I saw late last fall that Sting had released a new album, called 57th & 9th. I greeted the news the same way I greeted pretty much everything the man had done for the past 20 years: I shrugged apathetically, and moved on. When I heard Sting was bringing a band to town in support of the new album, and was playing a small room, my reaction was pretty much the same. For all intents and purposes, I was over Sting.
Still, there was something about 57th & 9th that stuck in the back of my mind. There was a promotional label on the CD’s cover proclaiming this was Sting’s first rock/pop release in more than a decade. For the most part, I liked Sting’s rock/pop releases. It was when his songs became Jaguar commercials, followed closely by albums with lutes and other folk instruments, that I lost interest. Don’t get me wrong: Sting has had a storied professional career, and has the right to do whatever he wants musically. I respect that. I just didn’t feel obligated to go with him.
I say loudly and proudly that I am one of the biggest fans of The Police I know. They are, without question, one of my favorite bands of all time. When they reunited 10 years ago, my excitement level was through the roof. I couldn’t afford to pony up $300 to see them play in my local hockey arena, but I was quick to plop down $30 to take home the DVD/CD release of Certifiable, which documents the Buenos Aries, Argentina stop of that Police tour. I’ll be the first to say with the benefit of objectivity that reunion shows rarely live up to their hype. Led Zeppelin, the Who, Genesis … all put on adequate, serviceable shows. The Police, on the other hand, took to their catalog like they’d never stopped playing it. They were absolutely incredible! If anything, Sting, Andy Summers, and Stewart Copeland sounded better than they did 20 years before.
Which brings me back to 57th & 9th. I began to wonder if the reunion tour put a new charge into Sting’s songwriting. I was a big fan of the first three solo albums he released after The Police broke up. Sting surrounded himself with top-flight musicians like Branford Marsalis (saxophone), Daryl Jones (bass), Kenny Kirkland (keyboards), Dominic Miller (guitar), and Vinnie Colaiuta (drums) — among many others — to create wonderful albums like The Dream of the Blue Turtles, … Nothing Like the Sun, and The Soul Cages. When I interviewed singer/songwriter Rob Fetters (Psychodots, the Bears) for my forthcoming book, I asked him if he had ever heard a perfect album. He said he’d heard quite a few, and one of the first he mentioned was Sting’s Ten Summoner’s Tales. I went out and bought a copy of that album, and found that Fetters was absolutely right! Sting had the credibility. There could be no questioning that. So why not give this new record a shot? I finally decided to listen to that nagging voice inside my head.
The new album’s opener, “I Can’t Stop Thinking About You,” made me think at first that Sting was simply updating “Every Breath You Take.” But when I read the lyrics, I wonder if he’s even talking about a person? A serviceable opening track has become a song I must study a bit more in order to find its true meaning.
The song that hooked me was “50,000,” the album’s second track. At first, I scoffed at it, because I could hear how much the chord changes sounded like The Police’s “Invisible Sun,” a song I like a great deal.(*) But toward the end of the song, I actually heard what Sting was singing. The song is about facing one’s own mortality, particularly in the face of past stardom. The aging and passing of my musical heroes has had a profound effect on me personally. But the effect on me has been musical. For Sting, it’s much more personal. Not only were these people rock stars, they were friends and peers! Sting is 65 now (although he doesn’t look a day over 45, God bless him). He knows there are fewer days ahead than behind. And it’s got him reflecting:
“Another obituary in the paper today/One more for the list of those who’ve already fallen/Another one of our comrades is taken down/Like so many others of our calling.”
On the plus side, at least we know he’s dealing with his mortality. Or at least, he’s trying:
“Reflecting now on my own past/Inside this prison I’ve made of myself/I’m feeling a little better today/Although the bathroom mirror is telling me something else.”
It’s a damned fine song. And while I’ve never been a rock star, I can certainly relate to facing my mortality, particularly considering what I do for a living.
One of my other favorite songs on the album is called “Petrol Head.” I’m sure it’s a song loaded with metaphors. But for now, I prefer to admire its hard-charging nature. It’s “age appropriate” metal for an artist purging himself of that which haunts him.
Yes, the album does include a couple of “lute-friendly” tunes, like “Heading South on the Great North Road,” but they’re still decent songs. An album full of them would have made me a little crazy. But one or two within the context of this album renders them relatively innocuous.
“If You Can’t Love Me” is not a rocker, but it hits the heartstrings like a trip-hammer. The song is the story of a failed relationship, and anyone who has endured a breakup (and who among us hasn’t?) will be able to relate on multiple levels.
A few days ago, I broke out my DVD copy of Bring on the Night, Sting’s documentary about the formation of the band that supported The Dream of the Blue Turtles in 1985. At the time, I had no idea why I was watching this movie, even though it is very good. Like I said, Sting and I had gone our separate musical ways. But now I believe my subconscious was working on me, reminding me that it was ok to revisit the music and musicians of my distant past, even as I continue my search for new artists and styles. One of the last chapters of my book is called “Going Forward by Looking Back.” If anybody fits that category, Sting does.
The DVD reminded me of the days when I couldn’t get enough of Sting’s music. I even got to see him live in Tokyo, Japan, at the famed Nippon Budokan. It’s the same place Cheap Trick recorded their famous 1978 album. I even remembered that I had a souvenir in my photo album from Sting’s show.
57th & 9th really is a good album. It’s not the sound of an old artist trying to recapture his past. Rather, it is the sound of a seasoned artist reconciling with the past. Something tells me Sting will not be going down this particular musical avenue again. And you know what? That’s just fine. He’s said all he needs to say.
You owe it to yourself to give it a listen. Seriously.
I’m starting to wish I’d gone to that show.
(*) This isn’t the first time Sting has lifted one of his own riffs for a new song. But as he once said (paraphrased), “If I can borrow from Hemingway and Shakespeare, I can certainly borrow from myself.”