The Last Ship, his first album of new material in eight years, ‘a marriage of many styles’
As a boy growing up in Wallsend, North Tyneside, in the northeast of England Sting spent his formative years in the shadow of the Swan Hunter Shipyard, a sprawling marine complex that employed a significant percentage of the area’s local workforce.
Those who didn’t work for Swan Hunter often worked for companies that provided goods and services to it.
Such was the story of Sting’s own family, which had strong ties to the sea.
His grandfather was a shipwright, while his father was employed as an engineer in the engineering works near the shipyard.
As a child, Sting saw many ships take shape there.
But the shipbuilding industry essentially collapsed in the latter part of the 20th century putting many people out of work and seriously impacting the local economy.
The collapse of that industry and the impact of that collapse on the people who derived their livelihood from that industry has inspired him to write more than 40 new songs, many of which have been incorporated into a new musical which is destined for Broadway in the fall of 2014.
But you don’t have to wait until 2014 to hear them.
Close to 20 of those songs have found their way onto The Last Ship, Sting’s first album of new material in some eight years.
They say you do your best work when you write about what you know.
That seems to be the case here.
Sting’s strong recollections of the shipyard, the people who worked there and the lives they lived have inspired him to write some of his best material in a long time.
No dry history lesson here.
These songs tell the stories of the characters Sting has chosen to populate his play with. They speak to the complexity of their relationships, the passage of time and how it shapes their perception, their transgressions, and their redemption.
The music is a marriage of many styles.
Some are rooted in traditional British folk music, some are infused with the spirit of European cabaret jazz, some have the flavour of the British music halls of yesteryear. At least one song reminds me of Jacques Brel.
It’s damned interesting stuff and it’s even more interesting when you try to envision this material being woven into the body of a theatrical work, performed by fully fleshed out characters as envisioned by Sting and company. So well crafted is the material here that I had no difficulty trying to imagine this material making the transition from the page to the stage.
You may feel the same way after listening to the 17 songs Sting and his musical director/producer Rob Mathes chose for this record.
Those songs, I would add, are performed by a fairly interesting cast of real-life characters. In addition to Sting, whose performance here never disappoints, The Last Ship features performances by both longtime collaborators and musicians with deep roots in the same part of northeast England where Sting grew up.
Included in that cluster are AC/DC lead singer Brian Johnson, who was born in Gateshead, Jimmy Nail, who was born in nearby Benton, The Unthanks, an English folk group from Northumberland known for it eclectic approach in combining traditional English folk with other musical genres, and The Wilson Brothers, a traditional English folk group from Teesside.
It’s lovely work all around.
I would dearly love to see this show when it arrives on Broadway. For now, I’ll happily settle for the record.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.
Doug Gallant, a reporter with The Guardian, writes his music review column for The Guardian every week. He welcomes comments from readers at firstname.lastname@example.org
or 629-6000, ext. 6057.