Sting still recalls his earliest memory of growing up near shipyards in northeast England. "A massive ship at the end of my street, towering over the houses and blotting out the sun," he says. "I was raised in this surreal industrial landscape that is still the landscape of my dreams, and some of my nightmares. I watched many ships being launched, and there is something terrifying, apocalyptic and haunting about the event that never leaves you."
Those memories haven't just haunted Sting; they've inspired his latest project, The Last Ship, a musical about a struggling British shipyard in the Eighties that's set to open on Broadway in the fall of next year. An album of songs from that production, also called The Last Ship, arrives September 24th. "The album represents the raw material from which the play is being carved," Sting says. "Hopefully it stands alone as a body of work without the narrative thread that binds the play."
The album ends what Sting calls "a long fallow period" that started after the completion of the Police's reunion tour in 2008 and his 2009 Christmas-themed set If On a Winter's Night. . . "I don't think the album would have happened at all without the initial impetus to create something for the theatre," he says. "As soon as I got myself out of the way, the songs flowed thick and fast."
Fans expecting pop — especially given that this is Sting's first solo album of original material since 2003's Sacred Love — may be surprised. The songs feature a few outside singers, including AC/DC's Brian Johnson and veteran British actor-singer Jimmy Nail, and the styles include anything but rock & roll. "I wanted the music to reflect the traditional music of the northeast of England where I grew up, as well as tipping my hat to the great music of the theatrical tradition – Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Brecht and Weill."
Starting September 25th, Sting will perform the material over 10 nights at New York's Public Theater. The Broadway version, which should include about three-fourths of the songs on the album, will be directed by Joe Mantelo (Wicked) and choreographed by Steven Hoggett, who worked on the Broadway production of Green Day's American Idiot.
Why, though, would Sting create a thematic album requiring listeners to pay attention all the way through and follow different plot lines and characters? "It certainly goes against the grain, but I still feel there is a constituency that wants music to be more than just something consumed and discarded like a coffee or an ice cream," he says. "I want the music and its themes to consume them, completely and absolutely, the way it consumed me."