The Last Ship
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.