help but own up to the thrill he felt as he cradled that rifle in his arms. 'I felt the power of death over life,' he sings, and with that, he's sentenced to hang.
It's hardly your typical Western ballad, and not just because it's in 9/8 time. But for Sting, there really was only one outcome possible in this story. "I believe there's a sort of totemic magic attached to guns," he says. "The need to use the gun will arise, should you have one. So he really damns himself, because he admits the feeling of power he had as he held the rifle. That's what kills him, ultimately. I also don't subscribe to this sort of Hollywood idea that you can shoot someone, either by accident or by design, and just walk away from it," he adds. "You know, mow down 30 people and then kiss the girl. I don't think human beings are that machine-like. Whether you admit it or not, anybody who kills somebody will be psychically affected for the rest of their lives by that experience. So the end of the song is really about that psychic connection you must have with the person you've killed, because the victim comes back, as if he's going to look after [his killer]."
Interestingly, the song wasn't sparked by a murder case or even an ethical debate; it developed out of a guitar riff Sting came up with. "I wrote this riff in 9/8, and I had no idea what to do with it," he says. "But it seemed to suggest the sort of lope of a horse crossing the desert, and that started the story going in my head."
That makes songwriting sound so easy, doesn't it? But as Sting tells it, putting a song together is far more haphazard than most music fans would imagine. "Sometimes songwriting is a bit like building a car out of scrap metal," he says. "You get a bit from here, and a bit from there, and lo and behold, it sometimes goes."
Fortunately for him, Sting won't have to worry about cobbling songs together for a while. He's just started a European tour in support of the new album, and expects to be on the road for a while. "I start in Amsterdam, then I play the Kremlin, of all places, for two nights," he says. "Literally, the Kremlin. Then I go down through Scandinavia and Europe. I tour until July, and then I'm in the States. I'll probably tour for about 15 to 18 months, all told. But I do that because then I can postpone facing the blank page again, which I dread.''
He laughs. "I'll do anything rather than write a song. Any excuse to get away from that."
© The Baltmore Sun