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.