Written by Luke Ray
The first Sting album comprised of originals since 2003’s Sacred Love, The Last Ship is not quite the same as his older albums: this one is the soundtrack to a musical he wrote that is expected to make it to Broadway in 2014. As excited as I was for the new Sting album to come out, I was afraid it would sound too much like a musical for my liking. (And if you watched him perform “What Have We Got?” on Letterman, you might have felt the same way.) However, I was pleasantly surprised by the results. There is no indication that Sting has lost his way with a song. Singing (and occasionally narrating) with the voice of a musical sage, his phrasing has not changed a bit, and he can still write the brilliantly unconventional love song that he has consistently delivered for over 30 years.
The songs on The Last Ship are reflections on his childhood in Newcastle upon Tyne in the Northeast of England. Much like his 1991 album The Soul Cages, this album contains many references to the sea and even references certain songs from The Soul Cages. The first track, “The Last Ship,” quickly proves itself to be a classic Sting composition, slowly building in intensity as the song progresses. It is one of several tracks to employ the instrument known as the Northumbrian smallpipe, used on The Soul Cages.
“And Yet” proves that Sting can’t resist his jazz influence into the mix, but also somewhat recalls his Police era song “Driven to Tears” in the song’s bridge. “August Winds,” the most solitary song on the album, deals with the duality of the singer’s public and personal life. This song has grown on me quite a bit since my first listen.
Sting picks up the mood with the most up-tempo song on the record, “Language of Birds,” which directly references the first track (“Island of Souls”) and title track of The Soul Cages. This song would have fit in fine with any of the artist’s 1990s albums. The mood drops again with “Practical Arrangement,” one of the many unconventional love songs Sting has written over the years, begging, “…you could learn to love me given time.” The singer continues this side story a few songs later on “I Love Her but She Loves Someone Else.” As you might guess, it didn’t work out for him.
With a spoken narration in the middle, “Ballad of the Great Eastern” might not fit in with other Sting albums, but he certainly makes the best of a song about the building of a ship. As the ship’s life progresses, so the does the instrumentation. The band perfectly complements the story, meeting the level of intensity that the singer builds up to and restraining itself when the story takes a turn.
The second to last song on The Last Ship, “So to Speak,” is a very well written duet with Becky Unthank (also from Northeast England), which ends on an uplifting note. I think I would like it better if he sang it himself and did less narrating; but, of course, it is part of a musical. The album closes with a less musical, more frantic reprise of the title track. The version that opens the album is superior, in my opinion, but it makes more sense to end a musical with the version he closes with.
If you haven’t heard any of Sting’s older albums (The Dream of the Blue Turtles (1985), Ten Summoner’s Tales (1993), or Mercury Falling (1996), to name a few), I don’t suggest you start with The Last Ship. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some classic Sting moments on this one. It’s just not the kind of stuff you would hear on the radio. All in all, it’s a pretty impressive group of songs, especially considering they make up a musical. I guess the break from song writing did him well.
RIYL: Glen Hansard and Crowded House
Key Tracks: “The Last Ship”, “Language of Birds”, and “Ballad of the Great Eastern”
Stream Sting’s latest effort below: