After 40-odd years in the music business comes an album that suggests that Sting still has more to prove, even if only to himself.
Back in the deep
The Last Ship
Even a gifted soothsayer would have had trouble predicting Sting’s career arc. Who could know that the peroxide-blond punk behind The Police’s snappy 1978 single Roxanne would later release 1992’s Songs from the Labyrinth, a recherché and indulgent nod to the English Renaissance lutenist John Dowland?
After 40-odd years of confounding expectations, The Last Ship suggests that the man born Gordon Sumner still has more to prove, even if only to himself. Its 10 songs were penned for the musical of the same name that will open on Broadway in 2014, and which Sting, now almost 62, has been working on for the last three years.
Though his song-cycle ostensibly concerns the demise of the shipbuilding industry in Tyneside, in the north-east of England, which bit hard in the 1980s, Sting grew up in the shadow of the Swan Hunters shipyard in nearby Wallsend and The Last Ship allows him to take another long, hard look at his background.
Beautifully produced and performed, it’s a typically eclectic and richly metaphorical work with emotive, lyric-dense songs. Indeed, even if the theatricality seems daftly overblown in places – you’ll need your sea legs for the Ballad of the Great Eastern – this is arguably Sting’s most personal work since 1991’s The Soul Cages.
That album concerned the death of Sting’s dad, Ernest, and the complexities of father-son relationships loom large here, too. Dead Man’s Shoes, ushered in by humble harmonica, deftly essays a bitter stand-off between a proud working-class shipwright and a son determined not to follow in his footsteps. Elsewhere, in the nylon-string guitar waltz I Love Her But She Loves Someone Else, a man sees his long-dead father staring back from the shaving mirror and is forced to confront his own mortality.
Like some long-lost standard, the orchestrated standout Practical Arrangement is almost Gershwin-like in its classicism, while the play-it-for-laughs yarn The Night the Pugilist Learned to Dance shows that Sting, so often castigated for being poker-faced, isn’t always.
The singer’s portrayal of his native Newcastle as “a stain on the sunrise” probably won’t endear him to the folks back home and when he drops back into the thick Geordie accent he’s hidden so well all these years, it sometimes jars. Sting’s gift for resonant, intellectually stimulating songs endures, however, and less ambivalent Geordies, including the Unthank sisters and the Northumbrian pipes virtuoso Kathryn Tickell, have guest spots that impress.