Sting: Sacred Love
Genre: High-tech, rhythm-dominated pop with multi-cultural ornamentation
By Steve Morley
(UMCom) -- On one of his biggest hits with The Police, Sting once sang "de do do do, de da da da, is all I want to say to you." To say the least, the former English teacher is considerably more verbose these days. On last year’s well-received Sacred Love, the one-named pop icon displays a fascination with words and ideas as well as with hip-hop-derived beats. His bent for fusing pop and world music idioms, well established in the reggaed-up rock of The Police, reappears here, though his use of ethnic elements still sounds borrowed rather than fully assimilated. Sitars, percussion and exotic touches like Turkish clarinet, while providing welcome tonal color, seem more overlaid than interwoven, like travel stickers accumulated on a hasty around-the-world junket. The majority of the disc is built around rigid rhythms that (despite the presence of highly-rated drummer Vinnie Colaiuta) tend to feel mechanical, miles removed from the whip-crack snare blows and kinetic kick of Police skinsman Stewart Copeland. While Sting - a musically canny bassist and composer - has proven his ability to grow well beyond the Police’s stylistic template, his emergence as a serious artist has left his work lacking in the wit and loose-limbed spirit that once made him so listenable. That said, he turns in an ambitious effort that looks at human relations (and, to a lesser extent, spirituality) from a variety of perspectives. The results, while hardly unified, offer plenty of food for thought and examination.
Love - both the natural and supernatural varieties - is a subject of immensity, and, to Sting’s credit, he makes no naïve attempts to simplify it. Neither does he try to explain its contradictions, leaving the collection of songs conceptually splintered. On the dark opener, "Inside," love is characterized as a malevolent force capable of sucking away one’s very soul - "love is a violation, a mutilation, capitulation, love is annihilation" - that is nonetheless desperately craved: "love me like a sister, love me like the world has just begun/ love me like a parasite, love me like a dying sun." The track is one of several that use repetition as a device to hammer home Sting’s pet points, while a cyclical guitar pattern churns underneath, reminiscent of the stormy coda of The Beatles’ "I Want You (She’s So Heavy)." "Never Coming Home" is a narrative-styled commentary on the independent spirit in modern relationships and how the lack of honest communication can destroy them. "Forget About The Future," a piece about fear and the disposability of human unions, finds contextual meaning in its juxtaposition of a funky blues guitar and robotic rhythm, recalling the android jazz-pop of Steely Dan.
On "Send Your Love," the singer offers the hope that we can ultimately offset a lopsided world by sowing seeds of compassion today, and underscores the immediacy he’s preaching with lines that straddle truth and what seems to be heresy: "there’s no religion but sex and music/ there’s no religion that’s right or winning/ there’s no religion in the path of hatred/ ain’t no prayer but the one I’m singing." In notably different style, a pair of cuts early in the disc reveals an irony-free approach to things spiritual; "Dead Man’s Rope" namechecks not just an ecumenical God but Jesus, and rings of authentic redemption, while "Whenever I Say Your Name" is a heartfelt devotional. The appearance of hip-hop vocalist Mary J. Blige on the latter track suggests that Sting’s current obsession with digitally created beats is a deliberate shot at contemporary crossover success. The title song, "Sacred Love," closes the disc with yet another personal spin on Scripture on which the artist seeks spiritual enlightenment but tosses in cheeky asides like "thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not kill/ but if you don’t love her your best friend will." Part theological musing and part seductive come-on, the lyric implies that some connections are preferable in the flesh, and that we sometimes experience the supernatural via the natural.
The tousled tangles of thoughts that comprise Sacred Love are tethered by lean, linear structures that often seem painstakingly assembled rather than freely created. Memorable melodies have been traded for a work that is stark and technological, incorporating a random patchwork of multi-cultural motifs. If Sting’s modus operandi was to use these devices to symbolize an increasingly fragmenting and inhumane world, one could consider this package a rousing success. However, if you’re of the mind that techno-intellectual aspirations such as these constitute a criminal offense against accessibility in pop music, this might be the time to call The Police.
Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.
This article was developed by UMC.org, a ministry of United Methodist Communications