Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Sting 11: If On A Winter’s Night

Way back in 1985, as the singles from The Dream Of The Blue Turtles piled up, Sting recorded an arrangement of the relatively obscure carol “Gabriel’s Message” as a B-side. It gained more exposure a couple of years later as part of the first Very Special Christmas charity album, and with its sparse presentation, even with layered vocals, it has remained a welcome holiday favorite.
The same song opens If On A Winter’s Night…, but it’s a brand new performance that sets the tone for the rest of this not-exactly-Yuletide-themed album. He uses the same breathy, sonorous tone that made his lute album such a tough listen; in the days of vinyl, you’d check the player to make sure it was at the correct speed. The photos of him with his masculine, full beard as he stands in a bulky sweater — reminding one of that professor character Will Ferrell used to play on SNL, talking about his “lover” and gorging himself on goat meat — contemplating either the snow outside or the guitar in his hand, give the game away.
These songs just seem so overdone, even with such humble instrumentation. Even when he does something relatively straight, like the old chestnut “Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming”, he sinks it with a four-line monologue in the middle that would embarrass Barry White. His wordless vocal interlude on “The Snow It Melts The Soonest” is therefore welcome, as it doesn’t sound like he’s doing a character, or auditioning for a movie role, as demonstrated by his lugubrious reading of “Now Winter Comes Slowly”. “The Burning Babe” comes closest to the Sting of old, with jazzy drums, soprano sax and a decent vocal.
The gushing liner notes, describing how and why the album was recorded, don’t really give much insight as to why he chose what he chose other than they sounded like winter songs. He re-does “The Hounds Of Winter” from his last good album, for no other reason as that one word in the title, or maybe to ensure some publishing royalties. As most of these are traditional songs, he could use the coin. Speaking of which, “Soul Cake” is the wassail song as established by Peter, Paul & Mary; “The Hurdy-Gurdy Man” is not the Donovan song, as that would have been a stretch.
All the way through If On A Winter’s Night… is the nagging thought, “This would be so much nicer if he wasn’t on it.” If you’re looking for yuletide music with an English folk lilt, this isn’t it. As a Christmas album it falls short, and as a Sting album it’s just too precious. Better it be considered a winter album; musically, of course, it’s lovely, and that’s what makes it so frustrating. Subtle hurdy-gurdy, Northumbrian pipes, delicately plucked guitars and other gentle touches often show the potential so often stomped over like so much snow from boots out in the hall. It’s therefore best enjoyed in the background when you’ve finished shoveling out your driveway, since it won’t inspire you beforehand.

Sting If On A Winter’s Night… (2009)—

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