Sting has traversed into different styles from the esoteric to pop, which is the absolute right of any musician. From 1993’s strongly-lyrical Ten Summoner’s Tales to 1996’s Mercury Falling to 1999’s Brand New Day, from 2003’s Sacred Love to 2006’s Songs From The Labrynth, Sting has somehow always been there, creating different musical adventures for listeners.
With the new 57th and 9th, he returns to a more rock-rooted style after a period away from the genre, and it is a welcome return. This album has more than a touch of nostalgic redolence, but also its own merits – and signals of a change in the life and time of its creator.
Sting teamed up with Dominic Miller (Phil Collins, Julia Fordham, Todd Rundgren, Beck) and Lyle Workman on guitars, Vinnie Colaiuta (Frank Zappa, Joni Mitchell) on drums and a sprinkling of the San Antonio based Tex-Mex band, the Last Bandeleros. He also uses the services of percussionist Rhani Krija (a veteran of the Sacred Love project, he also worked with Don Byron, Abdel Salameh and many others), clarinet player Nabil al Chami and several other key musicians. The title comes from an intersection Sting crossed each day as he walked to the studios in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen, where the recordings were made.
“I Can’t Stop Thinking About You” opens 57th and 9th, and memories of the Police come flooding back with Sting’s slightly slurred, intense vocals over the top of rock steady percussion and guitars. The bottom beat could come from a number of Police tracks on Regatta de Blanc or Outlandos d’Amour. This is a well produced, strong track and a great introduction to what follows. Don’t be mis-led, however, by this familiar-feeling piece. 57th and 9th isn’t a copy-cat version of what Sting has done before. True, it has similarities, yet the album carries its own identity.
“50,000” is driven by a constant bass beat, over which Sting tells the story of fame and drug-fueled thoughts and ideas, lives through the camera, aging and the price of fame. It was written in the aftermath of the deaths of David Bowie, Prince and others. “Rock Stars don’t ever die, they only fade away,” Sting sings, bush-wacking the listener somewhat if there was ever a sense of this being an easy listening number. There are some personally relevant lyrics in there, as well. “Down Down Down” is beautifully produced, and tells the story of love when it dies and the sense of grief and loss. Though a song of despair, this time, the music behind the lyrics is what lift it above and beyond the gloomy landscape against which it is set.
“One Fine Day” is about climate change, and the choices we make about getting smart and tuning into the reality of what is happening, the need for political change if anything is to be done – and all this over a strong musically adept number. “Pretty Young Soldier” begins with some interesting guitar work, before the vocals tell the story of young lovers, their plans thrown when he joins the army. She follows, playing the boy solider but is spotted by the officer and has to confess – yet he understands and her plight touches his soul.
“Petrol Head” is a rocky, astutely delivered number and here Sting’s vocal style suits perfectly, with his strained, intense top notes coupled with some beautiful chesty deeper tones in the chorus. It starts with a little counterpointed bluesy rock guitar and percussion, hailing the rock and roll theme to which the vocals then add to rather than take over the music. There’s a bit of innuendo – turn left at the burning bush, a stick shift in my hand – a lot of rock. “I’ll drive this car, I’ll be your guy; just fasten your seatbelt, we’ll go for a ride,” Sting sings and proceeds to take us on a journey of cars, reckless choices and a life lived in the fast lane. Great music.
“300 horse in my V8 goes to 100 every day, but don’t you worry your pretty little petrol head,” he tells us – so we don’t. This is simple, pure rock fantasy and very listenable. “I’ll take you some place that you’ve never been before, a place you might have only dreamed about once more,” Sting adds, in one of the best tracks on the album. The little whoops and shrieks from Sting tell you he and the band are enjoying this, too.
“Heading South on the Great North Road,” presented in more of a balladic style, is about people seeking a better life. Here, you can hear Sting’s roots in his accent, and that adds a poignancy to lyrics which are autobiographical. There’s also something of a sense of loss and change, which emphasizes the meaning of the song. Simple vocals over guitar, this is a beautiful interlude and the clarity of the vocals over a minimal arrangement for the guitar is lovely.
“If You Can’t Love Me” is pure retrospect, in terms of music. Vocals rise and fall over produced and decorated rhythm and guitar with the simple structure of a pop ballad. The piano flows constantly under the words and vocals and is simply beautiful. Dark lyrics, rolling, constant rhythm make this a lay-back-and-shut-your-eyes track. It tells the tale of lost love and the end of an affair. The difference here between the Sting of then and now is the musical development of the number with the deep bass, lifted alternately by the guitars and vocals.
Sadness and self-destruction buttons pressed, how does the musician carry on? That question is answered in the following track. “Inshallah,” meaning “If God Wills,” is gorgeous. The vocals give a nod to Eastern influences with the addition of a slight wavering beat; the heavier emphasis on the off-beat distinctly redolent of Eastern music. The lyrics are poignant, heartfelt and written from the viewpoint of a refugee. The arrangement is rich and textured. “In our future, there’s no past,” Sting sings, “if it be your will, it shall come to pass.” A lovely track.
57th and 9th ends with the acoustic “Empty Chair,” about not despairing when there is an empty chair left by a loved one passing. Inspired by the tragic fate of American journalist James Foley, this is sad but also hopeful and comforting.
In most of the songs, there is a sense of the inevitable, a sense of despair lurking in the shadows, creeping about and almost being invited to attack the listener just in case you start to think this is easy listening rock – which it is to an extent. Lots of pouring out your pain – and check the mirror, in case you feel good – but overall this is great music, reflecting a time of life in this prolific, intelligent and creative musician. Sting is not one of the great musical arrangers or players, but what he knows is what hits home and here there is something for everyone, a rich diversity of songs of life, love and simple changes which make life rich, textured and interesting.
Musically, there is nothing to stretch the listener – no excessive rhythm or key changes. Most of 57th and 9th is in major keys and fairly predictable, although there are a few surprises, mostly provided by the changes underneath Sting’s vocals. Yet in many ways, this is what makes it a fine record: It is what it is and it is a great, well produced, stick-on-in-the car record. I truly enjoyed 57th and 9th, and the fact it is not overproduced and includes a few foibles makes it a truth-speaking set of recordings which is well worth listening to.
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