Sting's new album may herald a "Brand New Day," but it's full of yesterdays.
That's because "Brand New Day" (A&M) is a song cycle about love and the consequences of past romances. There are no political missives, no good-cause anthems, just meditations on the rituals of romance, ranging from agony to ecstasy.
Those extremes are at the core of the propulsive title track, which begins with an invitation to communal despair--"How many of you people out there/ Been hurt in some kind of love affair?" the Rev. Sting asks his congregation--and ends with a jubilant exhortation to think positive, to reject past failures in favor of new risks that will bring new rewards. "Stand up all you lovers in the world/ We're starting up a brand new day."
Getting from one point to the other may be rough--"love has a cruel and bitter way of/ paying you back for all the faith you ever had in your brain"--but, Sting suggests, there's liberation in commitment and grand pleasures in the game. This evokes the album's most compelling and passionate performance, underscored by guest Stevie Wonder's rippling harmonica, an engaging vocal from Sting and some of the nine-song collection's stronger--and sillier--romantic dichotomies ("I'm the train and you're the nation/ I'm the flagpole to your nation").
The "sweet intoxication" of sexual desire informs "Desert Rose," an intriguing cut that features a wailing Middle Eastern counter-melody by Algerian rai star Cheb Mami, but the song is undermined by plodding orchestration that mutes its passion. Similar intrusions mar several other songs. "Perfect love . . . Gone Wrong" has a cool sheen reminiscent of '50s Miles Davis (courtesy of trumpeter Chris Botti) but falls apart with the fractious intrusion of French rapper Ste. Also, the song's abundant dog metaphors range from the clever ("Got a long enough leash/ I could almost hang myself") to the obvious ("It's a dog's life loving you baby/ When you love somebody else"). In the end, it feels more like an exercise than a song.
Similarly, "Fill Her Up" is faux-country, with a guest appearance by James Taylor and pedal steel player B.J. Cole. Sting explored this territory more convincingly with 1996's "I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying," but here he works against his own car-gas-open-road-to-happiness metaphors with an intrusive gospel chorus that actually drowns out the song's inherent exhilaration.
A few years back, Sting visited Washington with "The Three-Penny Opera," and that experience seems to have informed "Tomorrow We'll See," a smoky first-person narrative in which he sympathetically portrays a cross-dressing streetwalker. "I don't need forgiving/ I'm just making a living," Sting purrs as Branford Marsalis weaves clarinet lines around the melody. Less convincing is "After the Rain Has Fallen," which features Sting's familiar keening vocal style--he's actually most attractive in the upper edge of his range--and another clumsy story, this one involving a thief of hearts and a penned-up princess.
Aside from the title track, "Brand New Day's" strongest songs are "A Thousand Years," a classically tinged, world-weary declaration of devotion that will transcend time, and "Big Lie, Small World," with bossa nova guitar, muted trumpet and a for-once convincing story about a man's efforts to reclaim a letter of forgiveness sent to his former lover before it's actually delivered. Sting's penchants for offbeat time signatures and world-beat flavoring are evident throughout the album, and both elements sometimes distract from the material's directness, but "Brand New Day" is the former Police-man's strongest solo effort since 1987's "Nothing Like the Sun."
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8182.)
Eurythmics Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart began their career around the same time as Sting did with the Police--in a failed band called the Tourists--but success didn't arrive until the early '80s when they transformed into Eurythmics, the synth-pop band best known for "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)." After a string of hits, and a convoluted romantic relationship, the duo broke up in 1989, with Lennox going on to a successful solo career and Stewart moving behind the scenes as a producer. Now they've reunited on "Peace" (Arista), a ballad-heavy album that favors lean, occasionally lush pop over the swirling synth-pop of the old days and the soul inclinations of Lennox's solo work.
On the album's best songs, we're reminded what a wonderfully radiant instrument Lennox's voice is. The first single, the looking-back-and-feeling "17 Again," serves as both sentimental celebration of falling in love and, on a deeper level, the redeeming notion of Lennox and Stewart working together again. Contrasting youthful innocence and hard-won experience, the song suggests moving forward into a more stable future, with a lovely coda referencing "Sweet Dreams" both lyrically and melodically (but in a major key, not the edgy minor of the original).
Much of the album is taken up with slow, deliberate ballads like "I Saved the World Today," which offers ironic commentary on political idealism and personal pragmatism; "My True Love," which feels like a charming update of a classic English folk ballad; and "I've Tried Everything" and "Anything but Strong," which address the emotional baggage of failed relationships.
Not all of the ballads are self-centered. "Beautiful Child" is charming parental counsel, a song of encouragement through inevitable troubles, while the slowly building "Peace Is Just a Word" suggests spiritual exhaustion--a quiet fatalism that courses through much of the album. Strangely, "Lifted" is clearly envisioned as an inspirational anthem, but its draggy, exhausted melody undermines its message.
In a collection of cool, supple songs, three up-tempo, harder-edged tracks stand out. "I Want It All" is a good-natured paean to tasteless acquisitions built around an INXS-style guitar vamp, while "Power to the Meek" has a rough-hewn energy reminiscent of "Would I Lie to You" and "Missionary Man." The album's most musically ambitious track is "Forever," a pastiche of '60s orchestral pop a la Burt Bacharach, "Magical Mystery Tour"-era psychedelia and a keening Yes-style chorus.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8183.)