If you are at least 35 years old, then you’ve probably had the following experience. You’re headed over to an old friend’s house, a guy you haven’t seen in a while. Man, in high school he was crazy and cool and, Oh, the trouble you guys used to get into! You wear your favorite pair of jeans and don’t shave, but then again, you don’t really shave that much anyway.
And when you get there, your cool high school friend is wearing khaki pants from LL Bean, he has tons of real furniture because he has some kind of consulting job, his wife is sporting pearls, and “Fields of Gold” from Sting’s fourth solo album is playing in the lush “great room” of his suburban house. Simultaneously, you have three thoughts: (1) My friend has become really uncool. (2) I am, pathetically, not a grown-up. And (3) Sting has really gone all to mush.
Of course, Sting has always been a killer tunesmith with a knack for melody and a hook, but between 1978 and 1983, his amazing songs were at the service of a great rocking trio called the Police. The Police used just enough punk and reggae to dilute whatever treacle lived in those Sting melodies. In 1985, Mr. Gordon Sumner left the Police behind and started cloaking his tunes in the hip trickery of jazz musicians (most famously, Branford Marsalis on saxophone) on Dream of the Blue Turtles, and then with each successive solo album, his work just sounded more like standard middle-of-the-road pop music: sometimes schlocky or ponderous, but always still gracefully tuneful, and with the redeeming drama of Sting’s great vocal delivery.
Live in Berlin documents Sting’s “Symphonicity” tour, featuring Sting’s band draped in the finery of the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra. Of course, even the hippest modern musicians long—inexplicably, in my opinion—to hear their music arranged for a full orchestra. Charlie Parker couldn’t wait to get his brilliant bebop playing in front of some strings around 1950, and Joni Mitchell mucked up her great tunes on 2002’s Travelogue with a full orchestra and chorus. It had to be utterly inevitable that Sting would hunger for this treatment. He has always had grand visions—he appeared as Macheath in The Threepenny Opera in 1989; he has dabbled in movie acting; and there are much goofed-about pretensions in politics and even the joking trantric sex business. Sting is a Big Star in pop music. He’s going to get the Big Treatment.
Live in Berlin is a lush product: a CD and a DVD in one package, with music recorded at the O2 area, all expertly filmed and produced. It sounds and looks as good as this kind of thing can look. I mean, the album not only credits a “Stylist” but also an “Assistant to Stylist”. It ought to look great. The orchestra sounds fantastic, rich with French horns and a harp and scores of strings and woodwinds and brass. And Sting has an A-List band here: Dominic Miller on guitar, Ira Coleman on bass, Jo Lowry singing background, and strolling out now and again to take a droll soprano saxophone solo, even Branford Marsalis.
So the army of excellence here creates an undeniably professional-level spectacle. When the song actually calls for all this business, such as Sting’s 1999 world-music hit “Desert Rose”, it all makes sense. But most of the tunes on Live in Berlin were originally conceived for a small rock or pop band, and the orchestrations written for this tour come off as a whole lot of gravy smothering an otherwise tasty snack. A few of the smaller songs (“Fragile”) are given treatments sufficiently tasteful. They sound like the delicate orchestral treatments of bossa-nova music from the 1960s. Goodness knows that “Russians”—which famously incorporates a Prokofiev melody—sounds better here than it did in its synth-y, mid-80s arrangement from Blue Turtles.
But more often, alas, it is as you would fear. The charm of “Moon Over Bourbon Street” turns garish with the orchestra taking center stage, pushing Sting into over-dramatic delivery and a Theramin solo. “Roxanne” turns lush and moody, with all the menace and desperation drained right out of it. “Every Breath You Take”, with its throbbing pulse muted and a whole bushel of fancy new chord changes, suddenly sounds like the theme music for a morning TV show. When Sting breaks into the sing-along part, you want to reach into your television screen, grab the star by his blond hair and make him stop. But does the massive O2 Arena audience love it? Of course.
There are arguably some songs here that worked once as rock or pop but have been re-imagined so that the orchestral arrangement seems like a new kind of success. “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” comes off with a cool dash, like a movie theme that might accompany a free-wheeling travel montage. The strings are airy and fresh. “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You” is at a happy medium between rock and Bacharach-ish pop. “This Cowboy Song” is given, inevitably, an orchestral introduction that cribs from Aaron Copland’s “Billy the Kid”—but what’s with the transformation of it into a pseudo-jig at the end, with Coleman, Miller, Sting, and Lowry all doing this cheesy guitar-in-hand choreography?
Am I being too tough on Live in Berlin because I still don’t like the idea of growing up, and I don’t prefer to have the nicer furniture in a “great room” where my connections to my youth seem severed? Sting’s voice is a still a thrilling and brilliant pop instrument, and if anything, he sounds better than ever. His chit-chat between songs is charming, mostly. (The DVD extra interview with Sting is worth your time if only to see Marsalis treating him like he was just an old friend rather than a star, goofing around but also recognizing that, sure thing, the guy is a great songwriter.)
But if you can stand the orchestra conductor, Steven Mercurio, jumping around like he is Elvis Presley or the string players popping out of their seats and snapping their fingers on “She’s Too Good For Me”, then you really are more grown-up than I am. Live in Berlin is kind of fun, but it’s a pop-classical crossover stunt, and too much of this stuff just brings out the immature dude in me. You might say it makes me want to give Sting a noogie.