With his opening salvo of solo albums – The Dream Of The Blue Turtles, … Nothing Like The Sun and The Soul Cages – Sting marked himself out as one of the most prolific artists of the 80s. Not that he was ever at risk of seeming otherwise: with The Police, he had effortlessly transcended the punk/new wave scene to create a remarkable body of work which, had Sting opted never to record another note, would still stand as a testament to his unbridled creativity.
No chance of that, though – ideas burned through the man. By 1991 and The Soul Cages, Sting had expanded his palette to include world music, jazz, reggae – and most points in between. Yet that album, masterly as it was, was also something of a catharsis for its creator; Sting, suffering the loss of his father, poured his all into its recording.
So it was perhaps understandable that, with 1993’s Ten Summoner’s Tales and its 1996 follow-up, Mercury Falling, Sting would take a step back from creating grand, intricately wrought long-players and seek to focus more intently on his songcraft. Not that he took to turning out basic tunes with simple lyrics. The melodies may have been catchier than ever but, across both albums, Sting continued to deal with themes of love, loss and existential angst – he just found new ways to express them.
As Rolling Stone noted in their review of the former, by this point, Sting’s band seemed “capable of playing anything”. Equally notable was the fact that, though he surrounded himself with 18 consummate musicians – among them one-time David Bowie saxophonist David Sanborn – the album had a buoyancy that reflected Sting’s newfound lightness of touch. Arguably his most energetic release yet, Ten Summoner’s Tales ostensibly lent on the jazz excursions of his prior solo outings – though these were now smoother, more radio-friendly in their execution.
Infectious grooves abound in the likes of ‘Heavy Cloud No Rain’, while in its brief two and a half minutes ‘She’s Too Good For Me’ is a rip-roaring charge on which Sting delivers a self-effacing lyric that belies the seriousness of his more pensive work. Its classical breakdown – Sting wondering what he might do in order to make his unnamed paramour prefer him over other suitors – remains a wryly intelligent aside that most stars of his magnitude would shy away from. (‘Saint Augustine In Hell’ features yet sharper wit: a spoken-word interlude finds Lucifer welcoming barristers, archbishops and – of course – music critics to his fiery underworld.)
If Sting were angling for a hit, he was amply rewarded. With grunge’s nihilistic wave ostensibly consuming all in the States, and the UK in thrall to the retro reboots of Britpop, Ten Summoner’s Tales comfortably claimed its place at No.2 on both sides of the Atlantic, going on to scoop three Grammys, among them Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for one of the undoubted highlights in Sting’s solo catalogue, ‘If I Ever Lose My Faith In You’.
Three years later, Mercury Falling saw Sting continue to explore the possibilities of what he could do with the humble pop song. With saxophonist Branford Marsalis back on board, and extra help from the likes of pedal steel master BJ Cole, the album was his most stylistically varied yet, taking in gospel (‘Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot’), chanson (‘La Belle Dame Sans Regrets’), Celtic folk (‘Valparaiso’) and country (‘I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying’).
It’s easy to imagine Sting in the studio at this point, working at the peak of his powers, merely pointing at an instrument and having it respond with the perfect encapsulation of the sounds in his head. Yet though the tracks are deceptively simple upon first listen – undeniably catchy and deftly executed – repeated listens reveal ever more depths to their arrangements. And if, lyrically, Sting remained fixated on the big questions, his ever-maturing songcraft allowed him to find fresh insights into them. As Rolling Stone noted, he remained “true to his pensive nature while injecting healthy doses of levity into the mix”, confronting his doubts and concerns “with equal parts irony, hope and wistful resignation”.
Full of masterful touches – the opening guitar lick on ‘You Still Touch Me’ which recalls Sam & Dave’s ‘Soul Man’ (perhaps a fitting epithet for Sting himself); the inclusion of The Memphis Horns on ‘All Four Seasons’; the East London Gospel Choir lifting ‘Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot’ to the skies – Mercury Falling rightly gave fans the sense that, at this point in his career, there was nothing Sting couldn’t do.
Where to go next? With the world suffused in millennial angst, Sting would consolidate everything on his final album of the decade, 1999’s Brand New Day. Arguably his most straight “pop” album of all, it merged the songcraft that he’d perfected throughout the 90s with the widescreen ambition of his 80s material – and, with strains of electronica creeping in, would signpost where Sting was headed in the 21st Century. It’s this album, and its 2003 follow-up, Sacred Love, which uDiscover will revisit on 13 September.
Sting’s 16LP The Complete Studio Collection box set can be ordered here.