Thursday, September 7, 2017

Review of Sting's "The Dream of the Blue Turtles"

I posted this review earlier this afternoon on the Sputnik Music website, in my never-ending quest to fill in the gaps in their album reviews for artists from the '70s and '80s. All of the Police studio albums there have been reviewed at least once, so I figured that this was the next best thing.

Review Summary: While this album is clearly a product of its own time period, if you listen with fresh ears, it's still enjoyable today.

Sting's The Dream of the Blue Turtles, his first solo album, is an interesting historical document. It reflects an uneasy period in British and world history, even as it marks an important transition point in Sting's own life and career. It's also a pretty good album that holds up well today, more than forty years later.

By 1985, The Police were one of the most successful bands in the world. Their most recent album, Synchronicity (1983), had reached the #1 position on both the British and American charts (it would eventually go 8x Platinum in the U.S.). Throughout 1983 and '84, they toured the world, playing huge stadium shows to support it. They were at the height of their popularity, rivaling U2 as one of the biggest bands of the 1980s. Fans had no clue that behind the scenes, things weren't well within the band. As it turned out, they would never make another album of new music together.

In the meantime, the world itself seemed about to tear itself apart. Tensions between the U.S. and Soviets were at their height, with both sides having built up nuclear arsenals large enough to blow the planet in half. So understandably, there was a sense of anxiety everywhere. At the same time, in the UK, a nationwide miner's strike roiled the country throughout 1984 and into 1985, adding to the agitation of the time period.

With all of this turmoil going on, both in his own life and in the world at large, it's understandable that one night, while in Barbados getting ready to record his first solo record, Sting had a dream wherein his peaceful English garden was suddenly disrupted by an invasion of human-sized blue turtles. The lumbering reptiles proceeded to knock down his garden wall, chew up his rose bushes and lay waste to his lilac trees. In this way, an album title was born: The Dream of the Blue Turtles.

Listening to Turtles in 2017, it's easy to hear with whatever the auditory equivalent of hindsight is (hindsound?), that it's an album that finds Sting in transition from the music of his Police days to the lighter, jazzier sound that has marked his career as a solo artist. It's definitely part Police -- in the Caribbean-styled "Love Is the Seventh Wave", he repeats some of the lyrics from the Police hit single "Every Breath You Take"; and "Shadows in the Rain" is actually a jazzed-up cover of a song from The Police's Zenyatta Mondatta album. As for "Fortress Around Your Heart", the most successful single off of Turtles, it could easily have been a Police song. The music during the verses actually sounds like a slightly-transmogrified version of the verses of Synchronicity's "King of Pain". But on tracks such as "The Dream of the Blue Turtles", "Moon Over Bourbon Street" and "If You Love Somebody Set Them Free", you can also hear Sting moving in a distinctly different direction.

In all, Dream of the Blue Turtles generated four hit singles: "If You Love Somebody Set The Them Free", "Fortress Around Your Heart", "Russians" and "Love Is the Seventh Wave" -- not a bad haul for a first solo album. It has some misses -- "Consider Me Gone" is pretty boring, and "If You Love Somebody ..." makes me want to shoot myself (especially when he hits that long, discordant high note on "If you looooooooove somebody!"). But that could just be me. I have a low tolerance for jazz. 

In general, though, the highs far outweigh the lows. "Fortress" is a solid single, as is the somber Cold War ode "Russians" (which borrows the Romance theme from Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kije, to good effect). And "We Work the Black Seam", inspired by the aforementioned miner's strike, may just be the best song on the album. Transmuting the "King of Pain" music yet again, it describes the confusion of the miners in a changing world, as they see their jobs being gradually being phased out of existence: "Our blood has stained the coal/We tunneled deep inside the nation's soul". 

Other strong tracks include "Children's Crusade", a slow, sad lullaby that compares the loss of a generation of young Brits during World I to the loss of a later generation to drug addiction, and "Moon Over Bourbon Street", a quiet-but-moody character study that pays tribute to Anne Rice's popular Vampire Chronicles novels. 

Sting's voice is Sting's voice -- you either like it or you don't. (I, personally, do.) But either way, he's in good form throughout the album (with the possible exception of those "loooooooves" I talked about earlier). And while the band was specially crafted in such a way as to make sure that Sting's songs and voice remained the focal point here, he brought them together in Barbados well in advance of the recording sessions to allow them to play and jam together. In this way, he ensured that they were a band, and not just a group of session musicians. Unsurprisingly, Branford Marsalis on sax is the standout of this group. 

Although I get the sense that Millennials today view Sting pretty much the same way way that the punk generation viewed the stadium rock stars of the '70s ("boring old farts!"), the man deserves his due. Although The Police didn't officially break up until 1986, The Dream of the Blue Turtlesfound him taking a not-so-tentative first step towards walking away from one of the two or three biggest rock bands of his generation. As it turned out, he went on the become one of the most successful (and probably wealthiest) solo artists in the world, which is why today he's viewed as such as establishment figure. But he couldn't have been sure it would work out that way, so let's give him credit for some guts.

As for Dream of the Blue Turtles, if you listen to it with fresh ears, you'll find a lot to like here. There's some rock, some reggae, some Russian classical, some pop -- and yes, even some jazz -- blended together in a package of well-written songs. In one way, it's definitely an album of its time. But the quality of the songs here ensures that it's also an album that is still enjoyable today.

Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars