IT MAY FEEL LIKE summertime, but it sure sounds and looks like Stingtime. The Police(front)mar, is everywhere--gracing rock mag covers (and even GQ)--to proclaim the release of his first solo album to the world. The media barrage comes with the golden-boy territory, but Sting's musical and acting endeavors have, with the exception of the Dune debacle, always justified the hype. Unfortunately, The Dream of the Blue Turtles is less than a revelation. The album certainly is no nightmare, but there's plenty of Sting and not much bite.
For comrades on his solo debut, Sting chose top-flight young jazz players around the world to spur him to new heights. Seasoned by stints with such jazz luminaries as Miles Davis, Art Blakely and Weather Report, these trained-reflex young masters are fresh and brash enough to try playing with a pop star. But while the move to wed pop-rock/reggae with jazz may be conceptually daring, none of Sting's tunes foster the lyricism, relentless drive, or direct passion so potent in the best of both worlds.
The playing is impeccably skilled and tight but the songs often sound too well-crafted; they rarely breathe because the feeling has been orchestrated and belabored out of them.
Where are Sting's contagious melodic hooks? The best Police songs--and there are countless best Police songs--stimulate the mind a bit as they ensnare you with danceable rhythms and singalong-able choruses. Most of the Blue Turtle tunes sit on the turntable self-satisfied, making little effort to ensnare. These tunes have the same tempered, careful energy level of most of Synchronicity (the last Police I.P), but at least that album contained manic cuts like Synchronicity I and Mother to keep everything out of a too-even kilter. Surely the musical dexterity and spontaneity of Sting's new topnotch band will enliven concert performances, but on the album, lyrics and singing demand attention; these don't deliver any great riches.
While Police fans know that Sting's vocal vocabulary is extensive; ranging from smooth soulful falsettos and calypso lilts to yelps and fierce warning tones; the dominant Sting style on this album is a plaintive ethereal, no doubt sincere, chant-singing. It becomes a trifle tiresome, especially on the preachy first side. Here, he casts himself as a minister/sage, eager to dispense his wisdom. But Sting's poetry is most often second-hand or simplistic.
In Children's Crusade, for example, he sings of the pointless deaths of young infantries in World War I: "The Children of England would never be slaves/ They're trapped on the wire and dying in waves/ The flower of England face down in the mud/ And stained in the blood of a whole generation." The song would be harmlessly banal had he not tacked on the final stanza: "Mid-night in Soho Nineteen Eighty-Four/ Fixing in doorways, opium slaves/ Poppies for young men, such bitter trade/ All of those young lives betrayed/ All for a children's crusade.
Sting seems to have lost control of his subtlety mechanism. What made a Police gem like Driven to Tears so powerful was its personal and un-sanctimonious reaction to poverty and suffering, set in a brisk and tuneful way. Sting's cleverness, so astute in the past, is buried by well-intentioned solemnity. He shouldn't have to explain his songs in exclusive interviews.
THE REST OF The Dream of the Blue Turtles has its rewards though. Even Childrens' Crusade is somewhat redeemed by the fresh lilt of its reggae waltz feel. The single If You Love Somebody Set Them Free, which Sting calls his "antidote song" to the poisonous possessiveness of Every Breath You Take, is the least painful love lesson around. Plus, in this song and several others, Sting shows a fine knack for layering rich choruses and leaving space for Branford Marsalis' smooth and simmering horns. But it's only with the remake of Shadows in the Rain that all the players betray and release their pent-up energies.
And while Sting's lyrics too often veer toward veiled inaccessible imagery or silly diplomacy ("Believe me when I say to you/ I hope the Russians love their children too"), the old Police-meister can still turn a nice phrase. In We Work the Black Seam, he finally gets the balance right; between simplicity, sincerity, a pressing issue and a catchy hook: "One day in a nuclear age/ They may understand our rage/ They build machines that they can't control/ And bury the waste in a great big hole."
The choruses of Fortresses Around Your Heart is a true pleasure, even though it sounds like a pastiche of several choruses on the Synchronicity LP.
The Dream of the Blue Turtles is either the break, or simply a break from The Police. Either way, Sting will continue to surround himself with the finest musicians around and to put on a riveting live show. But he better brush up on generating excitement on vinyl while censoring--or at least tempering--his preachy tendencies. As it stands, Sting's new LP does not live up to the promise of his moniker or his hype.