STING; "Soul Cages" (A&M). * * 1/2

Sting reinvents himself just about as often as Madonna dyes her hair. In an increasingly complex world, you can add Sting, the former schoolteacher turned mega-star with a reaching voice, onto that list of things to count on. That he will put out a new album and put on a new pose is about as certain as a tax increase.You can't talk about Sting's music without talking about his political vogue-ing. While others in the music business are one-hit or one-band washouts, Sting, "the pop idol adults can admire," has the longevity of an ultramarathoner. This is the guy that Newsweek magazine called the ringleader of pop music's new "pious posse," the guy who wore body paint among Brazilian rain forest natives, the guy who wears non-prescription glasses among his own tribe.

This guy remains just plain serious (heavy sigh required HERE) despite being a perennial in a pretty ridiculous business.

In a splashy cover article in Rolling Stone magazine, Sting admitted he was the Sinead O'Connor (read: Pretentious with a capital letter) of his time. Now, instead of making his family mad by saying snide, mean-hearted things about his childhood, he gushes about his environmental activism. The contradictions are striking: this father of five raves about the need to protect the Earth, the need to stop filling it with people. He talks about his work in support of the preservation of the Brazilian rain forest, while critics question the way his Rainforest Foundation spends money.

Segue to "Soul Cages." (Crank up the soundtrack HERE.) The new album, Sting says, is a way to deal with the death of his parents and to analyze his life on the approaching ascent of 40. He admits some of the music sounds "kind of poppy," but he said the album is a serious look at "ritual and the inadequacy of ritual in our lives."

Despite all I'd read and heard about the new album featuring Sting as vocalist and mandolin player, when I added it to the rest of my Sting library, it just sat there. I didn't reach for it often enough to wear out the magnetism of the recording.

Don't get me wrong. I can take a little dose of Sting's brand of pretension. I like my pop idols/actor wannabes somewhat serious about their stuff. And this is my kind of music: jazzy blues injected with intellectual lyrics. Yet while this whole package strikes me as politically and technically correct, it's distant and cold. Actually "Soul Cages" reminds me of all those descriptive passages I skipped over back when I was a Young Reader devouring the elementary school library. Technically correct, but boring.

If this is going to be Sting's descent into naked emotion, into the real stuff beneath all his poses, then I want it served up layered and rich and melancholy. This is just melancholy. (Hey, Sting: Chill out, dude!)

I keep waiting for it to grow on me, but it hasn't. There isn't anything I don't like about "Soul Cages," yet the music just filters into the background. I haven't yet been able to pay attention all the way through all eight songs. They all sound alike. The musicianship is superior, thanks to drum master Manu Katche', Kenny Kirkland's keyboards and Branford Marsalis' wailing sax. And while the lyrics are filling when I read the liner notes, few lines etch my soul while the disc is in the CD player.

These songs don't haunt me, with their hooks or their sound. Not like "Roxanne," "Message in a Bottle," "Russians" or "They Dance Alone."

The coldness aside, however, there are nuggets buried in this collection.

"All This Time" could be used as the anthem to celebrate next year's Earth Day for this line alone: "`What good is a used-up world, and how could it be/Worth having?" This is a curious contrast of a song, which relies on an infectious, skipping sort of beat in its questioning of traditional religion. It delivers these lines, a true treasure for all who graduated from Sunday School: "And all this time the river flowed/Endlessly like a silent tear/And all this time the river flowed/Father, if Jesus exists/Then how come he never lived here."

The single that's well on its way to be being worn out from radio airplay, "Mad About You," is nice, another seriously intense take on the traditional love song, a good place for the brooding saxophone line. Sting calls it another entry in the "lust-power-jealousy genre," that category already ruled by the Police classic "Every Breath You Take."

The title cut, "Soul Cages," sounds Sting-esque, more reminiscent of his earlier work.

But my favorite song is the ballad "Why Should I Cry For You?" It has a simple clean melody with more of the hooking quality of Sting's strongest work. "Sometimes I see your

face/The stars seem to lose their

place/Why must I think of you?" and later: "Why should I cry for you? Why would you want me to? And what would it mean to say/`I loved you in my fashion?' "

For the most serious of Sting fans, you'll like this, probably rate it among the best albums of 1991.

For the rest of us, don't even think about taping this from a friend. This is one disc for which the liner notes should be required reading. Just think of them as Cliff Notes. And I'd advise listening while using earphones at least once, so you're forced to pay attention.