Someone once sent me a link to a story that announced the worst rock’n’roll lyricist of all time to be Sting. I thought that was quite funny, and quite possibly true. The man born Gordon Sumner has had a hard time from the music press for 30 years. Often deservedly. Sometimes not. But it’s fair to say that the erstwhile Police man seems to, erm, cop a lot of flak.
I quite like Sting. By which I mean I used to own most of his albums. By which I mean I still think The Police are quite good – at times. And by which I mean even when I was at my peak of liking Sting (whenever that was, probably around 1993 I seem to recall now?) I still thought he was a bit of a wally. Like Bono, Sting has embraced his own smugness, his own earnestness. Like Bono, Sting is hated by the music press. And recently he topped a list of terrible lyricists. Noel Gallagher from Oasis was on there for his line from Champagne Supernova “slowly walking down the hall/faster than a cannonball”. I think the line is meant to evoke the feeling of being on speed. Still, it barks like a dog and should never have made it from the pages of the notebook to the grooves in the record. But it’s still not as bad as many of Sting’s big howlers.
When I read that Sting topped the list I figured it was probably fair enough. And funny at any rate because certainly in his solo career he is guilty of ripping off a Volvo bumper-sticker (If You Love Someone Set Them Free) of quoting Shakespeare sonnets (…Nothing Like The Sun) and then, more recently, playing a lute. He also paraded jazz musicians around like stuffed toys on his first couple of solo albums. And if we think back to the Police there’s that famous song about the school teacher and the young girl. And Sting encapsulates that experience by name-dropping the author of Lolita – the overt reference. He chooses the word ‘cough’ to rhyme with Nabokov. The seeds were always there.
And then I received the book, Lyrics By Sting. After spending a couple of nights flicking through this book – actually, unbelievably now that I think about it, reading every lyric on every page – I can see why Sting was the clear winner.
This book is just rubbish.
I am a sucker for books of lyrics. I buy books of poetry written by musicians, even if I know deep down that the end-result is bound to be rubbish. I have slowed myself down (plus I am running out of room in the house) but I still own a lot of books of lyrics. Many that I will never read-through more than once.
Some lyricists make for great poets. Dylan, Cohen. Sure. Then there are ones like Patti Smith and Joni Mitchell. Arguably poets also (certainly Smith actually is/was a poet). And Lou Reed’s lyrics have a literary twitch to them. Many reading more like short stories than poems.
One of my favourite books of lyrics is Paul Kelly’s. He is a great lyric-writer. And he makes the point that separating lyrics out from the tune is a bold thing to do. If the music is doing its job correctly it will charge the great lines and obscure the weak ones.
Sting makes a similar (logical, obvious) claim in the intro to his book. He then adds comments to most of his lyrics. Often unnecessary.
The first shock for me, in reading this book, was that the lyrics of The Police are by and large awful. Crappy, unresolved, half-realised dream-themes that meander off in to the ether…you can say what you want about the cod-reggae grooves that support the lyrics on the record, about the choppy pop-punk that only managed to poke a stick in the vague direction of authenticity…these lyrics are well served by that music. The songs are okay – the lyrics are a joke.
And then we get to Sting’s solo career. My favourite albums of his – which is to say there are albums of his I could still listen to from time to time – are the loose trilogy The Soul Cages, Ten Summoner’s Tales and Mercury Falling. These albums show a songwriter who is actually trying. In Soul Cages he goes autobiographical, makes an effort to channel the grief of losing his parents and understanding his geographical and spiritual roots. Ten Summoner’s and Mercury Falling show an artist maturing and accepting happiness. These lyrics are mostly okay. Again, Charles Bukowski could vomit in a rubbish bin and it would have more in common with actual poetry than anything written by Sting, but the lyrics from these albums have a couple of nice lines here and there – and stories are actually developed for once.
But the more recent Sting albums of original music (Brand New Day and Sacred Love – not including the brand new one, which is also undercooked, lyrically) have seen him heading back to the Dream Of The Blue Turtles rubbish that he was pulling twenty-odd years ago.
I have always thought Sting was unfairly picked on by great swathes of the music press. But then I read his book of lyrics and realised the worst.
I’m still glad I saw The Police when I did (great show) and Sting, live, the couple of times I’ve seen him, was also great. And I will probably never lose my copy of Mercury Falling. But Sting really is a terrible lyricist.