Sting

The Last Ship

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It's an open secret that Sting's interest in songwriting waned after 2003's Sacred Love, an undistinguished collection of mature pop that passed with barely a ripple despite winning a Grammy for its Mary J. Blige duet "Whenever I Say Your Name." Sting spent the next decade wandering -- writing classical albums for lute, recording the frostiest Christmas album in memory, rearranging his old hits for symphony, then finally, inevitably, reuniting the Police -- before finding inspiration within the confines of a musical. The Last Ship tells the tale of a British shipyard in the '80s, one laid low by changing times, so there's naturally an elegiac undertow to Sting's originals, a sensibility underscored by his decision to ground nearly all these songs in the folk of the British Isles. Dockworkers in the '80s may not have been singing folk songs, but the genre is elastic, allowing for single-spotlight soliloquies along with rousing all-cast showcases, like the boisterous "What Have We Got?" Also, by having the bones of his songs belong to folk, Sting can put together a credible album of his own, as the songs from The Last Ship feel intimate in a way he's rarely attempted in his career. He brings in a few guests -- Jimmy Nail and Becky Unthank show up on the standard edition, AC/DC's Brian Johnson, a rock & roll dockworker if there ever was one, shows up on the deluxe -- but the focus is entirely on the songwriter. Occasionally, Sting's desire to inhabit roles within the musical is a little too strong -- not long into the album he adopts either a Scottish or Irish brogue, elsewhere he affects a workingman's vernacular, all the while sounding like nobody else but the posh Gordon Sumner -- but his songs are precise and cannily crafted, bearing the work of a songwriter who is intent on sculpting every line and every melodic progression. Unlike Sacred Love, The Last Ship isn't listless; even when the album is quiet -- which it often is -- Sting is engaged, relishing the different characters that inhabit his musical and seizing the challenge of writing in the longform. It's easy to sling arrows at The Last Ship -- there is a whiff of condescension to some of the blue-collar anthems, the air is often haughty ("The Night the Pugilist Learned How to Dance") -- but this is Sting's tightest collection of songs in ages, and they all play off each other, adding up to a cohesive whole that is surely one of his best latter-day records.

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