The following article by Leonard Pitts appeared in a February 1991 issue of The Miami Herald newspaper...
Sting's intellect stifles passion: It's a bloodless album; will show come alive?
From the beginning, Sting was the perfect Rock Star - so rich and talented that all the boys wanted to be him, so chiselled-from-stone handsome that all the girls wanted him, period.
By his own admission he was arrogant and aloof, but we found those to be forgivable sins. We forgave him because he was also literate, uncommonly articulate and politically correct. Most important, though, we forgave him because of the music he made: a moody blend of rock energy and reggae bounce that, as an added bonus, had something on its mind and the ability to express it with uncommon grace.
No wonder they called him the thinking man's rocker. And no wonder Sting, who plays the Miami Arena Wednesday night, achieved that rarity: both hit records and critical acclaim. His music itself was a rarity - rock that connected on both the intellectual and the emotional level. Its braininess was what set it apart; we liked the way it managed to be smart but not sterile. And liking him made us feel better about ourselves. It had a good beat and you could think to it, too.
In the beginning, the Rock Star balanced his smarts and his passion with deft ease. But that was a decade ago, and these days, the balance for Gordon Sumner - Sting - seems to have come dangerously unhinged, with passion on the losing end. For proof, look no further than his fourth solo album, 'The Soul Cages'.
"I've tried very consciously," he told Rolling Stone recently, "to break the mold, to do things that rock stars don't normally do or aspire to. Of course, you end up being called pretentious. I'm not pretentious. I'm just willing to take a lot of risks..."
But wait - before you dismiss "pretentious" out of hand, take a listen to 'The Soul Cages'. Ostensibly it was written by Sting as part of the process of mourning, of coming to grips with the 1987 deaths of his mother (to whom he was close) and his father (to whom he wasn't).
On the drawing board, at least, it must have sounded like promising, albeit bleak, subject matter. It might have made for an album full of profound insights into the nature of loss. But the music doesn't deliver on its promise. 'The Soul Cages' is full of stubbornly unmelodic New Age audio oatmeal that's easier to admire than to like. It's as if Sting, who has exhibited a sure touch for crafting the memorable hook, had decided to rebel against the rules of pop song structure. That would be fine if he offered something better in its place. He doesn't.
Lyrically, the album isn't much better - a thicket of self-consciously portentous lines that transmit precious little in the way of emotion. The result is a piece of work curiously disconnected from the topic it purports to explore. Where is the pain of death? Where is the guilt? Where is that terrible moment when it feels as if someone has sucked all the air out of your body and you're fighting just to stay upright?
Sting's mistake is fundamental. He tried to intellectualise grief. But he only succeeded in proving again how useless the head is for plumbing the mysteries of the heart.
Reviews of 'The Soul Cages' have been mixed. Rolling Stone and the Los Angeles Times both came down solidly in the album's favour. But others, notably People and Entertainment Weekly, have wondered aloud if this isn't a classic case of the Emperor's new clothes.
Sting's defenders, and there are quite a few of them, would say he has been misunderstood - a giant pestered by pygmies. While he's wrestling with the great questions of existence, the small minds nitpick because his new music slips the bonds of traditional melodic structure. You can't have profundity and hummability, too, they might suggest.
But you can have it both ways. Writers like Don Henley and Stevie Wonder routinely wrestle with great issues while writing stuff you can still sing in the shower. In fact, in times past, Sting himself has done exactly that. But this time, he chose not to. It's telling that, called upon to lay himself emotionally bare, he hid behind intellect.
And by intellect, we're not talking about mere brain power. We're talking about the mental shield that people sometimes use to deflect the simple pain of being human. You can virtually see that shield go up when Sting reflects on the loss of his parents. He speaks coolly about deciding to submit to the grieving "process" - as if it's something he can schedule in an appointment book.
You could argue that 'The Soul Cages' simply represents Sting's musical restlessness, his evolution. If so, what has he evolved to? Has he reached some higher plane? Or has he become someone too suffocatingly intellectual and dead-fish cold to feel or express simple human emotion? 'The Soul Cages' offers a depressing wealth of evidence that the latter is the case.
The irony is that in the beginning, the arrogance and aloofness was part of what we liked about him.
"I suppose," he told Rolling Stone back in 1980, "that part of my egocentric drive is an attempt to transcend my family. I come from a family of losers... and I've rejected my family as something I don't want to be like."
It was a needlessly cruel comment, but we took it as complexity - the tortured artist examining his life with brutal candour, no matter the cost. And a couple of years later, when he made some penitent comments to the same Rolling Stone writer, we saw it as a sign of his capacity for growth. Sting seemed, well... deep.
There was a duality to his music as well in those early days when he rocked to stardom as the front man for the trio called the Police. Their early albums were full of a pranksterish, schoolboy energy that seemed strangely at odds with Sting's haughty ways. But we liked the mix and soon saw our taste vindicated. It was no accident that as Sting became a better and more assured songwriter, the Police became a better and more accomplished rock band - not to mention a more commercially successful one. Listen again to the brooding 'Every Breath You Take' or the aching 'Roxanne' - no matter what you say about him, the man can write a pop song.
When he left the Police and launched his solo career, Sting reconfirmed his talent in breathtaking fashion. On 'The Dream of the Blue Turtles' and 'Nothing Like the Sun', he caught friend and foe alike off guard by concocting a rich and sophisticated brew of pop and jazz with undertones of calypso, African and classical influences.
Thematically, he moved with apparent effortlessness from wry wit ('An Englishman in New York') to haunting commentary ('We Work the Black Seam'). He issued an eloquent, unsentimental plea for geopolitical sanity ('Russians') and, with his hit 'If You Love Somebody Set Them Free', even offered a hard-charging antidote for his sinister Police-era hit, 'Every Breath You Take'.
It was, it seemed, the final vindication of Sting's tendency to put intellect on a pedestal slightly above passion.
But now comes 'The Soul Cages' and it might be wise to put the Vindication of Sting Parade on hold. On this album, intellect, like a mother jealous of her own child's beauty, has smothered the music.
"Men go crazy in congregations," sings Sting, "but they only get better one by one." The line is from 'All This Time', the up-tempo first single from 'The Soul Cages'. Even in this album full of religious imagery, it stands out. Coming up on his 40th birthday, Sting would probably say he's in his "getting better" phase, having largely disavowed congregations - religious and otherwise.
And yet the congregations of his past - the artifacts of his childhood - maintain their hold on him. The Soul Cages proves it.
Sting says the album was born out of a paralysing case of writer's block - three years of it, in fact. He felt the sweaty fear, the tickle at the back of your consciousness that says maybe you've lost it for good. Characteristically (and in this case, luckily), Sting turned the problem over to his intellect.
"I started to free associate," he told the Los Angeles Times recently, "and it became very apparent after a few days that the thing that was most on my mind was my childhood and my father's death. That's what I had been trying to suppress. I am not the sort of person who demonstrates his emotions terribly easily. I tried to bury myself in my work after my parents died... I felt like a man possessed. I had avoided the grieving process, but finally I couldn't avoid it any longer."
Sting says part of submitting to his grief was returning mentally to his childhood - to his old neighbourhood and his family. "What," he asked himself, "is your very first memory?" The answer: a big ship and the river flowing to the sea. Sting, born in the British shipping town of Newcastle, says that memory is what broke the writer's block.
'The Soul Cages' is full of nautical imagery. Sting uses the sea as a metaphor for the continuity of life and ships to symbolise the journey through life. His religious ambivalence comes across in the priests and souls and angels who weave in and out of the lyrics. And he even confronts his dead father - as a ghost half-glimpsed at the wheel of a ship battling a fierce storm.
Oh, the album has its moments. It can be intriguing stuff. Not quite songs, exactly - more, sometimes, like confessional poetry set to music. There's beauty in it, but it's a cold beauty, beauty that invites your admiration without your involvement. Don't get too close, it seems to say. You can look, but you can't touch.
© The Miami Herald