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Ye Olde Rocker

As certain rock stars age, they have tried to "backdate" their careers in a failed bid for authenticity. No Sting reaches further back than most—to the Renaissance.

Songs From the Labyrinth - Sting (Deutsche Grammophon)

Rock and rollers, as they age, sometimes find themselves outgrowing a music they cannot outlive. Rock, a style invented for teenagers—or, more precisely, one adapted from an older style made originally for adults, the blues—endures as a bluntly, rudely cogent expression of adolescent anxiety, rage, and sexual fantasy. Long live rock and roll! The beat of the drums, loud and bold! Over the decades since Chuck Berry wrote that pithy hard driving couplet, Berry, like other surviving early rockers, has sustained a career into old age by serving as a nostalgist. He denies the calendar and sings about high school and dating and cruising down empty highways in V-8s, evoking an always romanticized image of teen life in the1950s for multiple generations of listeners who seek to experience rock and roll in the extant form closest to its essence. Berry’s chief acolytes, the Rolling Stones, ply a kindred nostalgia for the 1960s and 1970s, as do various Motown acts that are on perpetual tour in the arts-center circuit. For musicians disinclined to work in self-tribute bands, however, it is not easy to rock and age. Rock, at its crude best, is a music of disgrace, anathema to aging(or doing anything else) gracefully.

In the past few years, several prominent rockers of a certain age have pursued a novel solution to the problem of growing too old to rock and roll—an approach more ambitious, if less remunerative, than self-imitation, and better, if more conspicuously unnatural, than Botox. They are backdating their careers, repositioning themselves so as to be associated with styles of music that preceded rock. Bruce Springsteen, with his Seeger Sessions revue, has put aside the E Street Band and shore-bar rock to do old-timey barn-dance music, nearly completing his transformation into a folksy troubadour of the Depression era. Bob Dylan, on Love and Theft and Modern Times, has mingled rock and blues songs with softly lilting numbers that sound like the Victrola curios that his old Greenwich Village friend Tiny Tim used to warble. Dylan croons this disarmingly cornball material in a sweet croak—half Rudy Vallee, half cement mix; and, on the road, he and his band dress in matching rhinestone-cowboy outfits, like a group decked out for its Grand Ole Opry debut in the late 1940s. Eric Clapton, once an innovator of hard-rock guitar, has, on recent albums and tours, focused on the blues of Robert Johnson and B.B. King (with a side trip into the 1960s for a set of concerts with the reconstituted Cream). A tier or two down the ranks of the rock hierarchy meanwhile, the great doo-wopper Dion has followed Clapton along the road to Johnson-style country blues; and Rod Stewart, confronted with the fact that few of us under fifty think he’s sexy, has been trying to become a Rat Pack-style swinger, singing approximations of the treasured melodies of pop standards; and Donovan, the archetype of 1960s hippiedom, has attempted a comeback as an Ike-age coffeehouse beatnik.

Each of these efforts represents not just a detour from rock but also a claim to higher ground. Since we like to think of aging as advancing, and since rock is elementally a milieu of the young, the styles of work taken up by aging pop musicians are supposed to be more advanced or elevated than rock. It is telling that so many older rockers are turning to the past, looking not outside of rock but before it to find music that seems in some way superior—ostensibly purer in its primordial quality, as we conceive of the blues; supposedly more authentic in its ruralism, as we consider folk music; or presumably more refined in its formal sophistication, as we think of Tin Pan Alley. Springsteen, Dylan ,Clapton, and their colleagues in backdating are submitting to a kind of pop prelapsarianism—a belief that, in key ways, music was better before their own time. The proposition has a justifying patina of classicism and a discomforting tinge of self-abnegation.

Among the members of this camp, the winner of the badge for longest distance traveled backward in time goes hands down to Sting. A few months ago, the onetime front man for the Police and longtime paragon of pop-rock seriousness, now fifty-five, told an interviewer of his midlife disenchantment with contemporary music. "Rock has come to a standstill—it’s not going forward anymore," he said. "It only bores me." The claim itself, which Bono echoed recently, is of little note; pop music has always had periods of lull, and the current one seems relatively minor. In the past year, there was fine, probative new music from at least half a dozen young bands, such as Comets on Fire, the Mars Volta, and Coheed and Cambria. More interesting is Sting’s response to the stasis that he described, and that was not to try moving in the forward direction he advocated, but to spin around and head backward in musical time— past Rod Stewart, Cream, the Stones, and Chuck Berry ...past Sinatra, B.B. King, and Robert Johnson ... past Irving Berlin, past Stephen Foster, past Beethoven ... all the way back five centuries to the first broadly popular music in the English language, the songs of the lute-playing minstrels of the Renaissance.

Sting’s latest CD, which has hovered around the top of the classical-music charts since its release in October, is an album devoted to the words and music of John Dowland, the late sixteenth-and early seventeenth-century composer. A lutenist, songwriter, and singer celebrated throughout much of Europe as well as in his native England during his lifetime, Dowland was a contemporary of Shakespeare (the former probably born a year before the latter), and his music has the gleeful worldliness and intermittently sorrowful buoyancy that we have come to know as Elizabethan. He composed approximately a hundred instrumental pieces, most of them for sololute (along with some consort works for viola and lute), and roughly the same number of songs intended for lute and voice—although, as always in the case of itinerant musicians who drew from folk sources, precise attribution of work associated with Dowlandis impossible. Created during the early flowering of English-language vocal music, Dowland’s songs are tuneful, elegant, and widely varied in style and mood. They have been recorded many times since the rise of the early-music movement during the 1920sand 1930s, though Sting, in interviews to promote his new CD, has suggested that Dowland had been largely unknown before he discovered him and rescued him from obscurity to rival that of, say, Andy Summers or Stewart Copeland.

Like many children of the postwar years, I first heard Dowland’s music in recordings by Julian Bream, the English concert guitarist and lutenist who had a sizable popular following in the 1960s, when an escalation of scholarly interest in early music coincided with the hippie culture’s romance with things vaguely evocative of the Renaissance, such as flowing hair, froufrou, dirt, and archaic Old World instruments. All a rock band needed to impart a song with that now sound was a harpsichord or a lute on the chorus and a recorder solo. What were the Stones doing with a harpsichord on "Dandelion"? They were evoking a musical past so distant, so weird to ears of the jet age, that it seemed spacey. The original Star Trek television series employed the same juxtaposition of the Elizabethan and the futuristic by having various characters, including Spock, strum sci-fi lutes. The one time I saw Bream in concert, at Town Hall in the early 1970s, while I was an undergraduate, I went with two other members of a pretentious jazz-rock band I was playing in, and Bream’s encore was a Beatlestune.

With his new CD, then, Sting is not simply exploring the Renaissance but also revisiting the 1960s (and the early 1970s, which, after all, were essentially still the 1960s)—the period that predated his own coming of age. This is scarcely the first time an artist has enacted a public struggle with his creative identity by poking around the world in which he was made.

The album is called Songs From the Labyrinth. While John Dowland had nothing to do with labyrinths, as far as I can tell, Sting has one of them in the backyard of his castle. It is a replica of the famous labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral, naturally. When the guitarist Dominic Miller commissioned a customized lute for Sting, he had the luthier carve the instrument’s sound hole in the pattern of the labyrinth at Sting’s house/ Chartres. The CD’s title suggests that the album is one of songs from Sting’s lute. Yet it is not quite that.

The front cover shows Sting clutching his lute and looking magnificently chiseled, and in four more photos in the booklet he is either playing the lute or posing with it. On the recording itself, however, Sting plays on only two of the twenty-three tracks; one of them is only twenty-eight seconds long, and the other is a duet with the CD’s principal lutenist, Edin Karamazov. Sting’s abstinence from the instrument is no great detriment, fortunately. When he does play the lute, his attack is unduly harsh and percussive—a rocker’s approach to a stroller’s instrument. On nearly all the tracks, Karamazov, a skilled lutenist and guitarist from Sarajevo, handles the lute playing, and his work on the CD bursts with life. Karamazov is inclined to gypsy-style busyness, fancy shows of speed and facility. His style may not please all scholars of Elizabethan music, but it is fun.

Dowland’s music is intimate, made for performances in close quarters to fairly small gatherings of patrons and their guests. In a few surviving scores of Dowland’s quartet pieces, we find all four parts printed on one sheet of paper; each set of staves runs parallel to one of the four sides of the sheet, so the musicians could sit around a small table and read from the music. For me, the prospect of Sting attempting to perform such quiet, delicate music was tantalizing. His own songs, including the many ballads that he recorded both with the Police and on his own, have tended to aim for grandness, if not grandiosity. Reduction would not diminish his music. It could give it human scale.

Unfortunately, Sting oversings Dowland’s songs, spoiling them with the same outsized smugness that has often infused his own music. Early on in his career, the detachment that he exudes worked well with his material. "Don’t Stand So Close to Me" is, after all, apaean to distance, as is "Walking on the Moon." "Roxanne" is about a lover ill-disposed to intimacy, a prostitute; and in "Every Breath You Take," the singer is not engaged with the object of his desire, he is stalking her. These songs are less about love than about its denial, and it is wholly fitting to sing them from a cool remove. Sting’s voice has always had a forced, mannered quality as well, though that seemed in keeping with the affected Caribbean inflections of his early music, a white English adaptation of reggae. On Songs From the Labyrinth, however, Sting comes off as haughty and strident when he should sound as if he is, for once, standing close to us.

In addition to songs associated with Dowland and his era, Songs From the Labyrinth includes excerpts from Dowland’s correspondence, read by Sting. This text is, for the most part, obsequious flattery, boasting of status, and obligatory politesse from a servant of various courts to his patrons. In one letter to Sir Robert Cecil, Dowland wrote:

And according as I desired ther cam a letter to me out of Germany from the Duke of Brunswicke, where upon I spoke to your honor and to my Lord of Essex, who willingly gave me both your hands (for which I wold be glad if ther wear any service in me that yor honors coulde command). When I came to the Duke of Brunswicke he usde me kingly me, and gave me a rich chaine of golde....

That sort of thing. Sting intones this benign arcana with austere gravity and little apparent regard for the words themselves. Every excerpt sounds the same, another excuse for Sting to speak in the formal cadences of Olde English— to impress without expressing anything in particular.

With Songs From the Labyrinth, Sting has given in fully to his critics’ worst charges. Perhaps becoming a minstrel of Elizabethan lute songs will liberate him and free, free, set Sting (and us)free from his labyrinthine pretensions. Then again, Sting may well feel perfectly at ease with Dowland’s grandiloquent bids for favor with the aristocracy of his day. Songs From the Labyrinth has earned Sting an invitation to sing and play his lute for the present-day Queen Elizabeth. If some admirers of his early rock records have felt betrayed by Sting in recent years, one reason consistent with the coldness and pretense of his music is a sense, magnified by images of him luting for the queen, that he would like to abandon rock royalty for the real thing. One might expect him to be gratified enough to have been knighted, but—I’m sorry. I forgot: that hasn’t happened just yet. My mind jumped ahead a few months.