The Last Ship/ Sting
Universal Music/ Rs 495 (imports)
AFTER a memorable stint with the Police, Gordon Sumner aka Sting has had a somewhat strange solo career. Between 1985 and 1993, he released a string of outstanding albums, namely ‘The Dream of the Blue Turtles’, ‘Nothing Like the Sun’, ‘The Soul Cages’ and ‘Ten Summoner’s Tales’.
Sadly, much of his later effort has been predictable. Though the albums ‘Mercury Falling’, ‘Brand New Day’ and ‘Sacred Love’ had their highs and their hit songs, they didn’t match the earlier masterpieces in terms of both consistency and freshness. In his 2010 collection ‘Symphonicities’, he played symphonically re-arranged versions of his older songs, with the assistance of the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra. But barring a brilliant take on ‘Roxanne’, the effort fell flat.
Sting’s latest set ‘The Last Ship’ is being marketed as his first full-length album of original material in a decade, after ‘Sacred Love’. It is also inspired by Sting’s forthcoming play of the same name, scheduled to be released on Broadway next year.
Has Sting got over the shadow that has hung over him for quite some time? The first couple of hearings of ‘The Last Ship’ may make you feel he hasn’t, and an early reaction is that his vocal texture has lost a fraction of its spark. But give the album four or five listens, and the old magic begins to unfold slowly but steadily, like a ship that takes its own sweet time to move out of the harbour, but sails smoothly once in full flow.
Though old-time fans may argue that isn’t anywhere in the class of ‘The Soul Cages’ or ‘Ten Summoner’s Tales’, the truth is that it is clearly his best effort over the past two decades. The sound is a blend of Celtic flavours, British folk, sea shanty and the trademark Sting style. Filled with fiddles, accordions, whistles and bagpipes, the tunes at times remind you of solo Mark Knopfler and even the ‘Les Miserables’ music. What’s most impressive, however, is the quality of the lyrics, with the songs being poetic and recitation-friendly.
Check him on the last lines of the opening title track, which go, “In the name of the Father, in the name of the son, And whatever the weave of this life that you’ve spun, On the earth or in heaven or under the sun, When the last ship sails.” He’s moulded his famous timbre, but the song hits you with its sheer punch.
Of the other songs, ‘Dead Man’s Boots’ sounds more from the Knopfler style book, and ‘August Winds’ is sung with a melancholy that makes it haunting. ‘So to Speak’ is a charming duet with British folk singer Becky Unthank, who comes in mid-way, and ‘Ballad of the Great Eastern’ has an old-fashioned charm, with its lilting Brit-folk interlude. ‘Practical Arrangement’ is wittily written song about a man wooing a woman on how they should end their respective solitude, and ‘What Have We Got’ is a peppy song with theatrical seaside shouts.
There are other beauties. With its moody guitars, ‘And Yet’ seems like it’s an extension of the earlier albums, with the lines, “This town has a strange magnetic pull, Like a homing signal in your skull, And you sail by the stars of the hemisphere, Wondering how in the hell did you end up here?”
‘Language of Birds’ has the outstanding words “And across that sea is an island, A paradise we are told, Where the toils of life are forgotten, And they call it the Island of Souls.” On this song, Sting also gets into nostalgic mode, with the lines, “It was him who was trapped in the soul cage, son.”
‘I Love Her But She Loves Someone Else’ is a lyrical masterpiece, with Sting singing “There are times when a man needs to brave his reflection, And face what he sees without fear, It takes a man to accept his mortality, Or be surprised by the presence of a tear.”
To be sure, this is the kind of album that’s likely to appeal more to the lyrical-minded than to those who focus on pure melody. Here too, it takes a while to get a hang of many songs, and it is advisable to keep a print-out of the lyrics handy. There are times when the compositions sound bland, only to be saved by the words.
Sting’s change in voice may spark some debate too. He’s sung in a pitch lower than what one is accustomed to hearing, and there are occasions when he’s gone in for a more countryside accent which sounds forced. His timbre is also showing the signs of strain that appear with age — he turned 62 on October 2.
These minor observations, however, don’t take away from the overall quality of the songs. As mentioned before, this is the kind of album that takes time to grow on you. But once it does, it simply seems like it’s the best thing Sting has done in years. Enjoy the ship ride.
RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Simply outstanding