[14 July 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
“It’s good to be Sting. I do feel a little bit like Louis XVI, sometimes.”
Sting admitted this on 60 Minutes II back in 2003, and he’s right. Sting has the luxury of a tolerant audience, and regardless of what you think of his recent activity, you have to admit that he must be doing something to keep his fans happy. In the span of almost ten years, his devoted flock have persevered through two adult-contemporary albums produced by Kipper, a collection of Elizabethan lute music, a gloomy package of obscure Christmas (i.e. winter?) carols, and now a brand new set of orchestral arrangements of Police and Sting songs called Symphonicities. It’s hard to believe there was a full-fledged Police reunion in the middle of it all, but Sting has always been a stubborn man. His desire to do what he wants lands somewhere between his ‘70s punk manner and that of being a premature old codger. But to be fair, and to give some perspective, Symphonicites is probably one of Sting’s least surprising projects that doesn’t qualify as some sort of pop-rock. His songs, especially the ones from his solo career, fit the symphonic format so easily that it’s almost kind of surprising he hasn’t done this kind of thing before.
So much of Symphonicities takes the conservative route that it ends up sort of passing the time rather than stirring the soul. Sting’s voice remains as flawless as it was at any point of his 30-plus-year career, yet he never uses it as an instrument to help the new arrangements take flight. Unlike Bono or Roger Daltrey, the fact that he’s kept his vocals intact gives him the opportunity to do what he wants with it. Instead, all of the tunes are sung with little variation from their origin. A great deal of the music follows suit too. Even though it’s not the guitar-bass-keys-drums combo you are used to hearing, the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, conducted by Steven Mercurio, spend a majority of the time just emulating the things that have come before—in a frustratingly faithful way. You could almost say that “Englishman in New York” and “When We Dance” sound no different from their counterparts, though I imagine the arranger would have some choice words with you.
But since I use the word “majority”, there is fortunately a minority at work here. The first 23 seconds of “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” give little hint as to what song is about to happen. The harp ostinato draped over top of the ascending oboe lines offer some foreshadowing after the listener returns to it, but it does actually have the potential to fool you at first. The same goes for the following track “I Hung My Head” which originates from 1996’s Mercury Falling. The opening seconds make it sound like Debussy rose from the dead, ran into the studio, dropped some staff paper scribblings on all of the music stands, then left. At the 18 second mark, the song starts up sounding much like its ancestor. But just when you thought things had returned to easy-listening normality, the wordless interlude escorting the listener into the last verse lassos in an abrupt modulation, causing one to briefly lose a sense of origin thanks to the song’s 9/8 meter. “We Work the Black Seam” from The Dream of the Blue Turtles plays the melancholy card with even more confrontation, reminding everyone of the harm of the “nuclear age” that buries its “waste in a great big hole”.
At the same time, the slow string exploration of the old Police tune “Roxanne” seems to want it both ways. The instrumentation itself alternates between sparse and lush, the tempo slows down considerably, and the falsetto chorus is done away with entirely. The melody remains intact though, almost insuring listeners that, despite whatever differences exist in the arrangement, Sting and the ensemble won’t stray that far. The other song representing the Police’s first album is “Next to You”, remaining nearly unchanged. Instead of power chords from Andy Summers, you get chugging cellos.
But if Symphonicities isn’t entirely treated as a chance to reinvent past songs, it’s partly a chance to resurrect Sting’s obscurites. “The Pirate’s Bride” and “The End of the Game” were left off of Mercury Falling and Brand New Day respectively, and according to Sting fans, their exclusion was undeserved. So to the b-side collectors’ delight, they both make appearances on Symphonicities. “I Burn For You”, apart from being covered by many, seems only to have had previous life on a live album. And disappointingly, the inclusion of some rather chintzy sounding rhythm gives the impression of the orchestra being a grafted-on afterthought. And although Alison Krauss sang one of the few recordings of “You Will Be My Ain True Love” for the Cold Mountain soundtrack, we are treated to an identical reading that belies any of kind of notion of “interpretation”.
So all told, about two-thirds of Symphonicities feels like a missed opportunity. The results are not bad, but entirely too safe. This should come as a surprise to no one, considering how “classical” renditions of pop music tend to be overly flat-footed and not especially risky. This is too bad, considering Sting’s trusting audience. He has the tools and the songs to make his past morph into something else entirely, purely for art’s sake. Yet he only goes a fraction of the way. The rest can be filed under; pretty but innocuous.