Named after the New York City intersection where much of the recording took place, ‘57th and 9th’ is the twelfth studio album by former Police frontman Sting, and ninth consisting of original material. The iconic singer-songwriter’s first rock/pop record since 2003’s ‘Sacred Love’, the album’s follows a busy, decade-long self-indulgent streak for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame alum that birthed, among other things, a compilation of orchestral reworkings of his greatest hits (‘Symphonicities’), a niche, folky Christmas album (‘If on a Winter’s Night…’) and – most infamously – the painfully pretentious foray into renaissance-y lute noodling that was ‘Songs from the Labyrinth’.
For many fans who had thought he had completely disappeared up his own behind following his all-too-brief reunion with The Police, then, the retreat to a more down-to-earth and straightforward approach – and the long overdue shaving of his token intellect-signalling beard – is welcome news. In fact, the sound and tone of ‘57th and 9th’ is closer to that of his wildly influential former band than anything he’s ever done in his solo career. Lead-off track and single ‘I Can’t Stop Thinking About You’, for example, is a nimble, jangly new wave rocker that plays like a nod to (and continuation of) the early Police hit ‘Can’t Stand Losing You’ with its desperate, self-deprecating lyrics, stripped-back arrangement and radio-ready chorus. Refreshingly unfussy, it’s the type of song most fans feared he’d never write again after his prolonged descent into self-parodying levels of pomp.
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’50,000’ sees Sting talk-singing his inner thoughts after reading the obituary of a deceased rock star (“50,000 voices rising every time he’d sing/every word he ever wrote reflecting back to him”). In this year of the reaper that has taken so many great musical personalities, it’s a touching tribute, though you can’t help but wonder if the lyrics are as much a rumination on the sixty-five year old’s own mortality as they are about anyone else’s – and the jarring reference to “tweeting our anecdotes” that gets thrown in early on does scream of a needless attempt to stay hip and relevant that’s rather unbecoming of such an elder statesman.
Then comes a duo of elegant power pop ballads; the lovelorn ‘Down, Down, Down’ and the pleading climate change warning of ‘One Fine Day’, which if he’s any sense should form the template for any future latter-day output; it’s hard to imagine the high-pitched and nasal Sting of old doing these songs justice, but they suit the weathered, huskier voice he now possesses down to the ground.
Elsewhere, the genres start to blend and the styles get more eclectic: the vaguely jazzy ‘Pretty Young Solider’ is standard Sting-by-numbers, making the raw blues rocker ‘Petrol Head’, with its dirty, barking guitar tones, that comes immediately afterwards even more unexpected by comparison. The moody ‘Inshallah’, meanwhile, is a chilling comment on the current state of world politics; over a hushed, cinematic backing of synths and rolling drums, the lyrics slip into the mind of a refugee powerlessly placing their trust in a higher power as they are forced to leave their homeland by boat. Despite this sobering subject matter, it’s ‘Heading South on the Great North Road’, that’s the real outlier, as charming it may be; with a stark, acoustic arrangement and folksy melody, it would seem infinitely more at home at one of his late 00’s albums.
An undeniably mid-paced affair, and not quite so much of a no-frills rock record as it was perhaps billed as – you get the sense that after all his musical exploration and perfection of the sophisti-pop formula, try as he might, he still can’t commit to being “just another rock singer” again – its nonetheless the most accessible and enjoyable thing Sting has put his name to since 1999’s Grammy-winning ‘Brand New Day’. In its most successful moments (‘I Can’t Stop Thinking About You’, ‘Down, Down, Down’), he almost manages to recapture the knack for pop song-writing that made him a superstar at the height of the MTV era – but these songs also, in a bittersweet turn of events, also make you wish that a certain telecaster-wielding guitar hero, and wise-cracking drummer from across the pond, would finally return to his side again to take his conscientious, literate lyrics and classic melodies, and transform them into something truly brilliant.