Monday, September 30, 2013

Sting, The Last Ship: an album, or a musical?

Sting, a working man again. See the album on Amazon.

It's here! Sting's first album of all-new material in 10 years! But wait…it's a celtic-folk musical?

Ever since the difficult, but eventually rewarding Sacred Love (2003), the last all-original studio album Sting produced, in which he tried (and failed) to produce more radio hits, Sting hasn't seemed interested in hits. Instead, he's tackled whatever his musical whimsy has caught: lute songs from 400 years ago, re-imagining his own works with symphonic accompaniment (to help financially failing orchestras?), and "Winter" songs (not Christmas, mind-you; or only Christmas, anyway). In the booklet to The Last Ship, Sting himself characterized these intervening 10 years as a "fallow" period, meaning he agrees he's let his creative powers rest, but only in order make the next harvest that much sweeter.

But those of you expecting a harvest akin to the Sting of the 80s or 90s might be disappointed. Sting, not to be predictable, has planted a new crop, and the corn is as high as an elephant's eye, so to speak. That's right, The Last Ship is basically a pre-release cast recording with a cast of mostly one.

But don't let the singular album cover and vocal credits fool you. The Last Ship is more collaborative than other Sting albums, though the musicians are always working for Sting. At the back of the album, there is a note that reads: "All songs written by Sting…except those noted below," followed by a full page of exceptions. If you examine those exceptions closely, it turns out that 5 out of 12 tracks (10 out of 20 in the premium version) are coauthored by at least Sting's producer, Rob Mathes, and some of these credit as many as 7 people total. Not that I think this collaboration is bad; large projects like musicals take more than just one creative mind, and actually, I think some of the more interesting tracks are not written solely by Sting.

Words, words, words...

What does the musical theater focus mean for the content of the album? Well, it mostly means that these songs are not very meaningful by themselves. We don't really grasp the whole story from the selections we're given in The Last Ship. The focus also means that the songs are more character- and exposition-driven than in a normal rock album. Character-driven songs are not unusual for Sting, who is used to writing about fictional people, but rock albums usually don't focus on exposition.

What kind of people is Sting writing about for The Last Ship? He's astutely writing what he knows, drawing from his experience growing up in Wallsend in northern England in the shadow of a shipyard. He's also throwing in a little of his proletariat championing from "We Work the Black Seam" from Dream of the Blue Turtles (1985). Sting is revisiting themes and images from his earlier work, like the island of souls and the soul cages from The Soul Cages (1991). I wouldn't be surprised if the songs "The Soul Cages" or "Island of Souls" were included in the full musical (though, I have a feeling that The Last Ship turns out to me more hopeful that The Soul Cages).

Even for a Sting album or a musical, though, The Last Ship is very wordy. Sacred Love was notoriously wordy, and many songs and verses were cut from the final product. The Last Ship seems the next step in that progression, as verses pile on top of other verses. I suspect, too, that the album's collaboration was more musical than textural—I think most if not all of the words are Sting's. In some ways, though, he's more direct about his song's subjects than he has been in the past, as in his title "I Love Her But She Loves Somebody Else" (which could be the title of 25% of Sting's songs), but he takes a boatload of words to say it. There's still plenty of Sting's trademark literary references—biblical, mythological, and other.

Let me sing you a new ballad of times past

So how does the focus on telling a theatrical story affect the music? Well, Sting lets it influence the music a fair amount.
There's some smattering of Celtic dance throughout (I suspect some of the musical collaboration in these). Sting also decides to follow English folk music models to fit in with the working class setting. There's several long ballads, an old folk musical form with many verses that instead of a chorus, usually has some key phrase in each verse. Sting also employs some musical theater standby forms like AABA. These two forms serve to pack a lot of words with only minimal repetition, as he seems to want to do here. Sting and Mathes manage to make the ballads the most compelling songs by varying the verses's melodies, making the songs build gradually, and telling a great story.

But there are some musical aspects in The Last Ship that are un-Sting-like. The range of Sting's voice is not large, and we hear little of his trademark high voice. Sting seems less interested in experimenting with form and meter. Also, there's no radio hits here, no break-away single, which is surprising because that's usually an asset in a musical.

"What Have We Got?"

Still, there's a lot of emotion and thought and stories. There may not be a radio hit, but the title track "The Last Ship" could be show-stopper. And I'm a sucker for Northumbrian pipes and the Celtic-style fiddles. Sting + Celtic = perfection? Maybe not, but I'll take it.

And once again, Sting is going someplace completely new. He can do lute songs from the 1600s, and he can do musicals, too. Not just a review-style rock musical made up of unconnected songs from the same artist, or a musical based off a movie or a comic book, but a brand-new, original musical. Who does that, anymore? The Last Ship might end up similar to Kinky Boots: a rock musician writing music about working class people trying to get out of a ditch. I guess it might be meant to get Sting's career out of ditch, too, if I thought he cared about his career. Mostly, I think he just wants to tell a good story and help change some lives.

From The Last Ship, "we've got nowt else." But I'm okay with that.

What do you think about the album? And what genre do we file it under? Any ideas?

Vocab: ballad, AABA


  1. I really love all your comments about it because i am 100% feeling the same! I love the whole album, even it hurts not to be able to sing along with any of them (everybody knows i'd tried, haha) Yet the solid storyline amazed me verse by verse. This is how I love him since The Soul Cages or even Dream of the Blue Turtles.
    It is like story of my life was told; I wandered, I tried harder, yet I still failed. I got nowt else but wrinkles and scars, too. Somehow I think the album sounds right maybe because he is singing the story at the right era of life, maybe :)
    The article is a good read, thanks :)

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