With the Police on hiatus, Sting had choices galore for ways to make his inevitable solo album. The most obvious was to become the world's bestqualified Police imitator; what he did instead smacks of brilliantly enlightened self-interest.
Der Stingle chose to form a new band with young jazz hotshots from Weather Report (drummer Omar Hakim) and the Miles Davis group (bassist Darryl Jones), plus saxophonist Branford Marsalis and keyboardist Kenny Kirkland. These aren't the usual sleepy gang of veteran sidemen; they never bothered to learn pop-jazz clichés, but they know their Jimi Hendrix, Chic, Herbie Hancock and Led Zeppelin, along with their Duke Ellington.
Unlike Joni Mitchell, another Big Blond Star who attempted this kind of jazzification, Sting can swing. You can hear how much fun he's having, and how much goosing he gets from the band, in the remake of the Police's "Shadows in the Rain." The spooky, dubwise reggae tune from Zenyatta Mondatta now steams along like a workout by soul-jazz organist Jimmy Smith. Kirkland pumps out organ chords over Hakim's stomp, while Sting and Marsalis dodge each others' syncopations around the bass line.
But except for "Shadows," the bluesy "Consider Me Gone" and an instrumental, "Blue Turtles," that grafts progressive 1960s jazz onto a Weather Reporty march, The Dream of the Blue Turtles is a pop record above all. It's only a jam session between the lines, where Marsalis answers Sting's voice with slyly ubiquitous fanfares and curlicues and epigrams.
Sting still writes short, modal melody lines, and sometimes he plays around with the Police's quiet marches (à la "King of Pain") and Afro-Anglo-Caribbean rhythms — to do anything else would be like changing his fingerprints. But if you listen to the way verses and phrases end, there are new twists, surprising extended chords by way of Steely Dan, Weather Report and Ellington. Although Sting is working with world-class improvisers, many of his new band's arrangements are more structured than tracks by the Police. That amazing trio could juggle rhythm and lead roles like nobody's business, while a quintet that tried the same openness would find itself in chaos. The new band is also punchier than the Police, because Kirkland's keyboards — especially the organ — reinforce the rhythm, and the Hakim-Jones team packs a mighty wallop.
Solo albums are traditionally variety shows and statements of purpose, and The Dream of the Blue Turtles is a little of both. Sting delves into neovaudeville with "Moon over Bourbon Street" and serioso classical hymnology with "Russians," a disarmament song. He also comments on the British miners' strike ("We Work the Black Seam"), on lost generations ("Children's Crusade") and on matters philosophical and epistemological ("Love Is the Seventh Wave" and "If You Love Somebody Set Them Free").
When I saw the band in concert (as you should when it tours this summer), its musical exuberance was contagious: I kept losing track of the lyrics in the brainy kicks of the music. On record, things are a little more sober — and, to my taste, too earnest.
It was easy to see it coming. Sting has been driven to tears by world problems since the Police's third-world tour. Yet I'd suspect that the rest of the band edited his pronouncements for commercial zoning; without them, he does tend to go on about "All the bloodshed all the anger/All the weapons all the greed/All the armies all the missiles/All the symbols of our fear," as he does on "Love Is the Seventh Wave."
"Children's Crusade" makes a rather tenuous connection between soldiers in World War I and young drug users. "We Work the Black Seam" — with a winding melody that suggests climbing and descending and with a rhythm track like the clang of picks — extrapolates from neat denunciations of Thatcherism ("We matter more than pounds and pence/Your economic theory makes no sense") and nuclear power ("Bury the waste in a great big hole") to goofy stuff about the universe. Sting acts worried about carbon 14, which must be easier to rhyme than plutonium.
I'm all for political songs, and there's no better vehicle for them than a megastar album. Yet Sting sabotages his own good intentions when he gets preachy or spacey or sanctimonious. "If You Love Somebody Set Them Free" is a postgrammatical, T-shirt sentiment and a denunciation of possessiveness that would be a lot more convincing issued by someone other than a millionaire. If Sting really believes that we can be happy with less, he can send me $500,000, care of this magazine.
So dump the lyric sheet and enjoy the tunes: the transparency of "We Work the Black Seam," the way "Children's Crusade" slowly spirals to its climax, the Caribbean lilt of "Love Is the Seventh Wave," the impassioned singing on "If You Love Somebody Set Them Free" and the delicate-to-martial dynamics of "Fortress around Your Heart," which evokes Pete Townshend and Steely Dan, along with the Police. Sting the musician has more to say than Sting the deep thinker — especially when he's paced, and pushed, by extraordinary young musicians.