Oct 04 2013
Sting’s The Last Ship, his first album of original material in 10 years, is a curious indulgence, focusing on the decline of the shipbuilding industry in Northeast England.
This record might even be Sting’s most pretentious and ambitious project ever. The 12-track song cycle conceived and written for the stage is based on the singer’s childhood memories of growing up in a coastal town.
The highly themed album also sums up as the background score of a Broadway play to be staged sometime next year. Childhood memories and personal reflections play a huge role on the record and is a pleasure to listen to, but a lot of people might also find the record too steeped in the theatrical mode.
The record opens with the traditional rhythms of Tyneside folk on the title track, but lyrically goes beyond scene-setting. Arguably it is the album’s pivotal song, as it concerns the final ship built on the famous Swan Hunters shipyard, the very one that cast a shadow over the young Gordon Sumner’s (young Sting) family home, the one that made such a big impression on him. The singer’s semi-autobiographical rejection of following his father into the shipbuilding trade in Dead man’s boots is delivered with genuine passion, but from then on the record gets too theatrical for popular consumption.
On So to speak, Sting’s shipyard worker at the end of his life gives a graphically eloquent last testimony before he is joined by the brittle and beautiful voice of Becky Unthank, whose female perspective also puts a break on over-sentimentality. There are plenty of musically honest moments that make this album worthwhile, if not a fully rounded experience.
Sting seems to have forgotten all of his rock and pop influences on this record, as even the most accessible songs — And yet and Practical arrangement — don’t stand a chance of becoming popular hits. And the best part is that Sting just couldn’t care less. From the opening title track through to the last song, The Last Ship is filled with characters, dialects and themes that sketch a portrait of a time and place viewed from one person’s past. It’s pretty much what one would expect from a story about a seaside city set some 50 years ago. Shanties, ballads and mostly fond remembrances of a time long past populate the imagery that Sting’s voice brings about.
The album also features guest artists with roots in the Northeast of England, including Brian Johnson from AC/DC, Jimmy Nail, The Unthanks, The Wilson Family and Kathryn Tickell.
Depending on the listener’s level of tolerance and perspective, The Last Ship will either bore a person or cement one’s faith in Sting’s decision to age gracefully. It was inevitable that he would eventually get around to a project like this. Sting’s excursions into jazz and classical music over the past quarter century have revealed an artist who had grown tired of being a star a long time ago.