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Music Review: Sting – Songs from the Labyrinth

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When I read a note on a French Sting fansite that the man formerly known as Gordon Sumner would be releasing an album of classical lute music — a survey of the music of John Dowland — I stopped, goggled, and giggled. Then I got depressed.

Sting was long one of my favorite artists, but he has been going down in my estimation since Ten Summoner's Tales — a decent album, but with the seeds of his spiral into adult alternative toothlessness sown within. More ominously for Tuesday's release of Songs from the Labyrinth, an inside page of the booklet featured Sting posing with a lute and looking faintly ridiculous.

Why am I so down on this concept? Let's just say it's not new to me. In 2000, when Lisa and I visited London over a long weekend, we took a tour of the reconstructed Globe Theatre, which was hosting a benefit concert later that night. As we emerged into the actual theatre, our guide paused, went ahead, then came back and told us we were being permitted to sit in on the rehearsal for the event.

On stage: Vinnie Jones (of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and X-Men: The Last Stand), James Taylor, and Sting, among others. The theme of the day was Elizabethan entertainment, so we got to see Jones play Mercutio in a Romeo and Juliet pastiche. Taylor sang an original but period-influenced tune and Sting played and sang a Dowland tune. Badly.

In his defense, he was clearly not feeling well (it was a little chilly, but he had an orange scarf tightly around his neck and was not doing a lot of moving around). He gave himself a self-deprecating kick in the ass as he left the stage. The whole experience boded ill.

So now comes the actual album. My Dowland touchstone is probably his "Come, Come Again," which the Virginia Glee Club regularly performed. The curious should download track 16 of Songs from the Labyrinth, which basically sums up the whole album: odd arrangement featuring the lute totally dropping out behind Sting's voice, and deadly vocal performance full of apparently-intended-to-be-emotive diphthongs and toothless fricatives.

Seriously, there are vocal lines that sound as though they're sung through dentures. Worse, there's no variation to the vocal lines: the performances are note-note-note, with little or no vocal inflection and no phrasing. Then there's the overdubbing. Awkward as the solo lines are, they sound like sheer genius compared to the same voice in two part harmony.

Still, the whole thing isn't bad. There are some interesting solo lute numbers and it does grown on you with repeated listenings. It's endearing and an interesting experiment. If it were released as a fan club album, it would be a cool rarity. On balance though, I don't think it will be the Great Crossover Album it should be.

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About Timothy Jarrett

  • I was with Sting through Mercury Falling. Beginning with Brand New Day, which sure enough had a couple of decent moments, I saw that same decline.

    He can make lute records if he wants, but I can’t see myself enjoying those anymore than that godawful last album he made. Hell, it’s the first of his I flat refused to buy. I can add this to that list.

  • This article has been placed at the Advance.net websites, a site affiliated with about 12 newspapers.

    One such site is here.

  • Baronius

    Oh, no. I was excited at the idea of Dowland getting attention. I didn’t know that Sting was going to sing on the album. “The lute totally dropping out behind Sting’s voice” is a great description of the worst thing that you could do to a Dowland recording, and Sting is just pompous enough to do it.

  • Alan R

    If this CD gives attention to the world of early music and lute music specifically it’s fine by me…it may not be to scholarly taste but I think it was a pretty brave step, even for someone of Sting’s fame.

  • Xenny

    I got this album for Christmas and have been obsessed with it for almost a week now.

    No, it’s not perfect, and I cringed for a few seconds when I first heard Sting’s unmistakable voice in a very different setting, but it’s grown on me. The project was done with lots of verve and spirit and most of the tracks come off very well if you give them a chance.

  • Les

    I am an early music junkie and all of the snooty “rules” that go along with so being would direct that I deplore this recording. But I simply love it for its own sake. I have never been crazy about Sting–frankly, I stopped regularly listening to rock and pop in my twenties, since I felt I just had to grow up sometime. But I think his curious voice and untrained rawness works for songs, and the excerpts from Dowland’s correspondence are fascinating and convincingly rendered.

    I prefer this recording over the old EMI Kathleen Battle/Christopher Parkening recording any day. Its imperfections make it more authentic and interesting.

  • Warm Peat

    Readings of John Dowland’s stuff in a more contemporary style have been done before- this CD features ex-Hilliard Ensemble singer John Potter with a combination of period and jazz instrumentalists, which totally destroys this sting CD and is basically a really wonderful recording that everyone should listen to.

  • Sting on old strings? Love that.
    Like to hear him sing the song for lute Be my Love tonight