After the searing catharsis of The Soul Cages (1991), Sting’s intensely private eulogy for his father, Ten Summoner’s Tales, seems like an intentional crowd pleaser (despite its title, lifted from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales): the former Police-man crafting hooks as handily as he has sold out arenas. But while his sixth solo effort boasts the smooth musicianship and sturdy melodies that have made him a megaseller, the album (fortunately) can’t help betraying Sting’s status as one of pop’s certified big thinkers.
For one thing, there’s the musical ambition, ably realized by a band that now seems capable of playing anything: “Love Is Stronger Than Justice (The Munificent Seven)” may initially sound countryish, but few country songs come in 7/4 time, and Sting’s forays into jazz complexity are evident everywhere. Then there’s the songs’ subject matter, a gnarly weave of ideas, jokes, mythic allusions and contradictory emotions. “Saint Augustine in Hell” grapples with lust; “Fields of Gold” is a folkish remembrance of things past that eschews sentimentality; “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You” combines the love-song feeling of a first-rate pop song with genuinely felt metaphysical questioning.
In typically arresting voice — he remains a consistently riveting singer, easily one of the best on the contemporary scene — and sending his mind and heart places few stars risk, Sting proves with Ten Summoner’s Tales that even when he’s not going for credos, his abiding concerns are significant and moving.