Review: Sting, ‘The Bridge’ – A Great Album From An Artist I’d Given Up On

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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!

Third Time’s The Charm: The Artists Whose Third Album Was The Breakthrough

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*Only 5 LPs photographed because most of your intrepid blogger’s property is still in storage…

I don’t know if this is true or not, but it sure seems like bands have a lot more avenues to get their music out these days especially when compared to how they used to do it in the 70s or 80s… I’ve been sitting in the cheap seats watching my friend Drummer Blake work to establish his latest band the Sunset Sinners and those guys are a marketing machine. I don’t think they’re any different than any new band out there today. There are so many tools at a band’s disposal. Bands now have YouTube where they can release videos of live performances or just old school videos like Dirty Honey‘s latest. There’s so much more a band can do with social media today. Whether it’s Facebook, Instagram or Twitter new bands have a way of communicating directly with fans so when a record company comes calling, the band already has a built in fan base that can literally span the globe. And now with Tik Tok that social media reach may have even gotten broader… at least that’s what my friend James tells me, he loves Tik Tok. I’m only on a few social media platforms and Tik Tok ain’t one of them. Not yet anyway. I only got on Instagram to follow the bands I love…well that and to watch videos of cats and dogs doing adorable things. I’m like everyone else in that regard. 

In the old days a band’s social media consisted of the guys in the band wandering around downtown stapling cheap copies made at Kinkos to telephone poles to announce a gig. I think there was a scene in Motley Crue’s ‘The Dirt’ where they’re doing just that which had to be hot and exhausting in all that spandex. Typically to start a band a few like minded musicians who liked the same music might huddle together in a garage and start playing cover tunes. After a while and usually a few line up changes – often that involved someone answering an ad in the newspaper like Ace Frehley – the band might start doing gigs in front of actual people, not just distressed family members. A school dance here, a keg party there, it all helped the band to start to create a following. The band’s repertoire would expand and eventually they’d start to create their own, original music. Eventually some enterprising bar owner would let the band play on their stage… or perhaps give them a residency. Maybe Gene Simmons would show up and pay for a demo tape like he did for Van Halen…probably not but somehow  demo tapes would get made. If fortune and luck shone on the band, a record company would extend a contract… Oh, and a manager probably showed up somewhere in this process to take 10%.

When the record company would offer the band a contract you’d think all their dreams were answered. It’s the Cinderella story. Record companies today seem to only want bands who can deliver that mega-million dollar selling debut LP. Maybe record companies have always been that way? But for some bands that debut album fails to connect. Not every debut can be Boston or Appetite For Destruction (Pleased To Meet You… The Epic List of Our 40 Favorite Debut Albums). Some really classic debut LPs from the world’s biggest bands have been commercial failures. In meetings, the record company guys all act supportive, but the pressure is really on now. To make matters worse, there’s the sophomore slump that hangs over a lot of bands. Bono, in his Rock Hall of Fame speech was talking about being in a band and described the 2nd album (and he was speaking generally) as “the difficult second album.” The old saying, “You have your whole life to write your first album, and only a few months to write your second,” holds some truth. Even for bands whose debut LP had a hit single or two and sold well, a weak second album only brings more pressure. And there are a lot of weak second albums out there… U2’s October is a prime example. 

For a band whose first two albums hadn’t sold in big numbers, I can only imagine that the third album was a “make or break” situation. Today, I don’t think any current label would keep an act longer than two LPs if neither sold well. We live in an instant gratification world, and if a band’s first or second album doesn’t explode, it’s time to move on. Back in the 70s and even the 80s, record labels seemed to be slightly more patient. They would let a band develop, mostly by playing a shit ton of concerts on the road, but also in the studio and as songwriters. Sometimes all that was needed was a new producer. Maybe the band tweaks the line up. It just felt, without all the social media to help build in that fanbase, that record companies back in the day gave artists’ more time or a little more leash, if you will. 

Some of the world’s most renown artists took an entire three albums to break into that world wide fame and commercial success. If these bands were coming out today I’m not sure any record company would have stuck with them until that third album and that would be a damn shame. Here is my list of phenomenal third records that made the bands who recorded them famous. I consider each of these records essential rock and roll listening. 

Aerosmith, Toys In The Attic

While Aerosmith had the hit “Dream On” on their debut, the album didn’t make a dent. They moved in together so they could rehearse constantly and brought in renown producer Jack Douglas for their second LP Get Your Wings, which sold better. At that point Aerosmith became road warriors. They toured incessantly behind the 2nd LP which helped build their fan base but also improved their songwriting and chops. With the big singles “Walk This Way” (later redone with Run D.M.C. during their “comeback”) and my favorite “Sweet Emotion” Aerosmith became superstars. This, to me, is Aerosmith’s peak album. Even the deep tracks like “Uncle Salty” and “Adam’s Apple” kick ass. I love the first two Aerosmith LPs, but I can understand how this is the one that broke them wide and far. It’s telling that they re-released “Dream On” during this time period to try and boost sales of that debut. 

Lenny Kravitz, Are You Gonna Go My Way

While Lenny’s debut is now considered a classic, you never heard much of it on the radio. Every woman I met in the 90s, even casually, put his debut on for me to hear. Despite his unending support among 20-something aged women, his second LP, Mama Said was pretty much invisible. Then suddenly, the title track of this album exploded on to radio and MTV with an iconic video of Lenny rocking in a circular room and flinging his dreds everywhere. There are so many classic tunes on this album – “Believe,” “Heaven Help,” “Black Girl,” and “Just Be A Woman” to name a few. Yes, Lenny tends to wear his influences on his sleeve, but he distills all of them into a fantastic album here. I’m not sure he ever did anything as good as this essential third LP. 

No Doubt, Tragic Kingdom

I had no doubt back in the day that I didn’t like this band. Then the Rock Chick took me to see them live on their reunion tour and I was blown away by them. Guitarist Tom Dumont, bassist Tony Kanal, and drummer Adrian Young were lean and muscular. I wasn’t prepared for how hard they rocked. Front woman Gwen Stefani who went on to totally disappoint me on her solo career was charismatic and energetic on stage… I was mesmerized by her performance…but I’m getting off topic. After that show, I went out and bought all their albums. Their eponymous debut LP got zero support from their record label and they asked to be dropped from their contract which the label refused to do. Their 2nd album, Beacon Street Collection can be thought of as songs about hating their record company. Finally on the third LP, they pierced the grunge consciousness of the era with Tragic Kingdom. Listening to this LP all these years later, it’s a staggering leap forward from the first two records. “Just A Girl” is a woman’s empowerment anthem for the ages and it actually rocks. From that to the ballad “Sunday Morning” this album is just about perfect. 

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Damn The Torpedos 

Petty’s first two albums had classic songs and hits – “Breakdown,” “American Girl,” “I Need To Know” and “Listen To Her Heart.” Listening to those albums today you could tell this was a band who was on the verge of breaking big. Damn The Torpedoes was that quantum leap forward and coincidentally the first Petty LP I ever purchased. My brother had it before I even did. “Here Comes My Girl,” “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Refugee” were all monster hits but I like some of the deep tracks. “Even the Losers” (a personal anthem) and “You Tell Me” are stellar. I even dig “Louisiana Rain.” One of the greatest albums of all time. 

The Police, Zenyatta Mondatta 

Maybe some day someone will explain the title to me… I was in junior high when the Police’s debut album Outlandos D’Amor came out. We all loved “Roxanne.” I remember singing it like Eddie Murphy in 48 Hours, loudly, high-pitched and out of tune in study hall much to the chagrin of the teacher in charge. Outlandos was a classic despite the French title, but I didn’t know anybody who owned it. The second album, Regatta De Blanc boasted the hits “Walking On the Moon,” and “Message In A Bottle” but it didn’t seem to resonate with as many people. Frankly I thought both those tracks were on the debut. After a world wide tour, much like Aerosmith, that honed their playing and songwriting skills they returned with Zenyatta Mondatta and suddenly everyone was on the Police bandwagon. “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” about the nonsensical nature of speeches by politicians, teachers and lawyers was the first single and despite probably not understanding that, we all loved that song. I think my friend Doug saw the Police on this tour. Every song on this album could have been a hit. Between the Police and Aerosmith I think it could be argued every new band should be sent on the road for at least a year to play as many shows as they can. 

Bruce Springsteen, Born To Run

Springsteen’s first album Greetings From Asbury Park is now seen as a classic. Groups from Manfred Mann to Bowie to Greg Kihn have covered tracks from this album. Commercially though, it was largely ignored. His second disc, The Wild, The Innocent And the E Street Shuffle, which gave his backing band its name, is my favorite Springsteen album. Oddly, the great epics on that album like “Incident On 57th St,” “Rosalita,” or “New York City Serenade” were largely ignored. With his back to the wall, Springsteen wrote his greatest batch of songs. He wanted lyrics like Dylan with Phil Spector’s “wall of sound.” I’d say he checked both those boxes! Like Damn The Torpedoes this is one of the greatest albums of all time. I’m just glad Columbia Records let Bruce have a third shot at an album. They would have dropped him if this record failed… 

Rod Stewart, Every Picture Tells A Story 

After his brief stint as “vocalist extraordinaire” for the Jeff Beck Group, Stewart recorded his debut, The Rod Stewart Album, or as it was known in the UK, An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down. It was part folk, part rock n roll which would set the template for the rest of Rod’s best work. It didn’t take off so he joined the Faces as their lead singer and after that, he’d release an album with the Faces and a solo album every year. It wasn’t until his third LP, Every Picture Tells A Story that he broke it big when a DJ in Cleveland flipped over the first single “Reason To Believe” to play the B-side, a little ditty named “Maggie May.” Rod became a superstar which was great for him, not so great for his mates in the Faces. I still hope Rod, Ronnie Wood and Kenny Jones can get a semi-Faces reunion together and do something. Rod was always better when he was working with a strong guitar player like Wood. 

U2, War

Boy, U2’s debut boasted the fabulous song “I Will Follow” that they still play in concert but it only made a little dent on the charts. The “difficult second album,” October didn’t do them any favors. Like Springsteen, with their backs against the wall, they retreated to Hawaii and recorded their breakthrough album. Sure, they had bigger and perhaps better albums, but War is the LP that broke them wide open… it’s also the first LP from them I purchased. The anthems “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day” moved them in a political direction that I always loved. It’s amazing how many of these third LPs ended up being some of the greatest music ever recorded… Maybe it’s the pressure? 

The White Stripes, White Blood Cells 

Like a majority of people, this was the LP where I first discovered the White Stripes. I ended up going back and buying their previous 2 LPs almost immediately upon buying White Blood Cells. The eponymous debut was all garage-rock, meaning it sounded like it was recorded in a garage. It was raw and ferocious, naturally I loved it. Even I will admit however, I can see why that wasn’t an international sensation. Their second LP, De Stijl was, like Springsteen’s E Street Shuffle, my favorite Stripes album. It’s bluesy and punk… its blues punk. However, it also failed to resonate far and wide. White Blood Cells had the big hits that made them famous “Dead Leaves On The Dirty Ground” and “Fell In Love With A Girl” that likely drove a lot of people like me to their first two records. They may have had bigger albums but this one is almost perfect. “We’re Going To Be Friends” is the best acoustic track they ever did. “I’m Finding It Harder To Be A Gentleman” has always been a personal fav. The Stripes just released a wonderful Greatest Hits album if you’re not obsessive about owning every LP but White Blood Cells is the perfect place to start with the Stripes. 

 

Most, if not all of these bands went on to storied, long careers. They all had “bigger,” better selling albums but these are such critical pieces of that later success. These are some of the greatest albums ever. I urge everyone who hasn’t heard these “third” records to do so immediately. Because as we’ve just learned, sometimes the third time is the charm. 

Cheers! Be safe out there, we’re getting closer every day to being able to some of this great rock n roll played live!