Many years ago, The Onion ran a fake editorial by “Sting” with the title “You Know, I Used To Be Kind Of Cool Once.” Even as a longtime Sting apologist, I have a hard time presenting a convincing counter-argument to the claim that Sting is no longer relevant, despite the fact he may be at the top of his game in terms of musicianship.
The problem is that, in the seven years since Sting’s last album of original material (2003’s underrated Sacred Love), he’s written an autobiography (Broken Music), reunited The Police, toured rigorously, released several live concert DVDs, and recorded two studio albums featuring the music of John Dowland (Songs from the Labyrinth) and songs with Christmas/winter themes (If On a Winter’s Night…), respectively. His latest excuse to not write new material of his own is Symphonicities, an album (and accompanying tour, coming to the Bell Centre on July 24) that features Sting backed by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra on a curiously-curated collection consisting entirely of selections from his back catalogue.
The concept of the album and the tour is simple: Sting sings songs we already know and love, but this time with a 45-piece orchestra backing him in lieu of the usual instrumentation of guitar-bass-drums. However, the track listing on Symphonicities (the title itself being a rehash of The Police’s swan song, Synchronicity) is less a “greatest hits” collection and more a mixed bag of Police classics (“Next to You”), solo hits (“Englishman in New York”) and lesser known tunes from his back catalogue (Brand New Day b-side “The End of the Game”) with the emphasis being on the less familiar. For diehard fans, this isn’t a bad thing: the lesser heard “We Work the Black Seam,” reprised here from Sting’s 1985 solo debut The Dream of the Blue Turtles, is a highlight.
The problem isn’t that the songs chosen here are unfamiliar, but that they don’t lend themselves to the orchestration. Metallica’s S&M (that stands for “Symphony and Metallica,” in case you’re wondering) is a far greater achievement in terms of incorporating symphonic elements without reinventing the songs themselves. On Symphonicities, the songs range from Disney-esque (one half-expects Aladdin‘s Princess Jasmine to share vocal duties on “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic”) to nearly indistinguishable from their album counterparts (“Englishman in New York” already featured strings and clarinet on 1987’s … Nothing Like the Sun). A ballad like “I Hung My Head,” which was affectingly covered by Johnny Cash on his album American IV: The Man Comes Around, vehemently resists the shift in tone suggested by the woodwinds, brass and strings, preferring instead to keep the emphasis on the electric guitar and harmonica (as it was in the song’s original recording).
Aside from the aforementioned “Black Seam,” the album’s best moment is Sting’s done-to-death “Roxanne,” into which the new arrangement injects some much-needed vitality. Instead of sitting at a constant forte as in the original reggae-infused version, the orchestra slowly builds in intensity over the track’s two verses and chorus, eventually rising to a beautiful vocal crescendo which proves that Sting still has the chops to sing “Roxanne” like he used to – he just doesn’t want to anymore.
This bold new interpretation of “Roxanne” makes one wish that more of the arrangements took these songs in new directions in order to take full advantage of the new musical palette offered by the Royal Philharmonic. According to the set lists posted on Sting’s official web site, however, the live show promises a greater selection of songs that might (hopefully!) take better advantage of the orchestra’s sonic capabilities. The inclusion of “Russians,” “Moon over Bourbon Street” and “King of Pain” have me particularly giddy for Sting’s arrival in Montreal on July 24. As to why these songs didn’t make the cut for the album release, I can only speculate that a more complete 2-disc set may be in the works and, knowing Sting, a DVD of the concert as well. And hopefully, once he’s done releasing all that, he might get down to writing a new song or two.