All this would be cause for celebration if electric guitar and drums permeated throughout 57th & 9th, but they don’t. While they are more prominent for the first time in 20 years, they still take a back seat to his close-miked breathy voice, which in hindsight has been one of the real problems of most of his work in this century.
Case in point: both “50,000” and “Down, Down, Down”—tracks 2 and 3—begin with driving riffs and steady rhythms, but he pulls the plug on the momentum with each verse, only turning it up on the choruses. And the chorus of “Down, Down, Down” is a little too close to that of the opening track, “I Can’t Stop Thinking About You” (which makes reference to “a winter’s night”, which is either coincidence or a particularly snarky reference to a previous album).
If it sounds like we’re picking on the guy, it’s because he should know better. For all his talk of the “spontaneity” that went into this album of “rock ‘n roll”, it still sounds just as labored as his efforts to write a song in 9/8 or in French. While the first three tracks have moments, we have to wait until “One Fine Day” for an effortlessly, thoroughly catchy tune, albeit one about the endangered environment. “Pretty Young Soldier” is musically smooth as well, even if the lyric about a medieval woman enlisting with not-so-ironic results is a little tired.
“Petrol Head” is the one attempt to really Rock, but his delivery works against the labored (and inconsistently mixed) automotive metaphors. Things get really quiet on “Heading South On The Great North Road”, something of an elegy for the departed (along with “50,000”) with only the patient Dominic Miller on guitar. As mentioned elsewhere, “If You Can’t Love Me” does indeed echo some of the jazz touches from his first solo albums, building infectious tension and genuine anguish. The traveling theme continues on “Inshallah”, a refugee’s prayer and a risky move in these contentious times, but that’s what he does. Finally there’s the voice from beyond in “The Empty Chair”, a subtle benediction inspired by death.
Perhaps it’s best to approach 57th & 9th not as a Sting album, but as just an album, with no legacy hanging over it. There are good songs here, and excellent performances. He just needs to redo the vocals.
Sting 57th & 9th (2016)—3