CLASSIC BLOG: Sting's "THE LAST SHIP" review (5.22.14)

Being a Sting fan hasn't always been easy.  Haters love to tell you how pretentious and self-indulgent they think he is, and how his solo work lacks the fire and passion of The Police.  But I disagree: I love the guy, and I love pretty much everything he's ever done. To me he's a Rock God: tall, handsome, supreme intellect, writes some of the best songs heard by human ears.  (He's also one of rock's most under-appreciated bassists, by the way.) 

But despite my man-crush, even my faith in Sting has been challenged over the last decade or so.  His last two albums of original music - 1999's "Brand New Day" and 2003's "Sacred Love" - were heavy on production polish but lacked focus and cohesion.  Arabic percussion here, muted trumpet over hip-hop beats there, gospel choir in 7/8, some guy rapping in French; I want Sting to show me his true feelings, not his passport stamps.  (But I will say that the 5.1 mix of "Brand New Day" is a sonic treat.) 

The "side projects" he's done since then have been mostly enjoyable.  2010's "Symphonicities" was simply his voice, his songs, and a symphony orchestra; what's not to love?  Same for 2009's "If On A Winter's Night," which is the closest we'll ever get to "A Jolly Christmas From Sting" (and thank god for that).  And I don't care what you say: I'm in love with 2006's "Songs From The Labyrinth," his tribute to English Renaissance composer and lutenist John Dowland.  Again, what's not to love?  Sting's husky tenor, growing richer with age, respectfully wraps itself around soaring melodies from Elizabethan England accompanied by master lutenist Edin Karamazov. 

But no new Sting compositions since 2003.  And there's nothing sadder than looking at one of your musical heroes and asking yourself the question: Has he lost it?  Has he dried up?  Will he simply be a "greatest hits" machine from now on? 

So when I heard that Sting would be writing a musical, I initially braced myself for the worst.  (“Sting's 'Roxanne!'  Now on Broadway; starring Kristin Chenoweth!”)  But then my fears were quelled and I exhaled: these would be new songs, and a story written with Tony-award winning book writers John Logan and Brian Yorkey and director Joe Mantello.  The semi-autobiographical narrative would draw upon Sting’s working-class roots in Newcastle, and the shipyards that employed most of the men in his town (including his father). 

Now: any self-respecting Sting fan knows that this is not new territory.  In 1991 he released "The Soul Cages," a concept album composed after a lengthy writer's block brought on by his father's death in 1989.  Sting processed his grief with a song cycle full of imagery connecting his father to the sea, and the Newcastle shipyards.  Though not well-received at the time, "Soul Cages" has actually held up pretty well.  (It's my considered opinion that "Mad About You" is one of the best pop songs written by anyone, ever.) 

Having also read his splendid autobiography "Broken Music," I gained a deeper sense of where and what Sting comes from, and how his early life in Northern England helped to form the essential elements of his character.  He has stated more than once that the ships being built and then launched out to the world, never to return, seemed like a metaphor for his own life. 

With this in mind, I snapped up my CD copy of "The Last Ship" unhesitatingly.  But I was not prepared for how deeply moved by this music I would be.  I'll say it: "The Last Ship" is as magnificent as anything Sting has ever done.  It's simply that strong; like I-can't-get-some-of-these-songs-out-of-my-head strong.  Forget the modern media caricature of Sting in a castle doing tantric yoga; this is the Sting of "Ghost In The Machine" and "Synchronicity," equally comfortable spinning gorgeous, catchy melodies AND shouting at injustice with his fist in the air. 

Sting has said of writing a musical that "every couplet, every verse, every song, every character is constantly fighting for its life,” and he’s right: there's not one wasted note, lyric or sound on "The Last Ship."  Sting's gifts for captivating melodies, poetry and storytelling are sharper and more refined than ever, and his compelling narrative puts them all to great use. 

Rob Mathes' warm production and arrangements are a breath of fresh air as well; the "world" flavors and electronics that cluttered up "Brand New" and "Sacred" are gone, and Sting is back among sounds that actually exist in nature.  Longtime guitarist Dominic Miller anchors a superb rhythm section featuring drummer Joe Bonadio and bassist Ira Coleman, and a fine complement of fiddles and pipes evoke Newcastle's medieval history without being overbearing or descending into caricature. 

But make no mistake, the Geordie factor is high on "The Last Ship."  There's plenty of thick Newcastle accents, and lyrics like "woe betide ye if you're late," "we've got nowt else," "sweet bugger all," etc.  And that's fine: I'll take the rich amber ale of Newcastle over the cotton candy-flavored vodka that too much musical theater sounds like today.  Besides: anyone who's ever been a wage slave, dreamt of a better life, or been in love with someone who loves someone else will have no trouble relating to these characters.  Working class is working class, whether it's the South Bronx, East New York or the north of England. 

It was the UK’s working class that spawned the young men who would eventually storm America's shores with "British Invasion" rock and roll, a cultural force that turned the world on its ear and all but rescued Great Britain's economy after the Second World War.  Fellow Geordie Eric Burdon formed The Animals in the shadow of those same Newcastle shipyards.  Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend and John Entwistle formed the nucleus of The Who in Acton, a suburb that was once home to a thriving automotive manufacturing industry.  And of course, the northern port town of Liverpool would receive ships returning from America loaded with rock and roll records; these found their way into the hands of the savage young Beatles. 

All of these working-class heroes simultaneously discovered what John Lennon once described as "another field of professionalism that doesn't need any qualifications except for you've gotta get down to it…and you can make it in the terms of the world, the terms they're talking about!”  ”The Last Ship" is fueled by the sentiment of that entire generation: standing up to authority, challenging social norms and expectations, refusing to follow in their fathers' footsteps up the hill toward grueling physical labor, and changing the world.  In choosing such a personal story, Sting has touched on something uniquely universal. 

Recently, Sting and his amazing band presented the "Last Ship" songs live at the Public Theater in New York, a performance that was filmed and broadcast on PBS's "Great Performances."  Watching this show was a revelation: at 63, Sting manned the stage like a shipyard's foreman.  Standing with one foot up on a wooden box, he belted out these killer new songs with the energy, grace and authority of a man half his age.  He also looked amazing, rugged and muscular in jeans and a grey t-shirt and buzzed hair cut.  (Okay, I’ve got a little man-crush;what's it to you?) 

"The Last Ship" sets sail on Broadway this fall, and you can bet that I will be in that theater singing along.  And I'll never allow anyone to tell me who to be a fan of, ever again.  Show some respect!

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