It’s sad to realize that Sting hasn’t released a truly great album since 1999’s Brand New Day. Indeed, ever since 2003’s Sacred Love—his last original project and a so-so effort—Sting’s career has grown increasingly self-indulgent and redundant. Aside from a successful reunion tour with The Police, there’s only been an album of lute music (!), a Christmas (sorry, “wintertime”) project, and now this, another repackaging of past songs.
Well, sort of. Symphonicities runs with the idea that great songs transcend genre. So teaming up with conductors Rob Mathes (Celine Dion, MercyMe) and Steve Mercurio (Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli), Sting has reworked several of his songs—solo and Police, hits and b-sides—for orchestral arrangements and an accompanying tour.
Now I’ve heard many a great album where artists truly alter their songs to accommodate classical, jazz, electronic, or even simply acoustic genres. The chief problem here is that the songs really haven’t changed all that much to suit the genre. Instead, it’s more like Sting and co-producer Mathes bended the orchestra to the songs. The results are often predictable, though some songs certainly benefit from this experiment more than others.
Sting’s song selection is downright puzzling at times, yielding some dreadfully dull tracks. “You Will Be My Ain True Love” (originally from the Cold Mountain soundtrack) might appeal to your folk sensibilities, but it’s not one of Sting’s best. And “The Pirate’s Bride” will test the patience of even the staunchest fan with its meandering melody. At least the classic “We Work the Black Seam” has a melodic chorus and thoughtful lyrics to work with the arrangement.
Some of the better songs play as expected, which is not necessarily a bad thing. “Englishman in New York” essentially replaces the synth strings and sax solo from the original and works rather well. “When We Dance” benefits even more from the lush strings and spacious romanticism. And while Sting’s b-side “The End of the Game” is an unusual pick for this album, it naturally transitions to the orchestral genre.
Symphonicities is at its best when the songs are reinvented and heard in a fresh way. The Police’s punk classic “Next to You” may seem like an impossibility, but it’s one of the album’s most lively tracks with a ferocious orchestra and rhythm section propelling it along. And the hit “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” embraces a mix of delicateness and Latin rhythm that would have been at home in West Side Story after Tony finished singing about Maria. The Western cowboy story of “I Hung My Head” come more to life now with punctuated strings and harmonica. And “I Burn for You” smolders in an all new way, favoring strings over ambient guitars.
Alas, this album’s greatest sin is a remake of “Roxanne” that sounds far too tame and neutered compared to the rock-reggae original, the raunchy tango of Moulin Rouge, or the slinky jazz club version offered by George Michael. Here its reduced to something like a nice musical about a boy pining for the wrong girl, but the arrangement is bland and has no character.
Considering that there’s room for more on this album, it’s a wonder Sting didn’t try to appeal with more favorites thrown in. My understanding is he’s performing “Fragile,” “Desert Rose,” and “Mad About You” on tour to great effect, as well as “Russians,” a natural choice since it’s based on a classical passage by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev. Given the list of songs he’s playing on tour, there’s plenty of selections that would have benefitted Symphonicities as enhancements or replacements.
All in all, though, it’s not an unpleasant project. Devoted fans should find enough here to make it worth their while. But Sting, enough with the classical dabbling already! Is there no hope for new material from this widely respected artist?
Standouts: “Next to You,” “When We Dance,” “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic”