On his second solo album, "Nothing Like the Sun" (A&M, all formats), former Police frontman Sting has stepped back from the stylistic liberation offered by 1985's "Dream of the Blue Turtles," his coalition with several young lions of jazz, including saxophonist Branford Marsalis and keyboardist Kenny Kirkland. Drummer Omar Hakim has been replaced by Senegal's Manu Katche and percussionist Mino Cinclo from Martinique, but the visceral pop/bop synthesis has been subdued, though Marsalis' liquid fills and supple ornamentation are still evocative.
Sting has chosen to issue this 12-song, 54-minute collection on two records (one tape or CD), the theory being that uncluttered grooves have more breathing room, thus giving the record a deeper dimensionality. Sonically, it's a good decision, but it still comes down to the music, and "Nothing Like the Sun" contains four powerful songs, one per-funk-tory accommodation to commercial radio and seven songs that sound better than they are.
The best song, and one of Sting's finest compositions ever, is "They Dance Alone (Gueca Solo)," inspired by last year's Conspiracy of Hope tour for Amnesty International, where the participating musicians interacted with former political prisoners. That hands-on, hearts-out experience led to a moving song about the families of los desaparecidos, Chile's "disappeared." While a wistful Andean flute line (synthesized) floats above a dragged-out martial cadence, the singer describes women silently enacting a traditional courtship dance with pinned-on pictures of their husbands, sons and fathers, all under the cold stares of the army.
"It's the only form of protest they're allowed/ I've seen their silent faces scream so loud/ If they were to speak these words/ they'd go missing too."
The languid melody is haunting, Marsalis' fills ache, and both Sting's singing and his compassionate lyrics evoke the agony of separation even as they suggest some ultimate triumph: "One day we'll dance on their graves/ One day we'll sing our freedom/ One day we'll laugh in our joy/ And we'll dance." The song ends with an accelerating rhythmic pulse, as if that day is not too distant.
"They Dance Alone" is not the only political song on the album. There's the informed but somewhat didactic "History Will Teach Us Nothing," a pop-modified reggae number in which Sting sounds like the teacher he once was, and "Fragile," a beautiful homage to Benjamin Linder, the American engineer killed earlier this year in Nicaragua by the contras. The latter song, on which Sting plays acoustic guitar, has a shimmering, neo-Brazilian pulse in the manner of Jao Gilberto and Milton Nascimento, and his singing has that feel as well as the soft focus of Nick Drake.
The other two standout cuts are not original. Sting's reading of Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing" is more wistful, but transcendent nonetheless. Neither his probing vocal, nor Hiram Bullock's sensational but thankfully nonmimicking guitar solo, nor Marsalis' soprano excursions evidence anything other than genuine respect for the source, making it a searing but not an exorcising experience (though one wonders what happened to Gil Evans and his orchestra, barely audible).
The other notable song is "The Secret Marriage," a haunting deconstruction of the marriage contract based on a melody by Hanns Eisler, a colleague of Bertolt Brecht's in pre-Nazi Germany. Probably an offshoot of Sting's participation in the Brecht-Weill "Lost in the Stars" project, it could easily fit into a corner of "Cabaret."
The rest of "Nothing Like the Sun" confirms Sting's sensitivity to intra- and extrafamilial relationships through lyrics couched in more familiar musical settings. The opening cut, "The Lazarus Heart," is Sting's moving homage to his mother, who died while the record was being made, and is full of vivid imagery drawn from the dream journal that the current People magazine suggests is his constant bedside companion. "Straight to My Heart" is an exuberant and word-witty celebration of love's power. "Be Still My Beating Heart" is elegant cool masking the disquieting confusion attendant to matters of said heart. All sound like percussively terse Police cuts.
Other cuts are "Englishman in New York," a slight celebration of Quentin Crisp; "Rock Steady," Noah's tale told with Mose Allison panache; "We'll Be Together," a slice of funk that never gets warmed up; and "Sister Moon," a mood piece on the redemption of woman-love graced by Marsalis' embellishments.
"Nothing Like the Sun" is a much more serene, thoughtful effort than "Blue Turtles," its subdued hues and the absence of any hook-laden or rhythmically compulsive selections forcing greater attention to the lyrics. There are some name guests, including Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler and Police-mate Andy Summers, but they never intrude or really make their presence felt. There's a lot of complex rhythmic current, some of it dense as underbrush, but the focus is clearly on the songs. Like Bruce Springsteen's "Tunnel of Love," "Nothing Like the Sun" is a self-portrait of a popular artist seeking a musical and moral balance while confounding commercial expectations. That takes some getting used to, but it's also worth the investigation.
Sting is one of 15 platinum artists on "A Very Special Christmas" (A&M, all formats), the new seasonal compilation that will benefit the Special Olympics. His "Gabriel's Message" is a lush Swingle Singers-like chorale that first appeared on the flip side of his "Russians" single. Many of the stars have chosen simple, straightforward readings -- Bob Seger's "Little Drummer Boy," the Eurythmics' "Winter Wonderland," Whitney Houston's "Do You Hear What I Hear" and Stevie Nicks' "Silent Night" among them. Sometimes they enliven the songs, as the Pointer Sisters do with a wildly exuberant "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" and John Cougar Mellencamp does with a roots-rock version of "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus." Or they give them a blue interpretation, as Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders does on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."
There are three rocking live cuts, from Bruce Springsteen, Bryan Adams and Bon Jovi, whose reading of Clarence Carter's ribald "Back Door Santa" is an obvious surprise to the girls at Nassau Coliseum. Highlights of the album are Alison Moyet's shimmering "Coventry Carol," Run-DMC's neighborhood homage "Christmas in Hollis," and U2's fervent interpretation of the Crystals' "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" with Darlene Love on backing vocals. Oddest cut: Madonna's tongue-in-cheek revival of Eartha Kitt's 1953 song, "Santa Baby." Though her Betty Boop vocals are a little irritating, the Material Girl has great fun with lyrics like "Santa Baby, set the sable under the table" and "I believe in you, let's see if you believe in me." There will be support videos by Run-DMC and at least one other group.