Twenty-eight years ago next month, Sting released his 4th studio album, “Ten Summoner’s Tales”, the follow-up to the commercially disappointing “The Soul Cages”. And he was in a mischievous mood…
Some people simply cannot abide Sting. I am not one of them. Granted, he can be laughably pretentious at times (okay, a lot of the time), and prone to what one critic deemed a didactic approach to his work (being a former schoolteacher and everything). Sting tends to spell everything out, just in case the references and artistry happen to sail over our proletariat little heads, with earnest and lengthy sleeve notes detailing encounters with drunks during moonlit walks in the city. He also slips into that awful cod-cockney accent whenever it’s a song about the shipyards (and remember he went and wrote a whole bloody musical about the shipyards, so that did become a bit of an issue).
Yet….Sting is one of the greatest tunesmiths of our age. As a connoisseur of naff lyrical couplets (“…and where there used to be some shops” is still my favourite Human League moment), I have always appreciated those we have been treated to through the works of Gordon Sumner, from The Police (“it’s a big enough umbrella, but it’s always me that ends up getting wet”, “he starts to shake he starts to cough, just like the old man in that famous book by Nabakov”…and so on), through his early solo material (“how can I save my little boy from Oppenheimer’s deadly toy?”) and the writer’s block-induced mess that was All This Time‘s indigestible history lesson (“…the Romans built this place, they built a wall and a temple and an edge of the empire garrison town. They lived and they died, they prayed to their gods, but the stone gods did not make a sound. And their empire crumbled ’till all that was left were the stones the workmen found….”).
A solo career that kicked off with the confident, jazzy overtones of The Dream Of The Blue Turtles (v. successful) and was consolidated with the sprawling double album (is a double album really anything else but sprawling?) ..Nothing Like The Sun (q. successful), was in danger of being overshadowed by the worthiness of his ecological campaigning (some would say the preaching of an entitled rockstar) and also in danger of being derailed by the personal grief of losing both his parents not long after the …Nothing Like The Sun album. The Soul Cages was an almighty struggle; he could compose music, but when it came to lyrics, to needing something to put with that music, he had hit a wall.
The album eventually appeared in January 1991, more than 3 years after its predecessor and with only a fashionable Ben Liebrand remix of Englishman In New York (a UK #18 hit in August 1990) to fill the silence in between. For all the travails and battles with writer’s block, The Soul Cages wasn’t the dud that its comparatively poor sales might have suggested. It failed to last more than 9 weeks on the UK Top 75, and only spawned a solitary UK Top 40 hit (the aforementioned All This Time), yet some of the songs were among his finest; Mad About You (rather verbose but with an exquisite melodic refrain) and the yearning Why Should I Cry For You? are top-drawer Sting. Even the title track builds up a fine head of steam, his best rocker since Synchronicity II, although that affected cockney accent nearly scuppers it.
The Soul Cages‘ defining legacy, in terms of Sting’s craft, was the realisation that writing (semi) fictional, story-based songs was not just a temporary route out of creative constipation but something he was very good at. And something he could do almost with ease. Once attuned to this shift away from lecturing us on the rainforests and other worthy causes, and freed from the shackles of an authentic, experience-driven lyrical approach, the songs flowed. Sting began to have fun.
Which brings us to Ten Summoner’s Tales.
Sting being Sting, of course, he had to show what a clever clogs he is by making a pun of the title…(Sumner, Summoner…geddit?) and putting a dozen tracks on the album (“prologue” and “epilogue” bookend proceedings, but they’re fully fledged songs) , but we’ll overlook all that. Self-satisfied smart arse he may be, but on this occasion he had the tunes. The concept, loose as it was, consisted of various stories (tales) that are light on realism but big on wordplay and sly humour. Visually, the campaign created a stylised, sun-kissed medieval world of courtyards and castles, minstrels and white chargers. It worked brilliantly.
Your kingdom for my horse? Sting – in it for the lute as ever…
Having struggled to score a proper hit single in Britain since 1986, when Russians made #12, Sting found himself with consecutive Top 20 singles in the build-up to Ten Summoner’s Tales. The album’s lead 45 was technically the majestic If I Ever Lose My Faith In You (of which more in a moment), but the previous summer’s collaboration with Eric Clapton on It’s Probably Me (for the Lethal Weapon 3 soundtrack) heralded this new, lighter touch both musically and lyrically. It peaked at #16, his best UK chart showing (remixes aside) in 6 years.
Now, when we talk about Sting having some fun, and not being as solemn and serious as in the late 80s, it doesn’t mean the records were contenders for Comic Relief singles, with The Young Ones or Hale & Pace on backing vocals. He can never quite refrain from bringing an element of studied spontaneity to proceedings. The upshot is an album without any weak moments, as the arrangements are looser than previous Sting fare yet the production still adheres to his usual quality control.
I hate to say it….but none of these men are probably him.
It helps that the campaign proper was launched with one of Sting’s finest singles, If I Ever Lose My Faith In You. Based around a loping rhythm and bathed in woozy synths, with a touch of harmonica, it builds into an impressive chorus and one of those sublime middle-eights that he patented back in the days of The Police.
Though still my favourite track, it was eclipsed in terms of profile by some of the subsequent singles; Fields Of Gold proved an airplay smash, and its own modest #16 Top 40 peak tells only part of the story. A simple, straightforward ballad with a gently celtic lilt, the album benefitted hugely from its release and for a long time it was regarded as the best-known song on Ten Summoner’s Tales. Then there was Shape Of My Heart, a #57 “hit” when issued as the 4th UK single in the Autumn of 1993. Underpinned by a minor-chord acoustic guitar motif that repeats itself throughout the song, it’s one of the album’s more considered compositions as Sting not-so-subtly uses the suits in the deck of playing cards as metaphors (spades = swords, club = weapon, diamonds = money) before announcing that’s not the shape of his heart. See what he did there?
Nevertheless it’s rather lovely, and sounds not too dissimilar in style and ambience to something from Sade’s Love Deluxe album (released the year before). Perhaps that gentle organic groove thang is what attracted the interest of both Craig David and the Sugababes in the early 2000s; the former shaped (sorry) his Rise & Fall around a sample of the riff – and even roped in Sting to record new vocals! – while the latter created a whole new song (Shape) around the same distinctive motif and almost scored a Top 10 hit in the process. In addition, film-maker Luc Besson clearly took a shine to the Sting original, using it as a key part of his 1994 film Leon (The Professional).
Faith, Days, Fields, Shape…and Nothing. The five UK singles from Ten Summoner’s Tales.
While it’s fair to say this era saw a generally less intense, more relaxed Sting than the public had been presented with in the past, there are recognisable links to The Soul Cages here and there. Something The Boy Said could have been on the second side of that album, with its evocative imagery and story of doomed sailors being led across the desert, and Everybody Laughed But You recalls the sophisticated pop of Mad About You.
A&M were never shy of milking a Sting album for singles, however limited their chart impact; The Dream Of The Blue Turtles had five, ..Nothing Like The Sun four (five if you count the US-only #13 hit Be Still My Beating Heart). And so it was with Ten Summoner’s Tales; by the end of 1993 there had already been four. A remixed/re-recorded Nothing ‘Bout Me (the album’s slightly throwaway “epilogue”) would follow, but before that Hollywood came calling.
Sometimes an album, through chance or by design, takes on an extended life with various detours and additions to the central campaign of simply the record itself and a handful of singles. Think back to 1987, and Alexander O’Neal’s Hearsay; launched with a lead single Fake in June 1987, and released in July, CBS/Tabu were still pulling (minor) hits from it in 1989 courtesy of interludes provided first by a Christmas album (My Gift To You, home to a double A-sided 45), a remix LP project (from which Fake 88 outperformed the original) and then another “bootleg” Hit Mix single. By the time the record label returned to Hearsay itself for its 6th and 7th UK singles, two years had elapsed from the start of the era.
A similar scenario unfolded around Ten Summoner’s Tales, as a pair of film-related singles interrupted the scheduling at the end of 1993. Demolition Man first appeared on The Police’s 1981 LP Ghost In The Machine, and Sting’s re-recording for the Sylvester Stallone/Wesley Snipes sci-fi action flick soundtrack wasn’t hugely different. The Soulpower remix, however, was a complete deconstruction; a sinuous, funky little number that sounded far more contemporary. It also sounded more in line with the more groove-based elements of Ten Summoner’s Tales, so increasing the sense of continuity between non-album singles and those taken from the album proper.
Then, almost to prove anything was possible during this period, we had a three-way collaboration between Sting, Rod Stewart and Bryan Adams in aid of a cinematic reboot for The Three Musketeers (did someone say Robin Hood cash-in?).
All For Love nearly made #1 in the UK, but did go all the way in America. I suppose the most generous thing you could say about the project was a song about musketeers did kind of fit in with the medieval iconography Sting was using for his solo work at the time!
Normal service will be resumed shortly…
A&M returned to Ten Summoner’s Tales one last time in the Spring of 1994, bringing the era full circle with a re-recorded Nothing ‘Bout Me so that the first and last single choices were the opening and closing tracks on the album. Neat. But they weren’t done yet. Seamlessly, as often happens when an artist’s in an imperial phase, the focus switched to a Best Of compilation, to mark a decade of solo Sting-ness.
Fields Of Gold 1984-1994 arrived in time for the pre-Christmas jamboree, going up against Cyndi Lauper’s Twelve Deadly Cyns, Carry On Up The Charts by The Beautiful South and INXS’s Greatest Hits. The tracklisting leaned heavily on his recent work, with a quartet of songs from Ten Summoner’s Tales, along with the Soulpower mix of Demolition Man and the previously-not-on-a-Sting-album original 7″ version of It’s Probably Me. Two brand new recordings also added desirability; When We Dance again evoked another recent Sting piece (When The Angels Fall from The Soul Cages) only with a more direct melody and accessible lyric, and This Cowboy Song began his brief flirtation with all things C&W that spilled over into the next studio album Mercury Falling.
Sting: the Dennis Bergkamp years.
Curiously, when Sting’s entire catalogue was remastered and repckaged in 1997, Fields Of Gold had a number of changes made to it; out went Nothing ‘Bout Me, Seven Days and Demolition Man, in came Moon Over Bourbon Street, Why Should I Cry For You? and the Portuguese version of Fragile, Fragilidad (even though Fragile was also present on the compilation). It was a particular pity to see Seven Days relegated, as its elegantly swooping melody remains one of his most affecting, and the daft lyrics have a special place in my heart (“ask if I am mouse or man, the mirror squeak’d…away I ran”), and he does that Sting thing of singing old lyrics during the outro (see also: Love Is The Seventh Wave, We’ll Be Together). He also does that silly canine yelp again. Which isn’t so endearing. But there we go.
As the decade wore on, the formula he perfected during 1993 did begin to lose its lustre as Sting understandably milked the more light-hearted style of songs such as Seven Days, Heavy Cloud No Rain and the Country & Western trappings of Love Is Stronger Than Justice with ever-diminishing returns. But here it still felt fresh and a welcome development after the years of Thoughtful Millionaire Rockstar Trying To Save The World.
I was a massive fan of ‘…Nothing’ but for some reason ‘The Soul Cages’ didn’t float my boat at all. I didn’t even buy it. I think the singles put me off, wondering if he’d gone a bit U2. But ‘If I Ever’ drew me in immediately, it seemed such a return to form. Light on its feet, groovy, great bassline – and never underestimate the power of Vinnie Colaiuta on drums! But it’s odd that Sting’s solo career has been awful in terms of singles success in the UK – I think I’m right in saying that he only has one top 10 solo single to his name (‘When We Dance’?).
Yes, none of his singles up to When We Dance made the Top 10. Quite a few in the 11-20 section (Russians, Englishman (Remix), It’s Probably Me, Fields Of Gold, If I Ever Lose My Faith, All This Time) but the public just seemed to prefer buying his albums. The failure of the …Nothing singles in the UK was perplexing to me.
[…] you’re wondering why we’re not talking much about Sting, well…thanks to the very long piece about Ten Summoner’s Tales recently posted to this blog, I think I’ve done more than enough of that for a […]