Mercury Falling

With 1993's Ten Summoner's Tales, Sting willfully soiled his hard-earned reputation as pop music's poster boy for existential depression. Tales was his most lighthearted effort since his early days with the Police, and it seduced many who had otherwise found his solo work too solemn or ponderous. But for all its breezy wit and craftsmanship, Tales didn't quite pack the emotional punch of Sting's other albums, particularly 1991's hauntingly lyrical (and oft-maligned) Soul Cages. Sting's moody thoughtfulness has always been part of what gives his work character; asking him not to brood is like asking Lou Reed not to rant.

On Mercury Falling, Sting manages to stay true to his pensive nature while injecting healthy doses of levity into the mix. Rather than deflecting his doubts and concerns as he seemed to do on Tales, he confronts them with equal parts irony, hope and wistful resignation. As its title suggests, changing weather is a prominent motif, a symbolic caprice in relationships. On "The Hounds of Winter," Sting wails over a mournful synth backdrop about a lover who has deserted him. "All Four Seasons" is a more playful account of an unpredictable woman, with sax and trumpet fills by the Memphis Horns. The subtly intricate arrangements reflect the ambiguous emotions that characterize all the songs here, from the beautifully tender and fiddle-laced "I Was Brought to My Senses" to the country-flavored "I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying," which sneaks plaintive minor chords into blithely twangy guitar riffs.

Granted, it's seldom clear what drives Sting's ambivalence. Even in an introspective mode, he's a pretty elusive guy, often constructing elaborate metaphors to fake us out. Who knows what guilt lies behind the accidental murder on the deftly syncopated "I Hung My Head" or what loss inspired the gently funky "You Still Touch Me"? By the end of Mercury Falling, all we're really sure of is that Sting has survived these experiences without growing bitter or cynical. For a literate British songwriter who once called himself the King of Pain, that's no small accomplishment.