The Last Ship
Sting has a funny penchant for re-visiting his own material, usually by quoting himself musically and lyrically in the context of a new song. In 1985, Sting went all the way and covered one of his earlier songs, "Shadows in the Rain," on his first solo effort, "Dream of the Blue Turtles." (He’d recorded the original version while still with The Police).
He’s also, in the ten years since his last studio album of original material, dabbled on the far fringes of the concept album. His 2006 album "Songs from the Labyrinth" mixed songs Sting wrote with songs by Renaissance musician John Dowland; 2009’s "If On A Winter’s Night..." flirted with the genre also, being a set of songs celebrating winter and the Yuletide season.
"The Last Ship" sees Sting touching on both the concept album and his tendency for self-quoting. In the course of the new CD he re-visits the theme (and, very briefly, the lyrical content) of his 1991 album "The Soul Cages" (itself thematically unified by maritime imagery and informed by the deaths of his parents; the songs of "The Soul Cages" seem especially to concern Sting’s father’s passing). In the title track of that earlier work, a young sailor strikes a deal with the devil, who has been collecting the souls of departed seafarers. It’s a way for Sting to grieve his parents, but also to let them go.
The new album has a mature man’s take on issues of mortality and the shape of life lived. "The Last Ship" revisits the Northern English ship-building industry, and the culture it spawned, with a less magical narrative than "The Soul Cages" possessed: At the start of this new concept album, a young man rejects his father’s expectations for him and, refusing to spend his life building ships, he sails off on one instead.
"The Last Ship" isn’t just a concept album. It’s an impending full-fledged theatrical experience, slated to hit Broadway next year -- with a book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey, no less. The CD sounds a bit like a musical, especially on the title track, which sounds like nothing so much as an overture. But no worries that this is nothing more than a "sneak peek" and marketing tool; "The Last Ship" is a fully realized album in its own right, and it’s Sting in high form.
While there’s a theatrical gloss about the album’s twelve tracks, in most respects this is very much a late-career Sting album, offering a variety of musical motifs. Moreover, though the songs do create a story when taken all together, it’s easy to ignore the "concept" and enjoy each song on its own merits; musically as well as lyrically, Sting hasn’t lost his touch over the last ten years.
The first pair of songs lay the groundwork, with the CD’s conceit of telling the story of an entire life (and, by extension, the life of a culture). The story starts with the title track, in which a growly-voice Sting, his register lower than is his customary singing voice, offers the startling image of a resurrection. It’s not Jesus rising from the tomb, exactly -- not unless Jesus has been re-imagined so that now he’s a shipwright rather than a carpenter, and not unless he’s forsaken Aramaic for the roughly textured syllables of a Northern English accent. (Sting maintains this accent throughout.)
The second track, "Dead Man’s Boots," zeroes in on protagonist Gideon, as he’s refusing to follow his father’s career path, and certainly not in the same footwear as the old man: "I said, ’Why in the Hell would I do that? And why would I agree?’ / When his hand was all that I’d received, as far as I remember.... What was it made him think I’d be happy ending up like him?"
It’s a rebellious son’s cry, delivered in a plainspoken folksy manner (right down to a harmonica and homely, well-shaped melody). Hard on its heels comes the third track, "And Yet," which skips us ahead a decade and a half. Gideon has returned, after years at sea and abroad, pulled by a yearning for his old home town -- and, not incidentally, the woman he loved but forsook. "And Yet" breaks away musically, with a bossa nova shine, giving out a clear signal that Gideon has been seasoned in some spicy foreign climes, complete with everything that distant ports of call have to offer a man -- brawls, brothels, and whisky among all the rest. Having had his fill of adventure, he finds himself doing his father’s work after all.
"August Winds" and "Language of Birds" are both reflective, even melancholy, songs, the former a ballad and the latter as much spoken-word performance as pop-folk in an unmistakably Sting mode. Gideon settles down and, in a reflective mood, looks back not so much on the life he’s lived as the life he refused; he’s got daddy issues, but he inches his way toward understanding and forgiveness of a father who became "trapped in a soul cage" of his own devising, emotionally distant because that’s what men of his time were expected to do.
Gideon is, by now, a voyager on interior seas. He redefines for himself what a man is and does, and he seeks whatever scrap of happiness he might yet secure by courting Meg, the girl he long ago left behind. (In a song cut from the play, an older rival for Meg, a man named Arthur, offers Meg, a "practical arrangement" that, he hopes, will blossom into love.) Or is Gideon too late to win Megs heart?
Perhaps, but it’s never too late for hope -- or, for that matter, for spirited humor and rousing pub songs. "The Night the Pugilist Learned How to Dance" falls into the first category. It could be the title song for a romantic comedy, drawing as it does parallels between dancing with a partner who makes your heart pound with happy delirium and a knife fight that achieves the same effect through an adrenaline rush. (It also features a lovely accordion performance that incites visions of impassioned gestures and red wine.) "What Have We Got?," which features co-writer Jimmy Nail, is a stomp and shout of a song, meant to be tackled en masse by all the lads in the local, with mugs raised high. "What do we got?" the chorus demands; "We’ve got nowt else!" Nothing, that is, but the present moment, and each other. This, too, is highly theatrical -- no doubt meant as a show stopper, which it probably will be.
Right between these two tracks is another song, "The Ballad of the Great Eastern." This is a sea shanty of sorts, which could easily have been featured on "The Soul Cages," being a grisly tale of a cursed ship. In the context of the album, it’s another example of how Sting uses songs as platforms for storytelling. (In terms of either the concept album as a narrative form or Broadway musical, this song feels like filler. Lucky us, we can focus on the songs themselves and enjoy this ballad on its own merits.)
The album rejoins its narrative through-line with "I Love Her But She Loves Someone Else," in which the "practical arrangement" seems to have foundered. It’s classic Sting: A study in romantic loss and regret. In "The Hounds of Winter," which charted similar emotional terrain, it was time that took the lonesome singer’s bride; here, it’s a disappointed suitor’s own emotionally distant nature.
But grace appears in "So to Speak," in which Sting and Becky Unthank duet. A terminally ill character named O’Brian -- a local priest -- faces the end of his life with stoicism and an almost agnostic stripe of practicality that gives him as much strength as any faith. It’s here that the metaphor of a man’s life as a shipboard voyage plays best of all; what works a treat is the way this track leads into the final song, a reprise of "The Last Ship" that ruminates, tongue in cheek, on how the mighty and the humble alike end their journeys the same way -- sailing off on a "last ship" that you could see as religious metaphor or a simple summary of how mortality is a necessary part of any human story.
Over the course of his musical career, Sting has explored everything from reggae to jazz to country and western to gospel. "Symphonicities," his re-jiggering of past hits for orchestra, was tailor-made for the realm of music as a form of theater. "The Last Ship" is a logical last leap, and will fill the stage nicely, but its overall footprint is far larger, marking a satisfying return as well as a daring new venture. However this ship fares on the seas of musical theater, the twelve songs that constitute the show’s keel are absolutely water-tight. Here’s to smooth sailing.
This review is of the 12-track CD. "The Last Ship" is available as both a digital and physical release in two configurations: A 12-song album and a 2-disc deluxe version featuring 5 additional tracks. (The 12-song version is available on vinyl.)
A Super Deluxe edition, containing 2 discs comprised of 20 tracks within special packaging, is also available exclusively at Amazon.com. AmazonMP3 will be the exclusive retailer for the 20-track, super deluxe digital edition.
"The Last Ship"