So while the groans the greeted the news that he’d written a Broadway musical weren’t exactly deafening, knowing that The Last Ship was partially inspired by The Soul Cages didn’t dispel the dread either. That said, it’s not bad, especially since we’ve long since stopped expecting anything from him.
The album (and subsequent stage production) explores the lives, loves and losses in a town in economic decline. Because he’s singing in character, we have to put up with lots of accents and voices that would serve the music better were they done straight, or at least without affectation. The title track is a good demonstration, a good melody, subdued arrangement but pompous, stagey delivery. But we’re a sucker for Northumbrian pipes, so the track wins. Not so the button accordion on “Dead Man’s Boots”. “And Yet” courts a cool pop arrangement with seagull effects, though something like “August Winds” is directly descended from his lute album. “Language Of Birds”, co-written with co-producer Rob Mathes, makes lyrical and musical references to soul cages and island of souls, but does not need the spoken interlude at all. “Practical Arrangement” was dropped for the show, and although it’s a pretty blatant stab at a “show tune”, it still works as a song.
The same can almost be said for “The Night The Pugilist Learned How To Dance”, which sounds a lot like the story-heavy songs Mark Knopfler still puts on his albums (and sings better, in his natural voice). The near-jig “Ballad Of The Great Eastern” is an ensemble composition, and gets better as it loses the generic touches, but there’s a story, so there’s more narration. It comes off as an aural setup for “What Have You Got”, a rousing knees-up (think “God That’s Good” from Sweeney Todd) featuring vocalist Jimmy Nail, who would star in the show itself. “I Love Her But She Loves Someone Else” is self-explanatory, but effective, and in the same vein as “So To Speak”, which is a duet (of course), only making us wish that Becky Unthank would sing the whole thing by itself. The closing reprise of the title track reminds us that it is, after, a show.
The Broadway version of the show has already closed, but if history tells us anything, The Last Ship will be flogged on other boards. (The deluxe version of the album alone will appeal to AC/DC fans, as it features among its five extra songs two vocal performances by Brian Johnson, without his trademark shriek.) For those of us wondering whether Sting would ever do another “normal” album—and the mind shudders at the prospect of further musicals—at least The Last Ship is tolerable, more so than anything else he’d done in the twenty years prior.
Sting The Last Ship (2013)—3