by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
Ten Summoner’s Tales (1993, A&M)
Easily Sting’s finest hour as a solo artist, you get the feeling that Sting realized in hindsight that the songs on The Soul Cages weren’t very catchy and tried to compensate for that by jamming this album full of hooks, and he succeeded in that regard. Virtually every last tune here has got a chorus that will stick in your head for days on end, and the songs are all quite lovely and artful as well. The Irish-tinged balladry of “Fields of Gold” is here, as is the funky “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You,” one of the most stunningly pretty melodies in Sting’s entire catalog, solo or otherwise. While those are the only two Top 40 hits here, there are plenty of other cuts within that sound like they should have been hits, especially the deliriously fun jazz workout of “Epilogue (Nothin’ Bout Me),” the symphonic stutter-step of “Seven Days,” the beautiful acoustic balladry of the clever “Shape of My Heart” (the title of which actually doubles as a reference to a playing card), and the country-and-western-tinged “Love Is Stronger Than Justice (The Munificent Seven)”. This is Sting’s finest album (with or without the Police) since Synchronicity and is a must-own for Sting fans.
The Living Sea: Soundtrack from the IMAX Film (1995, A&M)
I’m cheating a little here; technically, this obscure (and slightly tricky to find) soundtrack to a memorable marine-life-themed film shown exclusively at IMAX theaters – isn’t really a proper studio album of new material, nor does it really qualify as a concept-themed compilation, either; instead, it’s a hodgepodge assortment of previously-released tracks, newly-re-recorded songs, and newly-written pieces of incidental instrumental score music. Yet there’s something strangely brilliant about this soundtrack, and it works as an album piece so, so much better than it has any right to – these songs, even the ones that stem from prior albums, work absolutely wonderfully together (such as “One World (Not Three),” “Fragile,” “Love Is the Seventh Wave,” and “Why Should I Cry for You?”) and the new pieces that link them fit in perfectly and help the album cohere into one solid whole that sustains a serene mood throughout and nicely serves as the aural equivalent of the astonishing visuals captured in the movie. It may not be the best album Sting ever made, but it might just very well be the most hypnotic and relaxing, and it makes for some extremely therapeutic listening when you need to de-stress or when you just want something soft and soothing to play in the background while you’re working.
Mercury Falling (1996, A&M)
It got largely negative reviews at the time, and it surprisingly failed to yield any Top 40 hits, but while it’s no Ten Summoner’s Tales (it falters too much in its back half to be as consistently engaging as that album) and seems less obviously designed as an album piece than either of his last two outings, Mercury Falling is a very underrated adult-contemporary-pop album and contains substantially more memorable hooks within its grooves than The Soul Cages had, so this album shouldn’t be overlooked. Highlights include the soulful R&B of “You Still Touch Me,” the country-flavored “I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Cryin’” (which would become a Number One country hit for Toby Keith), “The Hounds of Winter,” “I Hung My Head,” “I Was Brought to My Senses,” and, best of all, the chill-inducing gospel of “Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot,” one of Sting’s most underrated solo singles. The second half is less memorable, although the disc ends on a clever note with “Lithium Sunset,” which brings the album full circle.
Brand New Day (1999, A&M)
A noticeably more lighthearted and easygoing album than Mercury Falling, Sting’s last solo album of the ‘90s finds him still in fairly good form. The world-music excursions of “Desert Rose” (a duet with Cheb Mami) would take Sting back into the Top 40, and the album’s sunny title cut (featuring Stevie Wonder on harmonica, which is never a bad idea) would garner quite a bit of radio play as well. The emotional “After the Rain Has Fallen” should have been a hit in its own right, while “A Thousand Years” is one of Sting’s most underrated ballads in recent memory. The country-tinged “Fill Her Up,” featuring James Taylor on background vocals, is a fun listen as well. It’s a tad too spotty an album for a disc of its brevity (there are technically ten tracks here, but one clocks in at less than thirty seconds), but it’s still quite good and remains Sting’s last strong solo album of new material to date.
Sacred Love (2003, A&M)
Easily Sting’s worst solo album by far, there are two major things wrong with this disc. First, Sting is clearly starting to repeat himself just a little too much here, and the Middle Eastern-tinged single “Send Your Love” seems like a very transparent and much-too-shameless attempt to repeat the success of “Desert Rose.” Secondly, these songs – with the possible exception of “Send Your Love” – just aren’t catchy, certainly not by Sting’s usual standards. “Stolen Car (Take Me Dancing)” and the Mary J. Blige duet “Whenever I Say Your Name” are passable fare, but Sting’s way with a melody seems to have fallen off dramatically since his last album, and this is definitely the pop-oriented solo album of his you’re least likely to remember any of the songs from, unfortunately.
Songs from the Labyrinth (2006, Deutsche Grammophon)
It’s always mildly irritating when a great musical talent with a large following suddenly decides to just make whatever the heck they want, completely regardless of the kinds of albums fans want from them, and Labyrinth is easily Sting’s most thoroughly self-absorbed career move yet, a full-on excursion into classical music. Mind you, this isn’t exactly the first time a former new-wave icon has released a classical album – Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello have both done the same thing, only to each end up with the worst-charting albums yet of their respective careers (Sting would similarly meet with the same fate, Labyrinth dubiously becoming his first solo album to miss the Top Ten) – so this isn’t even a novel idea, never mind a great career move. The business sense (or lack of, rather) of this album aside, however, this is actually a much better album than it has any right to be. With only lute player Edin Karamazov as accompaniment, Sting works his way through the music of Elizabethan composer John Dowland (also including seven spoken interludes that utilize passages from letters written by Dowland) to surprisingly fine results, and some of the tracks, particularly “Fine Knacks for Ladies,” “Come Again,” and “The Lowest Trees Have Tops,” are unexpectedly engaging and worthy of repeated listens in and of themselves. It’s not exactly the sort of album your average Sting fan is going to want to listen to with any regularity, and it would sound more at home being played in a tavern in Colonial Williamsburg than on any radio station, but for a classical outing from a rock legend, this is actually a fairly good disc, and this is actually a wildly more inspired album – regardless of its genre – than Sacred Love.
Symphonicities (2010, Cherrytree/Deutsche Grammophon)
Quite interesting though ultimately highly unnecessary, the cleverly-titled Symphonicities finds Sting plucking songs from both his own and the Police catalogs and rearranging them with the aid of an orchestra. It’s an experiment that doesn’t serve most of the faster songs all that well – “Roxanne” sounds a little silly performed this way, and “She’s Too Good for Me” just sounds awful – although the orchestral re-arrangement of “Next to You” – which you would expect to be a complete train wreck – actually works astonishingly well. The experiment works much better with the ballads; while the brass-laden rearrangement of “We Work the Black Seam” pales in comparison to the original version, “Englishman in New York,” “I Burn for You,” “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” and “When We Dance” all sound especially wonderful in this setting. This is certainly no replacement for the originals, but the best moments here certainly make for interesting and enjoyable alternate versions for when you need a change of pace.
The Last Ship (2013, Cherrytree/A&M)
Be advised: this is not a pop album. Actually a disc of recordings made by Sting of songs he wrote for an intended stage musical of the same name, this is a theatrical affair of largely Irish and folk-tinged songs, and Sting adopts a heavy accent on much of this material. There are some fine tunes here, the best of which are the title cut, the jazzy “And Yet,” the accordion-laced “August Winds,” and the piano ballads “I Love Her But She Loves Someone Else” and “Practical Arrangement,” but, again, these aren’t standard pop tunes: it’s really a disc of show tunes that also happen to be written and sung by Sting. It’s good for what it is, but it’s also a bit head-scratching as to just who exactly this disc is meant to be for, and in that sense, it’s a lot like Sara Bareilles’ album What’s Inside; it’s neither the actual original-cast recording that people who see the play itself will want to pick up, and it’s too uncommercial to have any chance of garnering radio airplay from stations who would ordinarily play a Sting or Bareilles album. Of Sting’s two non-pop outings in recent years, this one isn’t nearly as captivating as Songs from the Labyrinth.
Your best bet for a satisfactory Police compilation is either Every Breath You Take: The Classics or, if you’re willing to spring for a double-disc, the excellent 2007 package The Police, which compiles all the singles and surrounds them with a well-chosen assortment of album cuts (“Man in a Suitcase,” “Tea in the Sahara”). [The latter disc is also one of the few places where you can find the band’s pre-A&M non-LP debut single, “Fall Out.”] Sting’s best compilation as a solo artist is arguably Fields of Gold: The Best of Sting 1984-1994, which, because of its 1994 release date, doesn’t include anything from Mercury Falling or Brand New Day, but it does nicely summarize Sting’s first four albums and adds the wonderful and mesmerizing new single “When We Dance.” Avoid the 2011 package The Best of 25 Years, which attempts to capture his full solo career in a single disc and, in so doing, manages to exclude seven of his thirteen Top 40 solo hits while inexplicably including three live cuts.
All of Sting’s live albums have some sort of spin to them that makes them not especially representative of your average Sting concert, but they’re all quite interesting. The best of the lot are 1986’s Bring on the Night and 2001’s … All This Time. The former doesn’t include any Top 40 hits – Police or solo songs – with the sole exception of “Love Is the Seventh Wave,” and the track selection is consequently made up almost entirely of album cuts from both the Police years and Sting’s solo career, but Sting and his band sound great, and a lot of the performances are absolutely chilling, especially “We Work the Black Seam,” which blows away the studio version from Blue Turtles, and the medley of “Love Is the Seventh Wave” and the similarly reggae-flavored “One World (Not Three).” The latter disc is a very intimate live recording (recorded at Sting’s home before a specially invited audience of fan-club members) recorded on the evening of 9/11; the tragic nature of the events that unfolded that day meant that the show took on a very different tone than planned, but ultimately, it resulted in one of the most passionate emotionally powerful performances Sting and his band have ever given, and it’s a very exhilarating and cathartic listen.