Sting reopened Paris’s Bataclan theater last Saturday — one year after the devastating terrorist attack there which killed 129 people — with a moving set. Sting first entered the new wave music scene almost 40 years ago, yet he still remains a go-to figure when society aches for the healing powers of music. After assuring an emotional French crowd that “we won’t forget them,” the esteemed philanthropist performed his soothing 1987 hit “Fragile” along with two tracks from his brand new record 57th & 9th.
Clearly, an emotional year preceded the release of Sting’s twelfth solo album. He opened up to NPR about its track “50,000” which was inspired by the loss of a handful of rock stars this year — David Bowie, Prince and Glen Ferry to name a few. Their sudden deaths led Sting to question his own mortality. “We all are shocked irrationally when they prove to be very mortal … I am 65 years old, I imagine I’ve lived most of my life already,” he reflected.
Sixteen Grammys later, the former frontman of The Police has led quite the life. 57th & 9th is the first record he has released since his short-lived, autobiographical Broadway show “The Last Ship” in 2013. While this album’s emphasis on pertinent issues like climate change (in “One Fine Day”) and the refugee crisis (in “Inshallah”), the majority of 57th delivers a less-than-inspiring Sting. With occasionally over-sentimental lyrics, clunky, Broadway-like melodies and an overall lack of musical cohesiveness, Sting’s return to rock lacks vital intrigue.
The record opens with the playful, rock ‘n’ roll-rooted “I Can’t Stop Thinking About You” — the single admittedly gets catchier with repeated listens. Sting seems to be channeling some mid-life romantic angst here, as the chorus drives, “I can’t stop thinking about you, I can’t stop wanting you this way.” It’s a little too reminiscent of early 2000s soft rock — specifically the ringing guitar riffs and stagnant snare of O.A.R.’s “Love and Memories.”
“One Fine Day” and “Pretty Young Soldiers” bear stains of Sting’s Broadway stint. The former is a piano-accented, unconvincing call to action on climate change. He sings “Dear leaders, please do something quick/Time is up, the planet’s sick.” It is easy to then envision Sting shrugging “But hey, we’ll all be grateful/One fine day” and ducking off stage behind a red curtain. Furthering the theatrics, “Pretty Young Soldier” narrates an unoriginal military romance story, accompanied by worn-out strums and tired percussion.
Sting’s style eventually perks up and diversifies in the second half of the record. “Petrol Head” is a gritty, driving rock ‘n’ roll track. Between the twangy chorus, screeching guitar and consistent cymbal smashing, it’s an intentionally sloppy, garage-rock rodeo.
“Heading South on The Great North Road” simmers down into an acoustic Celtic-sounding folk lullaby. This familiar, worldly ripple in Sting’s swelling vocal melodies and instrumentation is reminiscent of his far-more-moving 1993 hit “Fields of Gold.” “Heading South” is one of those pleasant moments of 57th, but it is merely that — pleasant.
The album finally surpasses pleasant and delivers both instrumental and melodic impact with “Inshallah.” The track’s Arabic title translates into the hopeful phrase “God Willing.” It is a return to Sting’s iconic usage of Middle Eastern musical modes, a sound which he popularized with his 1999 radio hit “Desert Rose.” The deluxe edition of the record includes a deeper, more haunting version of “Inshallah” — Sting recorded it with Syrian refugees in Germany. Somberly singing “Sea of worries, sea of fears/In our country, only tears,” the artist embodies that same palpable empathy and attempt at musical healing that led to him singing in Paris last week.
Aside from these these rare, affecting glimmers, inspiration is hard to come by in 57th & 9th. While it is one of the powerhouse’s most unimpressive records to date, Sting’s unwavering dedication to the betterment of this often-troubling world is as inspiring and impressive as ever.