With Thanksgiving and visiting relatives, the food and drink and all of the box sets I’ve been working through lately (the Beatles, Stones, Dylan) I’m only just now getting around to focusing on Sting’s new LP which has been out a couple of weeks. This is a review I never thought I’d write. This is certainly an artist I’d sort of… written off, I’m sad to say. Defying odds and my jaded expectations, Sting has returned with a pop/rock delight on his new album, The Bridge.
I’m like most people I think. I got into Sting when he was still the singer/songwriter/bass player in the Police. I remember in junior high there were two sides to our Study Hall. One side was for quiet studying which was oddly where you could usually find me. The other half was for a more social experience. You could buy soft drinks and snacks. I never had any cash for that sort of thing. They’d play music over there on the social side. I can remember making a rare appearance on that louder side of Study Hall and hearing “Roxanne” for the first time. I can remember after it played, this dude I didn’t know very well named Chris began singing along in a high pitched falsetto to approximate Sting much like Eddie Murphy did in 48 Hours a few years later. We laughed but we dug the song.
I thought at the time that the Police were a punk band, like the Clash. In retrospect I think they were more faux punks. I didn’t buy their first album Outlandos d’Amour until I was in college. I do remember hearing “Walking On The Moon” and “Message In A Bottle” from Reggatta De Blanc and mistakenly assuming those were also on the first album. It wasn’t until “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” (which looks ridiculous typed out) and their breakthrough third album Zenyatta Mondatta that we all took notice of the Police in earnest. They had been out on a world tour and the broad scope of that trip informed a lot of that great album. I always dug the deep track, “Man In A Suitcase,” which was probably a precursor to my life as a traveling salesman. My brother owned that album and I promptly taped it… which was the way I acquired a lot of music in those days.
My buddy Doug saw them on the following tour for Ghost In The Machine, their fourth album. I would have really liked to have seen those guys on that tour but Doug took a chick he’d met at his job in the mall. It was all very Fast Times At Ridgemont High for us in those days, so I can’t fault him. By that time I thought of the Police as more pop/rock than pure rock n roll. That’s not a knock, it just meant that they rocked but with a more pop sensibility. Cheap Trick and Big Star always get lumped into that category and I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all. But because of that slightly “pop” approach I sort of shied away from purchasing Police albums. Masculinity was important in puberty and apparently you had to listen to harder rock and metal to prove that you were “a man.”
It wasn’t until I was in college that I became a life long Police fan and purchased all of their LPs. It was the summer after my very, very difficult freshman year (my fault, mostly) that I heard “Every Breath You Take” on the radio. It was the perfect song. I knew from that first listen, based on some personal experience, that it was most definitely not a love song. A tale of heartbreak and obsession, it’s one of those songs that comes along and hits you so hard you know it’ll stick with you forever. It was a message I was in touch with at the time. I never get tired of that song. My first Police album purchase was Synchronicity which I bought the day after hearing “Every Breath You Take.’ It wasn’t until I got back up to college that fall for sophomore year that I started buying all of their albums while hanging out in record stores with my pal Drew. Synchronicity turned into one of the biggest albums of all time. The Police went from being a well-known, big act to being the biggest act in the world.
Sadly though, that massive success would spell the end of the Police. Sting decided they’d gone as far as they could. A lot of people say he was tired of carrying those other two guys. I’d say drummer Stewart Copeland and guitarist Andy Summers were incredibly talented guys but Sting was “the man” in that band. It would have been hard for the Police to follow up the success of Synchronicity and perhaps Sting deciding to go solo was his way of ducking the pressure of having to top it. Many artists change their music to avoid the intense pressure fame and success bring. At the time we thought Sting’s solo thing was going to be a one-off and he’d come back the Police. Nope.
I, for one, was looking forward to Sting’s first solo album, The Dream Of the Blue Turtles. I always thought if you dug a band, if the main creative force of that band left, it was going to be automatically awesome. When we heard “If You Love Someone, Set Them Free,” the jazz-lite first single, we were beyond horrified, we felt “betrayed.” The communal feeling was “What is this crap?” Sting was apparently unhappy that people misinterpreted “Every Breath You Take” as a love song and “Set Them Free” was the “anecdote for the poison?” I’m quoting something I read back then, sigh. Needless to say, I didn’t invest in Sting’s first solo LP. Songs like “Love Is The Seventh Wave” didn’t help much. Gads, I dislike that song. I will admit the first Sting track that I thought had some potential from that LP was “Fortress Around Your Heart.” Lyrically brilliant, it was a track that resonated with me. I later heard his solo version of the Police song, “Shadows In The Rain” and I love that version. “Woke up in my clothes again this morning, don’t know exactly where I am, I should heed my doctor’s warning… he does the best with me he can” were lyrics that hit perhaps a little too close to home at the time.
After college, my corporate masters thought it was a good idea to exile me to Arkansas. Ft. Smith had terrible radio, all Madonna and Micheal Jackson who to my hard rock sensibility was like battery acid in my ears. I rarely listened to the radio in that town, but one lunch I had to leave the office and go to the dry cleaners. I didn’t have a cassette to pop in so I just let the radio play. The DJ was doing a lunch hour playing whatever music he wanted vs the usual heavily programmed, oft-repeated rotation. I had just pulled into the parking lot outside the One-Hour “Martinizing” place (whatever that is) when I heard the DJ announce he was playing a deep track from Sting’s new LP (Nothing Like The Sun, his second solo album), a cover of Hendrix’s “Little Wing.” While utterly re-imagined with a jazz combo, it hit me hard. I love that song and especially Sting’s vocal. I went out after work that day and purchased the album. Who says I had impulse control back then? It began a long period of me being a big fan of Sting.
I actually really dug the entirety of the album Nothing Like The Sun, which I’d bought on vinyl. It was designed for that new format, CDs, so they had to make it a double-LP with only three songs on each side. I went with the unconventional vinyl as I was certain “CDs” were a fad. I followed Sting to the next LP, The Soul Cages. The title track rocked and I really liked “Why Should I Cry For You.” While I didn’t connect with The Soul Cages the same way I did the previous record, I was still on the Sting bandwagon. His next album was probably his biggest solo record, Ten Summoner’s Tales. Beyond the Chaucer-inspired pretentious title, was eleven great songs. There wasn’t a bad moment on that album. I still play “She’s Too Good For Me” and dedicate it to the Rock Chick.
I even liked his next album Mercury Falling. I saw Sting on that tour and if I had a bone to pick with him, it’s that he doesn’t play the Police material with any conviction. It’s like he’s embarrassed by the most popular part of his career. Sigh. Another track I play for the Rock Chick is from that record, “All Four Seasons,” although I realize I take my life in my own hands when I do that… “That’s my baby, she can be all four seasons in one day.” Brand New Day was another great Sting record but after that the wheels came off of my fandom. Sacred Love was, in a word, awful. I purchased that album, based purely on the momentum of my experience with Sting’s music but quickly had it in the stack headed to the used record store for sale.
After Sacred Love, to a large degree, Sting disappeared as a solo artist for me. He did an album featuring him playing the lute. Yes, the lute. The main character in A Confederacy of Dunces, Ignatius O’Reilly played the lute. He did a chilly Christmas album. He did a Broadway play. He set some of his songs to an orchestral backing. He redid a bunch of Police and solo tracks with perceptible but slight alterations which left me thinking, “Huh?” The only thing he did during an almost 13-year stretch away from contemporary pop music that caught my interest was re-uniting with the Police for a hugely successful tour… which, naturally, he now says he regrets doing. Some people are just never satisfied. He finally returned to pop music in 2016 with 57th & 9th. I hoped it signaled a return to form and was ready to give Sting the benefit of the doubt but oddly, it left me cold. It was a very workman like effort. Well crafted and played but nothing I dug. The second half was very introspective and quiet. I thought, well, that’s it, I’m now permanently done with Sting.
Admittedly, my daughter and her beau recently turned me onto Sting’s collaboration album with reggae star Shaggy and to my surprise I liked it. It’s something I’d never heard before, Sting having… fun? It was a return to Sting’s early reggae-based music and he seems very engaged. I wondered if it was another strange detour or maybe, just maybe it’d spark something interesting from Sting in his solo career. “Waiting For The Break of Day” could have been on this new album and fit seamlessly… Everyone should check out at least that track if not all of 44/876.
I heard Sting had a new album coming out this fall. At this point listening to a Sting album felt like sitting up late at night with a tumbler of bourbon while thumbing through an old high school year book looking at pictures of that pretty girl from Geometry class in my sophomore year. I put on the first single from the new LP, The Bridge, a song called “If It’s Love” and… yes, it’s love! I should hate this song, it features whistling which I despise. I’ll be the first to admit, I consider any whistling in a song to be McCartney-level cheesy and yet this song is so catchy I can look past it. It tells the story of a man who awakes happy and smiling (“a muscle I rarely use,” which I can relate to) who calls his Dr to find out what’s wrong with him and it turns out, he’s in love. It’s such an earworm! It’s the best purely pop song Sting has done in years… I say that and yet there’s whistling! It’s an “Everything She Does Is Magic” meets “Don’t Stand So Close To Me.”
What would the rest of The Bridge hold? Would I be as disappointed as I was with 57th & 9th? The short answer is that this is the best, catchiest LP Sting has done in 20 years. It’s my favorite thing he’s done since Ten Summoner’s Tales. The album starts off with the upbeat, “Rushing Water.” It starts with an insistent drum beat like water on a rock. Sting sings over a plucked electric guitar until the chorus explodes like, well, rushing water from a broken pipe. “The Book Of Numbers” is another solid midtempo rock song complete with Biblical imagery set in a bar. The second half does get mellow, much like 57th & 9th, but in the case of The Bridge, I like the mellow tracks. The LP is laid out like those old Rod Stewart LPs with a “Fast Side” and a “Slow Side.” The highlight on the mellow, back end is “The Bells Of St. Thomas.” A heartbroken man is awakened by church bells to find himself hungover in the bed of a rich woman… in Antwerp no less. To me, it’s one of the most evocative tracks Sting has ever written.
Other highlights include “Harmony Road” which features a sax solo by none other than Brandford Marsalis who was in an early incarnation of Sting’s solo band and played on Dream Of The Blue Turtles. I thought I was having flashbacks. “For Her Love” is a beautiful love song that has echos of “Shape of My Heart.” There are a lot of moments on this LP like that, that remind you of Sting’s past glories while not reveling in them or feeling like cheap nostalgia. He seems to just be doing what he does well. I like the title track which is only Sting’s voice and a plucked acoustic guitar. “Loving You” is another standout track that could’ve been done just as effectively as a blues song, “if that’s not lovin’ you, then tell me what it is.” “Hills On The Border” is almost like a sea shanty but I dig it. Of the bonus tracks I liked his cover version of Otis Redding’s song “Dock Of The Bay,” but as long term readers know, I love cover songs.
If you’re like me and you’ve given up on Sting, or any artist for that matter, The Bridge is proof that there is always one more great album or song left. If someone’s art has moved you in the past, there’s a good chance that if you keep connected with the artist he will eventually pay off again. This is a real treat of a record and I urge everyone to check it out!
Cheers! And Happy Holidays to all of you!