Celebrating Sting’s 70th Birthday with 10 of His Masterpieces
Hear our selection of the British artist’s best songs
Many of Mumbai’s music lovers would recall watching British new wave rock band The Police at the Rang Bhavan on March 26th, 1980. Vocalist-bassist Gordon Sumner aka Sting, guitarist Andy Summers and drummer Stewart Copeland wowed the crowd with hits like “Message In A Bottle,” “Roxanne” and “Can’t Stand Losing You.”
The Police have had a dedicated following in India over the years, and after they split, Sting went on to create a string of solo albums from 1985. He would have long gaps, often of two or three years, between each release, but till 2003, had his share of successful songs. He may have been less prolific after that but the genius has kept recurring on some numbers.
Sting, who celebrates his 70th birthday this week, has been one of the most distinct musicians on the scene. There’s something unique about his vocal texture and delivery style that makes him stand out. His compositions are eclectic, seamlessly blending genres as diverse as rock, pop, jazz, reggae, Celtic and folk music.
And there are those lyrics. Metaphor-driven and filled with imagery, they have often created a deep impact with their sheer poetic value. Whether inspired by actual people, mythological characters, relationships or real-life situations, Sting’s brilliance as a writer has been consistent.
Here, we choose 10 among the many Sting masterpieces, sticking to one song per album. In many cases, the selection was tough, especially with albums like …Nothing Like The Sun and Ten Summoner’s Tales, where most of the songs were marvelous. But each of these songs is a class apart.
1. “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free” – The Dream Of The Blue Turtles (1985)
The first single from Sting’s first solo album The Dream Of The Blue Turtles, this jazz-inflected song is one of the highlights of Sting’s career. It also features stellar musicians like bassist Daryl Jones, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, the late keyboardist Kenny Kirkland and drummer Omar Hakim, besides some scintillating backing vocals. The album also has the songs “Love Is The Seventh Wave,” “Russians” and “Moon Over Bourbon Street.”
2. “Fragile” – … Nothing Like The Sun (1987)
The album … Nothing Like The Sun has popular numbers like “Englishman In New York” and “They Dance Alone,” the latter featuring guitar gurus Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler. Fans are specifically fond of “Fragile,” which has the lines, “On and on the rain will fall, like tears from a star, like tears from a star; On and on the rain will say, how fragile we are, how fragile we are.” The song was written in memory of Ben Linder, an American civil engineer killed by Contras in Nicaragua. Years later, in 2016, Sting sang and co-wrote “Empty Chair” with a similar theme as a dedication to journalist James Foley, who was kidnapped and beheaded in Syria.
3. “Mad About You” – The Soul Cages (1991)
This song was inspired by the Biblical tale of King David and Bathsheba. The video has stunning black n’ white shots in a desert, as Sting sings, “A stone’s throw from Jerusalem, I walked a lonely mile in the moonlight, and though a million stars were shining, my heart was lost on a distant planet.” It was the first album to feature guitarist Dominic Miller, who would become a regular collaborator.
4. “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You” – Ten Summoner’s Tales (1993)
Though “Fields Of Gold” is the biggest hit from Ten Summoner’s Tales, it is arguably Sting’s most consistent album. “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You” is a masterpiece both lyrically and in terms of vocal brilliance. It talks about how one may lose faith in certain beliefs and material things, but the problem occurs when they lose faith in relationships. Sting bagged a Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.
5. “Valparaiso” – Mercury Falling (1996)
This absolute beauty is about the life of a sailor, and is named after the Chilean port city. The use of pipes and the percussion style lend a Celtic feel, and the lyrics evoke both romance and nostalgia. “And every love would always send the ship of my heart over the rolling sea,” sings Sting, following it with, “If I should die, and water’s my grave, she’ll never know if I’m damned or I’m saved.” Intense, really.
6. “Desert Rose” – Brand New Day (1999)
Though Sting used jazz, Celtic and European folk influences in many of his earlier songs, he moved towards the worldbeat genre on this song, pairing with Algerian rai star Cheb Mami. The song, which is about lost love and longing, has a Middle Eastern feel, as Sting sings the fantasy-ridden lines, “I dream of rain, I dream of gardens in the desert sand; I wake in vain, I dream of love as time runs through my hand.” Part of the video was shot in the Mojave desert in the US. The album also has superlative cuts like the title track and “A Thousand Years.”
7. “The Book Of My Life” – Sacred Love (2003)
In continuing with his international collaborations, Sting teamed up with sitar player Anoushka Shankar on this philosophical song. The song also features a haunting cello, and has the lines, “It’s the book of my days, it’s the book of my life, And it’s cut like a fruit on the blade of a knife; And it’s all there to see as the section reveals, there’s some sorrow in every life.” The words and the instrumentation leave listeners with a feeling of introspection.
8. “The Last Ship” – The Last Ship (2013)
Promoted as the first album of completely original Sting songs in a decade after Sacred Love, The Last Ship was actually composed for the musical play of the same name. The title track is one of the highlights, with evocative, imagery-filled lines like, “Oh the roar of the chains and the cracking of timbers, the noise at the end of the world in your ears, as a mountain of steel makes its way to the sea, and the last ship sails.” Sting’s voice is in perfect shape.
9. “Just One Lifetime” – 44/ 876 ft. Shaggy (2019)
From his days with The Police, Sting has regularly used ska and reggae in his compositions. So a collaboration with a reggae artiste was long overdue, and Shaggy comes across as a great partner on the album 44/ 876. Both singers have equal roles in the vocals, with Sting’s part beginning, “The time has come as Shaggy said, to talk of many things, of ships and shoes and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings.” The song talks about making the most of “just one lifetime” and has an easy, relaxed feel.
10. “If It’s Love” – (single from forthcoming album) The Bridge (2021)
This one takes us back to vintage Sting as it’s a simple, frothy song trying to explain what love is. Here, the main character asks the doctor what’s ailing him, and he gets this reply, “If it’s love, it has no season, if it’s love, there is no cure, if it’s love, it won’t see reason, and of this you can be sure.” With a nice whistle intro, the song was released in September as the first single from his forthcoming album The Bridge.
From these songs, it’s apparent that Sting’s music was defined by words like ‘depth’, ‘erudition’ and ‘intensity’. His creations could fill up a masterclass in songwriting. One is now looking forward to the rest of The Bridge, due for release on November 19. The album was written after the pandemic began, and on his website, he says, “These songs are between one place and another, between one state of mind and another, between life and death, between relationships, between pandemics and between eras… we need a bridge.”
That sounds really promising, and one is looking forward to another burst of mastery.