A&M Island [Release date 24.05.19]
Longevity can be both a blessing and a curse. Music industry economics are such that a tour is more successful with an album behind it and if that album isn’t of new material, a compilation will suffice. But Sting, just about to embark on a summer tour across Europe, has visited the “Greatest Hits well” more than a few times already in his 40+ years career. While his recent entries have been eccentrically varied, ranging from musical concept album (‘The Last Ship’), returning to his rock roots (‘57th and 9th’) and going full-on reggae with Shaggy (‘44/876’), ‘My Songs’ is a “reimagining” of classic songs from his catalogue.
The word classic is important here, as one is left wondering – why tamper with a classic? Some songs are remixed, others re-recorded wholesale and the only truly successful cuts are sourced from unreleased live recordings. There doesn’t seem to be a cohesive theme to any of the changes here; while the original version of ‘My Songs’ opener, 1999’s ‘Brand New Day’, had an organic studio jam feel to it, the remix features overdubbed keyboard stabs and drum programming. Mercifully Stevie Wonder’s distinctive harmonica solo remains intact, which is more than can be said for Cheb Mami’s ethereal chanting on ‘Desert Rose’, now buried in the busy mix.
More favourable is the full band in-the-studio take on ‘Demolition Man’, increasing urgency by upping the tempo to a breathless pace. Yet with The Police tracks especially, the absence of guitarist Andy Summers and drumming hero Stuart Copeland are particularly pointed. ‘Every Breath You Take’ is so ubiquitous for a reason and in large because of the musical interplay of the band playing it, not a collection of assembled studio musicians.
While most songs illicit indifference, the ‘Englishman in New York’ refashioning is sacrilegious. The once gloriously moody reflection on loneliness loses all atmosphere reconfigured as a sub-par EDM track. The crescendo drum fills that conclude Branford Marsalis’ sax solo now have traffic noises overlaid…because we needed reminding we’re in New York apparently?
When Sting gives up tinkering and bundles a few live tracks at the end of the “deluxe” version of the album, things pick up immeasurably. We’re reminded what a brilliant performer he is and that he still has not only the musical ability but that indefinable rock and roll charisma. A live take of ‘Fragile’ is striking in its simplicity. Perhaps a better way to revisit these songs would have been a live album or “unplugged in the studio” renditions. These types of albums can work, Simply Red’s 2005 record, ‘Simplified’, interpreted Mick Hucknall’s standards with an acoustic Latin feel to great effect, but what Sting is lacking here is a cohesive theme. What we’re sadly left with is an awkward mess. **½
Review by Phillip Beamon
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