Wednesday, December 14, 2016

At the Crossroads: Sting and The Rolling Stones

Sting performing at the Dubai Jazz Festival in 2015. (Photo: Satish Kumar)

In his 2009 book of critical essays called Heroes And Villains (De Capo), music scholar David Hajdu writes, “Rock ‘n’ rollers, as they age, sometimes find themselves outgrowing a music they cannot outlive. … In the past few years, several prominent rockers of a certain age have pursued a novel solution to the problem of growing too old to rock ‘n’ roll – …. They are backdating their careers [by] repositioning themselves so as to be associated with styles of music that preceded
rock. .… Each of these efforts represents not just a detour from rock but also a claim to higher ground.” Hajdu goes on to cite Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and Sting as artists who’ve released albums of music dedicated to “the higher ground.”

Two recent releases by the aforementioned Sting, now 65 years old, and the septuagenarian Rolling Stones are a return to the crossroads: a pilgrimage, if you will, to the once fertile soil of their musical roots. On December 2nd, The Rolling Stones released their all-blues album called Blue & Lonesome (Polydor). Last month, Sting released his new “rock” album called 57th & 9th (A&M). Billed as his first rock album in 13 years, the album’s title comes from his favourite intersection in New York, the corner of 57th and 9th, not far from Columbus Circle, in what’s commonly known as Hell’s Kitchen. It’s in this location, as he told Stephen Colbert, where he meditates while waiting for the light to change at the busy crossroads. As he says in the liner notes, “I do most of my thinking while walking … so walking and the conjuring of stories were intrinsically bound together for me.” The result of Sting’s thoughtful walks is his new album of rock songs, but like the terrain of New York City, it’s an uneven journey with very little “newness” to it.

I don’t remember who said it, but some artists reach a level of achievement and plateau creatively – neither growing nor falling into cliché. They simply develop a musical vocabulary with which they’re comfortable and then write within that sphere. The Rolling Stones reached that plateau with Some Girls in 1978. For Sting, whose roots were based in jazz, English folk tunes, and rock, his songwriting ability grew more gradually, especially after he left The Police.

To be a fan of Sting, and I count myself among them, one has to look back to 1977 and his years with The Police, one of the biggest acts in the post-punk era led by Mr. Sting, as Frank Zappa called him, the slightly smug yet honourable fellow of Newcastle, England. Sting left English shores and settled in New York, where he found the creative freedom to explore divergent and often multi-cultural sounds that emanated from the streets. For me, that urban/world feel to his solo-projects plateaued, as it were, on 1999’s Brand New Day. It’s a record that has a mix of Saharan-inspired sounds (“Desert Rose”) and straight-ahead, well-crafted pop (“Brand New Day”), all of which expressed Sting’s confidence as a songwriter. I consider the album as a closing chapter on all of Sting’s previous solo efforts, starting with the remarkable The Dream Of Blue Turtles in 1985.

The last sixteen years have been variations on all of these albums, including the truly urban experiment that was Sacred Love (2003). Then Sting decided to “reach the higher ground” (as Hajdu puts it) on the John Dowland tribute record, Songs from the Labyrinth, released on the prestigious label Deutsche Grammophon in 2006. I like what he was trying to do on that album, but the recording sounds too compressed and Sting’s vocals are lacking nuance and intimacy, the latter quality especially important in singing Dowland’s songs. This was music for small rooms, not arenas. Nevertheless, it peaked at No. 25 on the Billboard 200 album chart that year. Clearly, Sting was still popular as a performer, providing him with enough incentive to experiment again with a 2009 Christmas album of similar sounds, followed by a symphonic re-working of Police songs (Symphonicities) and the failed Broadway musical, The Last Ship, which closed after three months in 2015 in spite of the fact that Sting performed as the principal narrator of the piece (to help boost ticket sales). The musical, which was nominated for a Tony Award, tells the tale of Wallsend, a ship building town in Northeast England. Sting wrote new songs and fleshed out the characters, while reincorporating songs from The Soul Cages, Sting’s tribute to his father and the shipbuilding industry that was released in 1991. Clearly Sting had more walking and thinking to do – which brings us to 2016 and 57th & 9th.

The album starts off with the first single “I Can’t Stop Thinking About You,” a pretty ordinary rock song led by the driving guitar of Dominic Miller and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, two solid musicians who have been part of Sting’s backup band for years. That song is catchy but forgettable and, as with several tracks on the record, the music no longer complements the words. It’s as if the music is too far removed from the emotional and philosophical content of the lyrics. This is particularly true on “50,000,” one of Sting’s best lyrics, about the fragility of being human while “rock stars fade away.” Clearly Sting was deeply affected by the death of Prince earlier this year. As he told Rolling Stone Magazine, “It’s really a comment on how shocked we all are when one of our cultural icons dies: Prince, David [Bowie], Glenn Frey, Lemmy. They are our gods, in a way. So when they die, we have to question our own immortality. Even I, as a rock star, have to question my own. And the sort of bittersweet realization that hubris doesn’t mean anything in the end.” Highlights of the album for me also include “Inshallah” and “The Empty Chair.”

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones onstage in New York City. (Photo: Scott Gries)

Hubris is probably the one thing that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards might not admit to having, but it has fueled their careers really well in the past thirty years. There’s no other explanation for how The Rolling Stones keep rolling after five decades, playing music that for the most part they’ve outgrown. That said, blues music, which seems ageless, is what attracted them to the form in the first place so, whether intentionally or not, the band has finally released an all-blues album with an off-the-floor, short studio session approach. Blue & Lonesome (Polydor) is the band’s 23rd studio album, produced by the Glimmer Twins and Don Was. It’s the Stones’ first “new” album in over ten years and one many fans, including myself, have been waiting for. It was released barely three weeks ago and is one of the biggest selling albums in the group’s history, peaking at number 1 in the UK, Germany, and Australia. It’s currently sitting in the Number 14 spot on the Billboard Blues Album chart.

There’s no question about Jagger and Richards’ desire to play music older than they are since that’s how they started way back in 1962. In their youth, The Rolling Stones’ interest in blues songs, many of which are well performed on this record, served as the musical glue that kept the band united, a common thread, albeit shorn, that linked their version of the past with a contemporary rock ‘n’ roll sound that extended the medium well into the 1980s. But, like most acts who faded into obscurity, The Rolling Stones seemed to re-invent themselves with steady tours and savvy merchandising. By 1989, when Canadian tour promoter Michael Cohl rejuvenated the band (and the brand), fans hungry for the Stones were never disappointed. Richards’ work ethic was matched by Jagger’s tireless enthusiasm to entertain audiences around the world, and these carried the weight of rock stardom through to a 50th anniversary tour in 2015 that closed the year with a three-day studio session in London in December.

The release of Blue & Lonesome a year later still came as a bit of surprise, even though Richards revealed last spring that a new album was in the works. Most of us die-hard fans thought, “I hope it’s a blues album,” since the Jagger-Richards compositions haven’t been particularly strong. As much as the Stones loved the blues and often had the occasional cover or original song as a B-side, a full-length album had been out of the picture, even for them. But last December the band was creatively stuck for original ideas of any substance. That has usually meant a loosening-up session of blues songs simply to get the creative juices flowing. Those jam sessions turned out a full-length album of twelve blues songs delivered with gusto and street-wise grit as only The Rolling Stones could provide.

Everything on Blue & Lonesome works really well, especially Jagger’s harmonica solos. He sounds inspired, but almost too energetic for the subject matter many of these classic tunes suggest. I often felt like I was listening to a really good bar band doing the music they loved to the best of their ability. But Jagger and Richards wouldn’t release anything without their branded “sound,” so what we get is a polished record, as opposed to something gritty and dirty. Nevertheless, it all works and to be too critical of the Stones' effort would take away from the sincerity of the band and its fair-minded musical tribute. This is the music they love and, while there may be better blues bands, this record will remind everyone why The Rolling Stones continue to thrive. Highlights include “Hoo Doo Blues,” “Just Like I Treat You,” and “Everybody Knows About My Good Thing” featuring Eric Clapton.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, and musician. He is the author of Frank Zappa FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Father of Invention (Backbeat Books, 2016) now available.

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