Perhaps because the '60s rock aristocracy refused to roll over and make room, recent years haven't produced very many bona fide luminaries. Flashes in the pan both human and chelonian, to be sure, but not a lot of initiates qualified for the classic-rock pantheon: serious artists who also went platinum, distinctive stylists who nonetheless respected the album-rock verities, glamour boys (and, just maybe, girls) worthy of a Herb Ritts photo spread with their Rolling Stone Q&A. Stars.
One way for a pop singer to establish himself as a real star, from Sinatra to Elvis to the Beatles and on, is to become an actor as well. By that measure, Sting is one who has clearly made it; he's performed on Broadway and in movies large ("Plenty") and small ("Stormy Monday"). Objectively, David Lee Roth has not established himself in the same league, yet the two have much in common. Both first came to prominence in fringe genres -- Sting with the new wave Police, Roth with the heavy-metal Van Halen -- and both are throwbacks, fundamentally showmen in an age ostensibly too hip for that. Roth may not (yet) have been cast in "The Threepenny Opera," but his videos have portrayed him as a heavy-metal Maurice Chevalier, and the latter-day burlesque king's first solo release included a version of "Just a Gigolo."
Sting: 'The Soul Cages' On their latest album, the Pet Shop Boys ask an unnamed rock star, "How Can You Expect to Be Taken Seriously?" The droll song, which lampoons the star's environmental as well as artistic pretensions, doesn't name names, but Sting immediately comes to mind. So does his likely answer: Sting expects to be taken very seriously indeed, whether eulogizing his father on his pompously dreary new album, "The Soul Cages" (A&M), or lecturing readers of his latest Rolling Stone interview on population control (he has five kids) and deforestation ("Soul Cages" CDs arrive in the standard throwaway long box, a continuing object of environmentalist distress).
"Cages," Sting told Rolling Stone, represents the release from a three-year imprisonment in writer's block encountered after finishing "... Nothing Like the Sun" in 1987. The block, he eventually decided, was the result of insufficient grieving for his recently deceased parents. A relentlessly redundant song cycle about a dead father (Mom is never mentioned), "Cages" is the prescribed therapy, and one can only hope it served him well. It's not likely to do nearly so much for its listeners.
Aside from its melodic impoverishment, the problem with "Cages" is that it's not a song cycle at all -- it's a song, recast on five of the album's eight vocal tracks (there's also one instrumental). Again and again, Sting returns to the same imagery: cages, prisons, ships, the sea, and sailing with his father, frequently to "the island of souls." (Dad was a milkman, but the Stings did live in Newcastle, a port town.) Even the songs that don't directly explore the central theme are closely related: The relatively lively "Mad About You" is about a lost lover rather than a lost father, and "When the Angels Fall" explores the religious disillusionment that the singer, a lapsed Catholic, grazes in other songs (in "All This Time" a son fantasizes about taking his father's corpse away from the "fussing and flapping" priests and burying it at sea).
Like many anti-Christians, Sting has a weakness for pseudo-biblical language, even titling one song "Jeremiah Blues (Part I)." It's just part of his overall reverence for the high-blown. From the moment he left behind the Police's sometimes silly Top 40 successes, Sting has swaddled himself in such tokens of sophistication as art-song arrangements and prestigious sidemen; "Cages," its meandering mediocrities bolstered by Dominic Miller's classical guitar and Branford Marsalis's jazz sax, is the most egregious example yet. Sting may have come to accept his working-class father, once the subject of his bitter denunciations, but he's still compelled to tart up his music with signifiers of wealth and taste.
David Lee Roth: 'A Little Ain't Enough' Though David Lee Roth is as overbearing in his own way as Sting, it's hard to imagine the mountain-climbing pop-metal shouter working out his personal traumas on an album. Certainly he doesn't on "A Little Ain't Enough" (Warner Bros.), whose suitably offensive notion is that Roth is a modern minstrel singer (the CD booklet is decorated with shots of his predecessors). Updating traditional blues double-entendres with more enthusiasm than wit, Roth howls, "See her T-shirt ended early/ While her hot-pants started late/ So when it came to vice and versa/ I did not hesitate" and "I was born without a silver spoon/ But I'm gonna make a stir."
"Diamond Dave," of course, is a child of Southern California affluence -- a silver spoon was probably the least of it -- but his suburban bluesman stance is not unentertaining, even if it is derived more from Steven Tyler ("Last Call" could hardly owe more to Aerosmith's "Walk This Way") than from Muddy Waters. So raucous and relaxed as to be almost convincing, this is Roth's least mannered solo music, and it packs an ironic kick as well. Recorded with Jason Becker replacing flash guitarist Steve Vai (who dominated Roth's previous albums), this collection of mock-Harlem shuffles is a loose-limbed rejection of the cold, technocratic metal that Van Halen popularized to begin with. "A Little" may not be enough, but at least it's not sterile and inhuman, as is so much of the speed metal the Halens left in their wake.