"Ten Summoner's Tales," Sting's fifth solo album, is easily his most entertaining and engaging - with typically quirky touches - since his heyday with the Police.
"It's a pop record in the truest sense," Sting has said. "I loved making it. I had to make it, just as I had to make the last one," the intense, autobiographical "Soul Cages." "Being on the rebound from that very dark record, this time I wanted to make one for the fun of it, the craft of it - to engage the band musically."Yes the songs still reflect Sting's somewhat precocious intellectual leanings, from experimentation with various musical styles (rock, jazz, folk and country among them) to his penchant for metaphor and allusion. How many other pop stars are there whose albums could use annotated footnotes? His and Paul Simon's are the only names that come to mind.
Take the title. The Summoner was a rascally character in Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," and what was once a job description evolved into the surname "Sumner." Sting's real name, of course, is Gordon Sumner.
Consider also the songs and their subjects. "Saint Augustine in Hell" is part an update of Augustine's "Confessions," part "Dr. Faustus" and part radio play. (In a spoken interlude, a Mephistophelean demon invites the sinner-saint to Hades, to join such company as "archbishops, barristers, certified accountants, music critics - they're all here.") He shows, via bluesy-rock, how the age-old remark of resignation "Heavy Cloud No Rain" applies to king (France's doomed Louis XVI) and commoner (superstitious farmer and out-of-luck average guy).
But all this makes "Ten Summoner's Tales" sound pretentious. Well, it's not forbiddingly so. Thoughtfully challenging maybe. Word-heavy and plodding every so often. Butthe tales - and the first 10 really are stories when you think about it - are surprisingly wry, whimsical and rewarding. A few are even beautiful.
The leadoff track, and first single, "If I Ever Lose My Faith in You," is classic Sting, stark and typically rhythmic yet grand. It could be a loving tribute or an admission of hanging-on-by-a-thread despair. It could be a ballad . . . or a prayer.
You could say I lost my faith in science and progress.
You could say I lost my belief in the holy church.
You could say I lost my sense of direction.
You could say all of this and worse but
If I ever lost my faith in you
There'd be nothing left for me to do.
The stunning "Fields of Gold" leaves behind hip sophistication for sweet, cinematic poetry and lovely music that evoke a John Constable countryside (or Thomas Hardy, for the literary inclined). Rare indeed are contemporary songs that romantically employ images of ripening barley fields. . . .
"Shape of My Heart," soaring on Dominic Miller's acoustic guitar, is almost an art song, in contemplation of meanings in a deck of cards. "It's Probably Me," like "If I Ever Lose My Faith in You," is lyrically intriguing for the ways in which it can be taken, as a lovestruck ode, for instance, or as a pledge of loyalty between friends.
Bassist-singer Sting and his fine band, which currently includes ex-E Street Band keyboardist David Sancious and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, jump into rock with a clockwork rhythm (ironically juxtaposed with an elegant, semi-classical midsection) on the brief and very amusing "She's Too Good For Me." The song's an extreme example of the attraction of opposites - she doesn't like his jokes, his friends, his clothes, his reading, his feeding or his smell, but they make do. "Seven Days" is another self-deprecating tale, by a fellow who's possibly more mouse than man in a rivalry for his lover's hand.
Sting ventures with abandon into country territory on "Love Is Stronger Than Justice (The Munificent Seven)," a strangely paced, and not entirely successful, twist on the old cliches of movies and TV and song about a seventh son, seven brothers, the promise of seven brides and "The Magnificent Seven" (or "The Seven Samurai"). This one's more Booker T and Mark Knopfler than George Jones and Chet Atkins.
Sting wraps up his tale telling with "Something the Boy Said," a moody song about a military expedition - maybe conquistadors in ominous surroundings - and concludes the album with a funky disclaimer (and an 11th song!), "Epilogue (Nothing 'Bout Me)." Read what we will in his songs, he seems to say,
Search my house with a fine tooth comb
Turn over everything 'cause I won't be at home
Set up your microscope and tell me what you see
You'll still know nothing 'bout me.
That may be so . . . but then again, it's a stretch to think we've not learned a thing or two about this eclectic Renaissance man over the past 15 years. "Ten Summoner's Tales" shows Sting has not lost his touch for composing and performing literate, musically adventurous songs - aiming for both head and heart.
Perhaps Chaucer put it well, and simply, in his Old English "Canterbury Tales":
He coude songes make and wel endyte.