Sting – Symphonicities (2010)

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I decided to publish this on Father’s Day because I think this would make a great gift for your Dad.  My generation has a different view on Sting; he’s been a superstar for longer than we’ve been alive, most certainly cool at one point but we sure as shit can’t remember when that was.  The Sting I remember is the Sting of Ten Summoner’s Tales – tasteful and talented, yet deathly dull.  That in itself is not a crime, but Sting has always been the sort to have his cake and eat it too.  The kind who carefully attempted to curate an image of a sophisticated, well-read, socially conscious artist, but still wanted to enjoy the accolades and benefits of being a white male pop star.  The kind of guy who would write a pop song in 7/4 just to say he did it.  You don’t typically hear that time signature on the radio, you know.  Yes he once used the word “subjugate” on a single, but he used “fuddy duddy” on another.  I very distinctly remember a commercial, released around the same time as Brand New Day, where a bunch of advertising execs pitch wacky products to him in the backseat of his limo, as Sting looks on bemused – as if to say “I’m the guy who wrote ‘Every Breath You Take’ and you give me this?”  Don’t you know he’s not your typical pop star pitchman…but he still did it, plus there was that music video for “Desert Rose” which just so happens to turn into a Jaguar commercial.  I guess the mortgage on his castle isn’t going to pay itself.

Yes, Sting’s earned his reputation as a pretentious knob, but something’s been a bit…different this decade.  Perhaps you’ve noticed that he hasn’t had a hit in a while, given that he just stopped trying – 2003’s Sacred Love was his last real turkey of a pop album, and since then he’s been all over the map.  There was a lute album, an album of 15th century Christmas songs, and a shipyard musical; none of which have been all too-well received, but at least he’s actually trying to go beyond the Billboard charts this time.  Plus, it’s not like people are clamoring for him to write pop songs again; his place is set in stone, to the point where he’s still being tabbed to do things like perform at halftime during the NBA All-Star game.  Now here’s where I admit that I bought all this stuff, because damnit, I still like Sting.  Symphonicities is just another one of Sting’s oddball vanity projects, fan-baiting title and all (no songs from Synchronicity actually appear), another attempt to show himself off.  For the record, I usually hate this idea, because rock songs are supposed to rock, and once you start arranging Aerosmith songs for two harps or whatever you start to hear how limited and downright simple they really are.  That’s why those Slayer for Babies! albums usually suck, by the way.  Sting is a little different though, because he’s got a big enough catalogue (without looking at the tracklisting, can you name one song that is definitely on here?) and his songs are the sort that invite…nay, beg to be envisioned this way.  Say what you will about Sting but he spares no expense when he’s trying to record a pop song.

Thankfully, that work ethic is on display here too.  Too often these albums sound like cash-ins that were banged out over a long weekend, with a bunch of long string chords over recordings that sound an awful lot like the originals.  So credit arranger/conductor Rob Mathes for rebuilding all this from the ground up, and Sting himself for putting the concept ahead of the track selection, making this more than just another repackaging of his hits.  Certainly there are several tunes here we’ve heard enough of already, but he digs deep a few times, pulling out the great lost Police track “I Burn For You”, along with recent B-sides “The Pirate’s Bride”,  and “The End of the Game”, plus “You Will be My Ain True Love”, a soundtrack cowrite with Alison Krauss.  He mostly goes for stuff on the more cloying, dramatic end of his catalogue, but he does pull out some surprises.  In fact the opening track, a lively and surprisingly dense take on “Next to You”, was good enough to convince me to set aside the cynicism I originally had for this project.  But after that it does more or less turn in to what you’d expect.  There are a few chances taken here, especially with Police tracks “Roxanne” and “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic”, both of which lose a fair amount of charm (particularly the former).  Otherwise the songs stick pretty closely to the script.  Sure, sometimes they’re more lush (“When We Dance”) or extravagant (“I Hung My Head”), sometimes mostly the same but longer (“We Work the Black Seam”).  Often dull, but that’s sort of the point.

One thing I’ve always appreciated about Sting is that he understands the value of getting older gracefully.  He handled the transformation from raucous New Wave sex icon to sophisticated Adult Contemporary superstar pretty well, especially given that there’s some sense of diminishing returns to his career.  Now he’s entered the “old guy with a bucket list” phase, enjoying the full benefits of a back catalogue filled with hits and an audience that’s followed him for decades.  This album asks the question: can a pop artist successfully cast his or her music in a form that would appeal to the more highbrow, classically-leaning crowd?  Certainly Sting thinks so; his career has been marked with a sense of “it’s not just pop music”, hence why there’s so little fun to be had once you venture past Ghost in the Machine.  He makes these leaps not because he wants to, but because he has to, since that’s what great artists do.

Alas, Symphonicities plays like a microcosm of his career as a whole – on one hand a testament to the number of great songs he’s written in his lifetime, on another a reminder of how his constant pursuit of elegance and sophistication draws him away from his strong suits.  Sometimes it really does work – I’m thinking of “The End of the Game”, which has a sweeping, theatrical atmosphere to it, plus it’s a track that most fans haven’t heard before.  But Sting rarely reaches for that level.  Check out “I Burn For You”; the Police version grew to a hair-raising climax, while the jazzier Bring on the Night arrangement had this chilling, brooding atmosphere to it that gave it a sultry and unsettling feeling.  Here it’s tasteful and professionally done, but there’s no real jump to it, no build up, just layers of string melodies that fade out before anything can happen.  In essence it (along with most of the tracks here) feels like a celebration of a great tune, rather than anything great in itself.  For the record, I think this is a great idea for a live show, which it originally began as – a year-long, 133-date tour that spanned a dozen countries (give or take).  There, at least, you’ve got the novelty of hearing something familiar in a new way, enough time to really let the concepts breathe, and besides orchestrated stuff always sounds so much better live anyway.  But as a CD, it feels like an elaborate, self-produced tribute, something you play once and promptly forget about.  In other words: perfect for Father’s Day.

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