Once, when I was a teenager, I told a friend that I had been listening to some Sting albums. His face paled. “But my mom listens to Sting,” he said, in the tone of voice people use when they talk about Wagner and the Nazis.
This is a common reaction. For my friend, and for many who read these words, Sting is tainted. And perhaps understandably so—at his worst, Sting is pompous, affected, a little schmaltzy. The trajectory of Sting’s career has passed through some questionable territory (the studio-slick albums, the Tantric tabloid fodder, the lute music, Dune). He began auspiciously enough, fronting The Police and casting into the world gleaming little ornaments of pop artisanship that, today, remain unblemished. But then Sting moved into that most dreaded of genres, adult contemporary, a category that seems to extinguish its own potential for cultural relevance. Although Sting has millions of fans and his newest album, 2013’s The Last Ship, is the basis for a new musical, how many among us still share my friend’s reaction: Sting?
But dismissing Sting means dismissing a body of work that is complex, occasionally bewildering, often intriguing—and, at times, even subversive. You miss all this when you dismiss Sting’s music, and, perhaps even more so, when you dismiss his stories.
Gordon Sumner is a compulsive teller of stories. His songs are teeming with them, beginning with tales of lovesick sad sacks on The Police’s 1978 debut, Outlandos d’Amour. And what is “Sting,” after all, but a kind of story? It’s the sum of those little stories woven within songs and the bigger stories woven out of many songs. It’s also the story that Sumner tells the world about himself—and perhaps what he tells himself about himself.
So it’s fitting that Sting’s memoir, Broken Music, is less an autobiography than an assemblage of stories. The book covers his early life up to the formation of The Police and pays close attention to his youth in Wallsend, a shipbuilding town in northern England. Sting grew up in the shadow of the ships, among the people whose lives were spent in the building of them—spent in every sense. He recalls the cold dawns, how every morning “the hooter” would scream out over the rooftops of the town, “a mournful wail calling the workers to the river”; how every day offered a glimpse of “the giant skeletons of ships, and the workmen, tiny by comparison, suspended in an enormous cage silhouetted against the sky.” His story begins in this world and is haunted by it still.
But Broken Music ends with a story from later days. Here is how Sting tells it: he is on tour in the U.S. during the summer of ’95, while, back home at his sixteenth-century English manor house (where else?), workers are excavating a few of the estate’s sixty acres. They are digging a lake. One night, the phone rings. It’s his assistant. She says the work has stopped. The workers have found a body. A woman. A murder victim. Signs indicate that she was ritually killed: thrown face-down in the muck, hands bound, a heavy chunk of wood pressed on her back.
Sting asks, “When did this happen?” His assistant answers, “About 400 A.D.”
Sting hangs onto the remains until the lake is finished. The workers leave a little island in the middle of the water, and that’s where Sting decides his “Lady of the Lake,” as he calls her, will be buried. They invite the neighbors and hold a ceremony. There’s a priest, a coffin, a bouquet of flowers. “Across the mists on the far shore stands a lone piper and the skirl of his mournful dirge floats across the still water,” he writes; it’s that sort of scene. The bones are buried and the guests are taken away by rowboat. But Sting sticks around for a little while, thinking of his parents who recently died, parents whose funerals he did not attend. He ponders the meaning of this and picks a flower growing near the fresh grave, which he finds out later is a forget-me-not.
This story provides a satisfying end to Broken Music (“I like to think she is at peace at last and that whatever was broken was somehow mended”). And Sting admits that the ceremony is related to the death of his parents and his inability to properly mourn them. The burial, in this sense, is symbolic; it is a staged event that provides an acceptable way for Sting to work through his grief.
But it is also pure Sting: the unbound romanticism, the cool pageantry, all of it slightly pompous and a wee bit ridiculous. You’d expect such a scene from the costumed man on the cover of Ten Summoner’s Tales (an ambiguously “historical” tableau: Sting in thoughtful repose, a white horse eyeing him from across a stone courtyard). Depending on your disposition, it is a fine enough ending to the book or a typical piece of Sting’s overdone nonsense.
But could it be more? Here is a fairly complex and, frankly, weird event. What kind of person would do this? And why? Confronted with a trauma thrown up from the past, Sting stages an elaborate ritual out of the pages of Sir Walter Scott; confronted with a skeleton in his own backyard, he slips deeper into his adopted identity as a sentimental English nobleman.
There are murky forces at work here.
Sting is unusual among contemporary pop artists because he evinces a strong interest in the past; his songs are littered with historical allusions and often have a vaguely antique flavor. In this sense he belongs to an earlier era of pop music, when links to folk and ballad traditions were stronger and a song like “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” or “The Battle of New Orleans” could be a massive hit. For Sting, there is a value in the past that is perhaps lacking in the present. At the very least, there is something about the past that he finds alluring, and the burial story, more than any song, is evidence of this.
Certainly, this is a peculiar kind of evidence. Sting discovered the remains of a person, yes, but a person who died a millennium and a half ago. He might have treated the remains as artifacts and handed them over to an archeologist. Instead, he arranged a burial ceremony—a funeral, really—as though the woman had died last Tuesday and not around the time the Roman Empire withdrew from the British Isles. The ceremony is Sting’s attempt to collapse the distance between his time and hers; better yet, it is his attempt to cross that distance and make a temporal voyage to a moment in the distant past. Why does he bother? He finds solace in the journey, rowing across the lake to the little island where the coffin sits, rowing back through time under the “mournful dirge” of the bagpiper into the fantasy of an imagined past. The meaning of this story is in the movement.
This gets us a bit closer to uncovering an impulse that, thematically and aesthetically, lurks within much of Sting’s music. But to really see it, we must return to Wallsend and the great skeletal ships that loomed over his childhood home. Sting would have watched these ships slowly take form, day after day, through stretches of time punctuated by ringing shift whistles, acetylene flares, and ambulance sirens announcing the occasional accident. Imagine, one day, a ship is finished. The workers and townspeople gather for the launch. Some visiting dignitaries smash a jeroboam of champagne against the hull, the crowds cheer, and the ship sails.
There is little Gordon Sumner standing on the dock and watching this scene. His eyes follow the ship as it eases into the River Tyne and then downriver to the North Sea and all the seas beyond. The ship has slipped loose from the dreary and hard lives of the workers who built it—it has escaped. Now imagine that Sting projects all his longing and ambition onto the ship. He identifies with it, emulates it. The ship represents a promise of freedom-in-movement; it captures a certain impulse to rove freely. It says: flee the shipyard. This is Sting’s voyager impulse.
In Broken Music, Sting is blunt: “The ships leaving the river would in hindsight become a metaphor for my own wandering life, once out in the world, never to return.” But it is not so simple. Because the voyager impulse is everywhere.
Songs like “Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot” and “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free”—the first song on his first solo album—describe an abstract version of this impulse. It is piloting yourself through the course of a life, setting a lover free into the world. It is often what Sting talks about when he talks about love. The key here is movement, figurative or literal. Indeed, on that first album, The Dream of the Blue Turtles, he links love explicitly to the movement of the sea. In “Love is the Seventh Wave” he sings: “There is no deeper wave than this, rising in the world/There is no deeper wave than this, listen to me girl.”
The song—a reggae pop tune that itself bounces like a boat on the water—ends with Sting repeating, “I say love is the seventh wave.” He here refers to the common idea that every seventh wave that rolls into shore is bigger than the preceding waves. Love is a thing that sweeps around the world and knows no boundaries; it is pure motion; it is the most powerful wave in the sea.
Such images are not uncommon in pop music. You could even say that “Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot” and “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free,” songs that are pretty much summed up by their titles, are clichés. Better is the image from one of Sting’s most famous songs, the early Police hit “Message in a Bottle”. Of course the castaway, the island, and the bottled message are some kind of metaphor for the human condition—hence the morning when our castaway finds one “hundred billion bottles washed up on the shore” from one “hundred billion castaways, looking for a home,” just like him. But, as with every metaphor, the literal meaning is also significant. The castaway must place his hope in the currents of the sea, and only by way of those currents and their outward motion is his escape possible. Seen through the eyes of a stranded man, the bottle and its message traces the same thematic route as ships on the River Tyne, escaping to the sea.
More significant are the moments when Sting sings about actual ships and sea-faring. “Valparaiso” is a mariner’s ballad that evokes the period when Valparaiso, a port halfway up the coast of Chile, was an important stop in the voyage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Although its singer is returning home to see his “true love,” home doesn’t feel like the true destination. Instead, the emphasis is on the voyage and some irresistible force mixed up with love and longing that pulls him out to sea. In the bridge, he sings: “Every road I walked would take me down to the sea/With every broken promise in my sack/And every love would always send the ship of my heart/Over the rolling sea.”
Three times he repeats the refrain, “Round the Cape Horn to Valparaiso,” but he does not seem any closer to home. In fact, he suggests that he might die at sea, or perhaps already has, leaving his ghost to either complete the journey or continue rounding the cape infinitely, haunting his route on a kind of permanent voyage.
That is the gist of the voyager impulse. But back to the shipyard, where this impulse, this fantasy of escape, is cast in concrete terms—or rather, in steel.
Sting’s third album, The Soul Cages, is a meditation on the shipyard and, especially, the death of his father. The opening track, “Island of Souls,” describes a young boy, Billy, whose father is a riveter, a miserable man who toils all day and drinks all night and eventually suffers a mortal injury on the job. Billy is made miserable, too, by his father’s life and the lives of the workers around him, and he longs to escape. The chorus goes: “One day he dreamed of the ship in the world/It would carry his father and he/To a place they would never be found/To a place far away from this town.”
This is the crucial image: the ship that will carry you away, but only in your dreams. Clearly, this ship is more than a metaphor for Sting’s own departure from Wallsend, as he suggests in Broken Music. It is too freighted with longing, too haunted by desire—too close to reality.
The next track on The Soul Cages, “All This Time,” is about grief and coming to terms with a death. It even sounds like a musical coming-to-terms, up-tempo but slightly sorrowful, mournful but accepting. Again, the chorus is the key: “And all this time/The river flowed/Endlessly/To the sea.” This is then is amended with a second chorus: “If I had my way/I’d take a boat from the river/And I’d bury the old man/I’d bury him at sea.”
Here the River Tyne and its path to the ocean is a consolation. If Billy in “Island of Souls” sees the river as a means of escape, for both him and his father, then the singer in “All This Time” (presumably Sting in confessional mode) sees the same thing. Except now, his father is dead, and the river will not take them away together but will instead take the singer to a place where he can properly mourn his father. It is still a means of escape, not from the misery of the shipyards but from grief, and the freedom it offers is the freedom one finds by coming to terms with the death of a loved one.
A few tracks later, the singer of “The Wild, Wild Sea” (again, confessional Sting) conjures up a vision of a ghost ship. He thinks he sees a sailor at the helm: “and underneath the sailor’s hat, I saw my father’s face.” The ghost is real, as all ghosts are in literature—real enough to the haunted, anyway. But it’s important that the haunting, or really the process of mourning, does not happen in the shipyard or on land at all. This ghost, and the one who sees the ghost, are “lost on the wild, wild sea,” a phrase Sting repeats as the music becomes a roiling swell of drums, cymbals, guitars, and keyboards. The wild, wild sea at the end of the River Tyne is a dream world where everything—escape, death, solace, love, hope—is possible. Reaching that world means fleeing the shipyard. And a ship is what will carry you there.
I’ve made a claim for this idea of a “voyager impulse,” the fantasy of escape and movement that is so essential to Sting’s story. It is most clearly a thematic impulse and it appears and re-appears in his lyrics. But it’s also an aesthetic impulse that shapes Sting’s sound in curious ways.
This sound began with The Police in the late 70s: stripped-down and lean, a tight construction of punk, rock, and reggae, but with a sweet pop glaze. Over time, the sound expanded (or perhaps became bloated) as Sting created more complex arrangements and added instruments beyond The Police’s sinewy power trio. By the start of his solo career, Sting was borrowing freely from jazz, orchestral music, show tunes, torch songs, and diverse forms of “world music”—an Andean flute here, a flamenco guitar there.
He had, in a sense, become like a ship at sea, drifting from one port to another and picking up bits of exotic music that interested him. Sting’s sound came to resemble the curio collection of a well-traveled tourist, and this voyaging spirit in turn influenced his subject matter. He more frequently sang about places far from the Tyne: Latin America (“Fragile”), northern Africa (“Desert Rose”), New Orleans (“Moon Over Bourbon Street”). Even a song about Quentin Crisp, “An Englishman in New York,” focuses on, of all things, Crisp’s immigration status (“I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien, I’m an Englishman in New York”).
Freedom-in-movement: it’s in the way Sting moves among different voices, from lounge singer to Geordie bawler to reggae yodeler. And it’s in the NGO-friendly activism with which Sting publicly identifies, a style of liberal politics, predicated on universal human rights, that operates globally and moves from hot-spot to hot-spot, issue to issue.
This impulse also illuminates Sting’s fascination with the distant past—because what is nostalgia but a sort of temporal voyage? Not only did Sting drift around the world looking for ways to expand his sound, he drifted through time, eventually landing in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There he found the music of John Dowland, whose lute compositions Sting recorded on the album The Labyrinth. His next album, If On a Winter’s Night…, is a similarly historical exercise: most of the material pre-dates the twentieth century.
In this context, the burial ceremony on the little island in the lake makes more sense. The impulse that compelled him to stage such a ceremony is the same impulse that sends him rummaging through the musical past and through diverse musical styles; it is the same impulse for which the image of a roaming ship is emblematic of personal and artistic freedom; it is the same impulse that sends him fleeing from Wallsend.
But this is only half the story. Let us return, again, to the shipyard, and there find little Gordon Sumner standing on the dock. The ship is built and christened and launched, and now it slips over the horizon. We know how one side of the story goes; here is the other. Despite his desire to escape, to follow the example of the ship, little Gordon knows he cannot. He must go back to the dreary house where his parents yell and money is tight and the only way to escape is by turning a page in a book or dropping a needle on a record. He is stuck in Wallsend, where most people will watch the ship depart and then go home, too, and get what sleep they can before the morning whistle calls them back to the river, back to build another ship that will likewise someday leave them.
So instead of training his gaze on the ship, he turns and trains it on the shipyard. What he sees is monstrous. “Island of Souls” is worth quoting at length:
Six days a week he would watch his poor father
A working man live like a slave
He’d drink every night, and he’d dream of a future
Of money he never would save
Billy would cry when he thought of the future
Soon came a day when the bottle was broken
They launched the great ship out to sea
He felt he’d been left on a desolate shore
To a future he desperately wanted to flee
What else was there for a ship-builder’s son
A new ship to be built, new work to be done
Trapped in the cage of the skeleton ship
All the workmen suspended like flies
Caught in the flare of acetylene light
A working man works till the industry dies
Billy’s father dies before the industry does, killed by “what they call an industrial accident,” although Billy (and Sting) would likely call it something else. His life is used up in the building of the ship just as acetylene and steel is used up in the production process. And for what? Sting’s language is scathing: the workers are enslaved, caged, trapped like flies in a spider’s web. They are immobile, and they are taunted by the sight of every escaping ship because every ship is replaced by another. The workers are locked in a repetitive cycle of toil from which the only escape possible is death.
This is Sting’s counter-impulse—not to flee the shipyard, but to turn and face it with a critical eye. It draws on the perspective of “Rehumanize Yourself” by The Police: “I work all day at the factory/I’m building a machine that’s not for me/There must be a reason that I can’t see/You’ve got to humanize yourself.”
And it appears, albeit in a different context, in the miner anthem “We Work the Black Seam” from Sting’s first solo album. “I Hung My Head” on Mercury Falling captures this impulse in its distilled form: a man accidentally shoots someone and flees into the “salt lands” (a dried up inland ocean), but knows he cannot escape. The sheriff finds him and brings him back to town, to face justice, to return home and reckon with the past from which there is no fleeing. They hang him.
The Last Ship
US: 23 Sep 2013
UK: 23 Sep 2013
These two impulses born out of the shipyard—to escape as a voyager, to remain as a critic—are bound up in a fundamental contradiction at the core of Sting’s story. His most recent album, The Last Ship, is significant in that it is almost totally dedicated to exploring this contradiction. At first, the album seems to present these two impulses side-by-side.
There is the voyager impulse: the insert sleeve shows a photo of a ship being launched, and the song “Dead Man’s Boots” describes a son’s desire to escape the fate of his shipbuilder father (“I’d plenty of choices, and plenty other routes, and he’d never see me walking in these dead man’s boots”). And there is the counter-impulse: the son goes to sea but is relentlessly pulled back to the shipyard, and, across the album, the barbarism of the labor process is exposed (“Ballad of The Great Eastern” tells the tale of two workers, a father and son, who are sealed inside a ship’s hull and whose skeletons are discovered years later—a potent metaphor).
But something about The Last Ship is different. From the opening track, the launched ship, presumably an emblem of hope, is deeply ambiguous:
Oh the roar of the chains and the cracking of timbers
The noise at the end of the world in your ears
As a mountain of steel makes its way to the sea
And the last ship sails
It’s a strange kind of beauty
It’s cold and austere
And whatever it was that ye’ve done to be here
It’s the sum of your hopes, your despairs and your fears
When the last ship sails
It is more ominous than hopeful, more a warning than a promise—hardly a fantasy of escape. And something else is different. Unlike Sting’s previous solo albums—highly individual statements by an individual artist—The Last Ship takes a more collective form.
The Last Ship is the precursor to a musical of the same name, soon to debut on Broadway, that includes many of the same songs. Some of the album tracks were even recorded as ensemble pieces; Sting enlisted other artists from northern England to help out (including, weirdly but satisfyingly, AC/DC’s Brian Johnson). In a formal sense, The Last Ship suggests a shift in weight toward a collective consciousness and a collective agency, a shift that is reproduced in the lyrics. “What Have We Got,” sung by a chorus of workers, strings together verses like: “What have we got, but the buzzer in the morning?/Aye, and what have we got, but the laying of a keel?/And what have we got, but the cranes above us soaring?/The commotion and the clamour in the welding of the steel?”
The question is answered in every chorus, a clear and ringing indictment of alienated labor shouted in the workers’ own dialect: “You’ve got nowt/We’ve got nowt else.” This shift toward the collective signals a new development for Sting: the counter-impulse, once limited to a critique of the shipyard, is now infused with the voices and the agency of workers themselves. Sting, who so often dreamed of individual escape, is here promoting collective class-consciousness.
There’s a good reason for this, because The Last Ship raises a new question: what if you can’t flee from the shipyard, but the shipyard flees from you? That’s what happened in Wallsend: the shipyard shut down. To paraphrase “Island of Souls,” the workers worked till the industry died. The Last Ship offers no easy answers but it does, perhaps, gesture toward a possible answer: because there is something beyond the desire to escape, something beyond the urge to criticize, and that is solidarity.
After all, once the last ship sails and the whistle ceases to blow and the torch sputters out and the shipyard goes dark, what have you got? What else is left but solidarity? Songs, of course. And stories. Some like these. We’ll need them.
Sci-Fi Author Ursula LeGuin's Stories of Class War, Religious Dissension, Identity Politics and More