... Nothing Like The Sun — a powerful, often hypnotic album that blends jazz and rock styles into a thoughtful suite of twelve songs about love, politics and the meaning of the individual life — avoids the self-conscious stiffness that marred Sting's first solo LP, The Dream of the Blue Turtles. Whereas that album often seemed to be merely the sterile enactment of its fusion-jazz ambitions, ... Nothing Like the Sun flows naturally.
The album's title comes from a sonnet by Shakespeare that begins with the line "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun." Against the extravagant imagery of much Elizabethan love poetry, that sonnet articulates a human-scale vision of love for a flesh-and-blood woman who, far from standing on a pedestal, "treads on the ground." Similarly, on ... Nothing Like the Sun, Sting resists, for the most part, his tendency to drift into the mystic. Instead he locates the LP's songs in an uneasy three-dimensional world of unruly emotions ("Be Still My Beating Heart," "Sister Moon"), nightmarish social systems ("History Will Teach Us Nothing," "They Dance Alone") and personal commitment ("The Secret Marriage").
Sting dedicates ... Nothing Like the Sun to his mother, who died recently at fifty-three, and the songs about women on the record seem informed by the mother-son bond and the double-edged impact of its breaking at birth, marriage and death. "The Lazarus Heart," the album's shimmering opening track, weds Freud and The Golden Bough in its mythic dream of an artist whose creativity derives from a wound inflicted by his mother. The Chilean women in the stately "They Dance Alone" dance in mournful celebration of their husbands, sons and fathers, who were jailed or killed by the Pinochet regime.
For his band on ... Nothing Like the Sun, Sting has carried over saxophonist Branford Marsalis and keyboardist Kenny Kirkland from the jazz outfit that backed him on The Dream of the Blue Turtles. He plays bass himself and has recruited drummer Manu Katché, percussionist Mino Cinelu and a host of guest stars (including Andy Summers, Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler). The arrangements are airily layered, with instruments and rhythms constantly doubling and counterpointing each other but never becoming so dense as to be stifling. Lively percussive currents keep songs like "Straight to My Heart" and "Rock Steady" moving along briskly.
The instrumental textures and introspective tone of the album preclude any explosive soloing or improvisation; that is something of a shame given the presence of players of the caliber of Marsalis and Kirkland. One of the more appealing surprises on the record, however, is guitarist Hiram Bullock's lyrical soar during a startling cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing." Gil Evans and his orchestra provide the perfect atmospheric setting for Sting's eerie meditation on Hendrix's surreally poetic love song.
... Nothing Like the Sun is also one of those records that help define a point of technological transition. Simply stated, it must be heard on compact disc — or, as a very distant second choice, on cassette. At fifty-four minutes, it's too long for a single vinyl album, and spread thinly over four sides, it breaks too often and abruptly to sustain its otherwise consistent mood. The CD version also allows a greater appreciation of the record's choice sonic details.
In any configuration, however, ... Nothing Like the Sun represents impressive growth for Sting. His voice is rich, grainy and more mature; his ideas are gaining in complexity; and musically he is stretching without straining. His mistress's eyes may be nothing like the sun, but on this fine new album Sting's intrepid talent shines on brightly.