The Last Ship

Sting UMA

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music Reviews - Iain Shed­den

AH Sting, bonny lad, is there nowt tha canna dae, man? Apolo­gies for laps­ing into the Geordie ver­nac­u­lar there, but it should serve as a warn­ing to those of you who don’t want to hear one of pop’s finest and most ar­tic­u­late voices get­ting back to its roots. One can­not deny Gor­don Sum­ner’s ori­gins in the north­east of Eng­land, a kid brought up in Wallsend near New­cas­tle as the ship­build­ing trade that had been Ty­ne­side’s lifeblood for gen­er­a­tions slowly slipped over the hori­zon. It’s into this work­ing-class strug­gle the St­ing­ster has placed him­self in or­der to tell a tale of those dy­ing days of the ship­yards and of the as­so­ci­ated hard­ship, fraught re­la­tion­ships, hope and de­spair of its work­ers. The Last Ship is a play the singer has been work­ing on for sev­eral years and which he hopes will land on Broad­way in mu­si­cal form some­time next year. Its ori­gins stretch back more than 20 years to Sting’s third solo al­bum, The Soul Cages, re­leased in 1991. That al­bum, which fea­tured Is­land of Souls, Mad About You and Why Should I Cry for You? was crafted around the death of Sting’s fa­ther and, much like this new one, ref­er­enced sail­ing and the singer’s home turf. Is­land of Souls tells the story of a fam­ily of rivet­ers in the ship­yards, where the old­est son dreams of sail­ing off to a bet­ter life. The ti­tle track here, which opens the al­bum, is about the launch­ing of the last ship from the ship­yards, an event in which the nar­ra­tor’s pride and un­cer­tainty un­folds. It’s here that we are im­me­di­ately con­fronted by the sound of Sting singing in a Geordie ac­cent. It can’t help but be jar­ring, com­ing from a man who has seen lit­tle need to em­ploy his Wallsend twang on the vast cat­a­logue of solo and Po­lice ma­te­rial. They’re launchin’ a boat on the mor­row at noon,’’ he sings over acous­tic gui­tar and ac­cor­dion, And I have to be there be­fore day­break / Ah canna be missin’, the lads’ll ex­pect me / Why else would the good Lord res­ur­rect me?’’ It’s a song that gives tra­di­tional folk pe­cu­liar to the north­east of Eng­land a slightly show­biz makeover, a com­bi­na­tion that hints at its author’s the­atri­cal am­bi­tions for the work. The rest of the ma­te­rial varies stylis­ti­cally. What Have We Got?, fea­tur­ing the voice of an­other well-known Geordie, ac­tor Jimmy Nail, is a bawdy sea­far­ing shanty, Pogues-lite in de­liv­ery, but with po­ten­tial for furious danc­ing on a Broad­way stage, one would think. More som­bre and af­fec­tive is the col­lab­o­ra­tion of Sting and Becky Un­thank, who, with her sis­ter Rachel and their band the Un­thanks, has been re­spon­si­ble for bring­ing Ty­ne­side folk mu­sic to an in­ter­na­tional au­di­ence dur­ing the past eight years. The Bal­lad of the Great Eastern, per­haps the first song in his­tory to fea­ture a cho­rus of

Isam­bard Brunel’’, again has a sailor’s sin­ga­long com­po­nent sup­ple­mented by du­elling fid­dles and rum­bling drums. Sting likes to sat­isfy his cu­rios­ity for mu­si­cal id­ioms be­yond the pol­ished pop/rock of Ev­ery Lit­tle Thing She Does is Magic and Ev­ery Breath You Take. Too of­ten, how­ever, The Last Ship’s mu­si­cal theatre as­pi­ra­tions and Sting’s un­char­ac­ter­is­tic, if gen­uine, Novo­cas­trian vo­cal ex­plo­rations un­der­mine his de­sire to tell a com­pelling story.

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