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.