Mercury Falling
London, GBRoyal Albert Hall
With Paul Carrack

Hamsters keep their hair on...

It's a bit weird, rock in the Albert Hall. Maybe it's the Victorian layout - velvety corporate boxes with curtained interiors, standing-room for the starving orphans in the gods. No one is going to be biting the heads off hamsters tonight, that's for sure. Anyway, Sting's a vegetarian, isn't he?

That's the other weird thing. Here is Sting, one-time leader of the Police (most popular band in the world at the time), good singer, good musician, good actor in Dennis Potter's 'Brimstone and Treacle', saver of rainforests and advocator of good sex - and none of my friends would come with me to see him. It seems unfair on the man, but apparently he's just too good. Good sex isn't enough these days; it has to be bad sex: The Amazon is all very well on a rainy day, but nastiness is the more spectacular option. Headless hamsters are like black; they never go out of fashion.

Not that Sting hasn't filled the place. The boxes and gods are packed to the gills. And when the man steps out on stage, it looks like my friends are wrong because (1) Sting appears to be a profoundly unsaintly skinhead in a black vest, and (2) the music is good but not necessarily nice. He does four straight tracks from the new album 'Mercury Falling', including 'I Hung My Head', with its catchy syncopation, solid brass backing and odd narrative of guns, shooting and hanging heads.

''Do you like my hair? Yeah? No? What do you mean 'What hair?' I like it, anyway.'' The crowd glitters with flashbulbs; they like his hair. Skinned, Sting looks like a cross between Gazza and Sinead O'Connor.

The music has also changed over the last couple of albums - less of the light jazz backing that marked the early solo work. Dominic Miller is fine on guitar, Kenny Kirkland is excellent on keyboards, and the brass and woodwind backing leans all over the place - ska, jazz, blues, Van Morrison. Still, Skazza's voice is the same - characteristically husky with clear intonation. The line-up is good, and made more spectacular by the arrival of the East London Gospel Choir for 'Let Your Soul be Your Pilot'.

''Who wants to come up here and sing? You what? You're twins? Get up here, then. And a woman? Right. So, Julie, are you happily married? Because this song's about divorce.''

There are some good lyrics, on 'Mercury Falling' - ''The park is full of Sunday fathers'', ''I spend all my days in the search for dry wood.'' The album, like the songs, is about divorce - depression, lithium, joint custody. And here my friends were right, because Sting wishing upon a star for his ex-wife's boyfriend has got less going for it than, say, Roxanne and her red lights. Most of the new songs are downbeat, wholesome, and too good to be true.

But Sting has been here before. He knows his crowd. 'Synchronicity II' and 'Roxanne' are already starting up and it's 1980 all over again. Red lights sway out over the Albert Hall, and the audience gear up for the old tracks, the spectacular ones. It's what they've been waiting for. It's not just that they're fashionably dated songs, it's that, they're less good.

(c) The Independent by Tobias Hill