Friday, February 21, 2014

Make way for The Last Ship!

Hi everyone,

Did you know that Sting came out with an album of brand-new music last September? I couldn't find it in any local stores the day it was released, ended up ordering the CD online, and paced the floors like Daffy Duck waiting for the latest edition of his Duck Tracy comic book to arrive. Did other Sting fans encounter this problem? Record stores, I miss you!

Sting hasn't released any albums of new material since 2003's Sacred Love. He kept busy with other projects, among them albums of reworked Sting songs and albums for which he sings other people's songs, an autobiography, a book of song lyrics, and tours, tours, and more tours. As excited as I was about all these things, I had a nagging worry that Sting was on the verge of retirement.

All this time, though, he worked on writing a musical based on The Soul Cages, his emotional 1990 album that dealt with the death of his parents and his own mortality. Getting my hands on The Soul Cages was very exciting to me, not only because it was so personal but because it ended Sting's nearly 4-year bout of writer's block. "The Soul Cages was my attempt at elegy, the least loved, least understood of all my recorded efforts," he says. "But despite that cold reception, it did establish a select and loyal constituency of listeners who I only half-jokingly refer to as 'the recently bereaved' or similarly haunted. Not the most cheerful club, it must be admitted, but a thoughtful bunch nonetheless." I guess I am among them because The Soul Cages is my all-time favorite Sting album.

Years later, the musical inspired by The Soul Cages is finally coming to fruition with a world premiere in Chicago this June and a run on Broadway to follow in the Fall! The Last Ship has morphed from being about Sting's own soul cages to being about his hometown of Wallsend and the people who live there. In this rough ship-building town in Northern England, Sting remembers watching from his bedroom window the ships being built at the end of his street. These giant masses of steel would eventually grow so large, they'd block out the sunshine and eventually leave port, never to return.

To whet our appetites for The Last Ship, the musical, Sting released an album of its songs well in advance of the show. Days after the album's release, he made a few TV appearances to promote it. Devastated that I didn't have my copy yet, I first heard one of Sting's new songs on the Today show. Before he sang it, he told Matt Lauer and company how important it was to him that the songs get out now so that people are familiar with them by the time they go to see the musical. He imagines audiences being invested the characters and singing along to the songs during the show. The song "What Have We Got?" followed. Sting sang it with his friend Jimmy Nail and a feisty group of musicians playing and yelling along behind them. It was a like a joyous Irish jig, complete with fiddles and stomping. The instrumentation in this song is clearly amazing, with a full-bodied sound that plops you on that ship amid the crowd of crew members.

When he sang this song on Late Night with David Letterman a few days later, Dave exclaimed at the end, "It sounds like a musical!" It really does and that excites me!

But I am doubtful that Sting can successfully hook fans on The Last Ship based on that song. When I first heard it, I didn't get it. 

But then my CD arrived in the mail. Can you believe I had to work that day? Before heading to work, I ripped open the packaging, read the liner notes, and put the 17 shiny new songs on my iPod. (Of course, I bought the 2-CD deluxe version of The Last Ship. It's the only way to go.)

The Last Ship is an amazing piece of work, again exploring life and mortality but through different characters who have fully-realized stories behind their voices. "What Have We Got?", which depicts  ship builders who are stuck but content in their station in life, fits perfectly among these songs. I get it! Other songs explore a vast number of other characters, including a drifter ("And Yet"), a quiet loner ("August Winds"), a tough, yearning teenager ("The Night the Pugilist Learned How to Dance"), a rejected lover ("I Love Her But She Loves Someone Else"), a middle-aged man facing his mortality ("Practical Arrangement"), and a dying man in "So To Speak." Some characters noted in the CD booklet didn't even fit on the CD, so we have even more to look forward to in the stage production. "Once I set out on this course, of speaking in voices other than my own, of expressing points of view that were perhaps different from mine, I realized that the muse had somehow been set free," Sting explains, remembering how he broke through his nearly 10-year-long writer's block. "A kind of creative 'projectile vomiting' ensued, where characters, stories, a myriad of voices spewed out on the page. It was staggering how much of this stuff cam out of me, and how quickly, and all because I'd gotten out of the way, and allowed these other voices to speak through me." 

Sting brought in several friends and musicians from his hometown to join him on this journey. Of all the guest musicians on this album, the most exciting to me was Brian Jones, lead singer of AC/DC. I was secretly hoping for a duet of "Back in Black" but Brian Jones, who assumes one of the musical's characters, sings other songs. These songs show that he's actually an impressive singer, something you can't really tell when he's screaming those great AC/DC anthems.

This album has a little bit of everything, somehow recognizably Sting but also completely unexpected. As usual, Sting raises the bar with his odd time signatures, interesting melodies, and random atmospheric sounds. (I love the church bells and seagulls.) Beautifully written lyrics tell the story of fully realized characters in each song so clearly that you can picture it all like a movie. We'll see if the musical lives up to what I've already envisioned! I can't wait to hear "Show Some Respect," which explores the camaraderie of the ship builders as they work on their latest project. From the first second I heard it, I thought I was on Broadway already with Joel Grey's Cabaret character emceeing this musical to a rousing finish!  

By the end of the first day of listening to The Last Ship, I figured that it was the best stuff Sting's ever written. I unintentionally listened to it for nearly 3 months straight. I woke with the songs in my head and found myself humming them in the middle of the day. (I know. That sounds insane even to me.) But, Sting, I know the songs pretty well now.

Here's another taste of what you can expect from Sting's exciting new project, the title song "The Last Ship."


Don't you feel like this is the start of something good? Are you pacing the floors to see this thing like I am? If you are not convinced yet and want to hear more, check out Sting on Great Performances tonight on PBS for a concert recorded at New York's Public Theater (check your local listings). He'll explain the genesis of this ambitious project and sing plenty of songs from it.

Get ready for a treat because The Last Ship is bound for a grand voyage!  


Copyright credits: All Sting song and images © Sting, and Today show video © NBC.

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