The Power and Poignancy of Sting’s Songwriting


From the first time we heard him in the late 70s, there was something very distinct about Sting’s songwriting. Here he was, high in the charts with a love song to a prostitute (“Roxanne)” and then, telling of someone who was about to take their own life because love hadn’t worked out (“Can’t Stand Losing You”). Soon, he was singing of relationships, loss and yearning. Through his lyrics, he brought writers, philosophers and sea monsters from Greek mythology into the highest echelons of the world’s charts. He sang openly about his emotions and mindset before it became the fashion to do so. Importantly, he introduced social, personal, political and psychogeographical elements into his work, whether it was discussing the Troubles in Northern Ireland (“Invisible Sun”); grief (“The Soul Cages”); the Cold War (“Russians”); the planet (“Fragile”); the Chilean women who dance with photographs of their missing loved ones (“They Dance Alone”); the prayers of a refugee (“Inshallah”) or the impact of the closure of the shipyards on the River Tyne (“The Last Ship”).

Sting was initially captured in print when his first group, Last Exit, visited London in January 1977. As the Newcastle-Upon-Tyne jazz fusion band chanced their arm at the legendary venue Dingwalls by Camden Lock, Phil Sutcliffe in Sounds wrote, “Sting is the front man on stage. His voice is…truly original. His bass is a generator, an engine, a funky driver from the school of [Stanley] Clarke and [Jaco] Pastorius. He also has presence…. He has commanding stillness. He’s fire and ice, transfixing.” Nearly four-and-a-half decades later, those words exhibit their incredible prescience. Few would have thought that from those beginnings, his music would be so warmly celebrated less than two-and-a-third miles southeast from Dingwalls at The Peacock theatre, a venue that is part of the hallowed, prestigious Sadler’s Wells, by award-winning choreographer Kate Prince and her ZooNation company. Globally renowned Message In A Bottle Music Supervisor Alex Lacamoire adds, “When you see Kate’s choreography, danced to the music of Sting’s magnificent songs, there’s a magic in there…it hits you in a way that it might not have if you were just listening to it with headphones on.”

Message In A Bottle. Photo by Lynn Theisen

Sting has spoken of first seeing Prince and her company working with his material, saying it had moved him in ways “he couldn’t quite interpret.” This could be said to be true for millions of people’s emotional response to Sting’s writing. He has said that he sees his job as a songwriter to excavate a story from the narrative the music offers. Prince adds “Lyrically, he’s so poetic, and he talks about the world.” Sting has stated that he writes songs in isolation; “I don’t see any overriding themes, I just see a song, so watching people interpret the songs in a larger narrative than the one within the song, it’s therapy – oh, is that what I meant?!” The theme of war-torn countries, refugees, and displacement that courses through this production has been a subject dear to Sting’s heart for years. “Fundamentally,” she has said, “it is about human resilience.”

We mustn’t forget though, for many, Sting will always be a pop icon. When he led new wave three-piece The Police between 1977 and 1986, he was the thinking person’s heartthrob. As the group morphed from their punky reggae to something darker and more expansive, his teaching credentials enabled Vladimir Nabokov, Arthur Koestler, Carl Jung and Scylla and Charybdis to be introduced to millions. Later solo works such as The Soul Cages, showed a mature artist working through his grief of his parents’ passing, before finding some solace in Ten Summoner’s Tales and Mercury Falling.

Message In A Bottle. Photo by Lynn Theisen

If the last years of the 20th century saw Sting consolidate his position as an established rock songwriter, the 21st has seen true maverick experimentation. He has worked within the realms of medieval music (“Songs From The Labyrinth” with lutenist, Edin Karamazov) and winter-themed songs (“If On A Winter’s Night…”), yet also touring or collaborating with artists such as Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel and surprisingly, Jamaican icon, Shaggy. The latter is not that unexpected as it brings us back to reggae, the very Regatta de Blanc near where we first met. The Last Ship recast Sting as a Tyneside laureate – using Northumbrian folk music to tell the emotional tale of community. Yet throughout, Sting, managed by The Cherrytree Music Company, has never lost touch with his original audience – 57th & 9th from 2016 was a rock album with an incredible urgency, yet still includes works such as Inshallah and The Empty Chair (the story of James Foley, the journalist who was killed by Daesh).

Sting’s lyrics and music possess an ineluctable elegance; always dancing lightly while his peers have played it leaden. His eloquence is rarely overwritten. There is a sense of play, a sense of place and time in all his work. His songbook has a requisite smattering of gauche moments of youth, of course – even his contemporaneous looks to camera suggested that he was very aware of this fact on De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da. Yet, whether singing of a “Desert Rose”, or “Fields Of Gold”, the business of love and life, a magical everyday courses through his canon. The universality of “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” resonates whether you are eight or 80. From I’ll Be Watching You in “Every Breath You Take” to I’ll Be There in “The Empty Chair”, it’s the economy in Sting’s lyrics that works so powerfully, “condensing my ideas and emotions into short rhyming couplets and setting them to music.”

Message In A Bottle. Photo by Lynn Theisen

Sting’s songs are there in the fabric of popular culture, forever programmed around the world and soundtrack to the life events of millions. Music Supervisor Alex Lacamoire is one of those who have been affected: “Being a child of the 80s, I was obsessed with the Synchronicity album, on the strength of its singles. I learned about the earlier Police albums as I got older, right when Sting was establishing his now-years-long solo career. Basically: Sting and his music have been ‘there’ my entire life.” Sting says his music has a “bit of jazz in it, a bit of classical, a bit of folk, it’s pop music, it’s rock music; it’s not any one thing, but it’s all of those things.” You’ll hear Sting’s words and music in this performance, interpreted by Lacamoire and Grammy Award-winner producer, Martin Terefe. It is fascinating to see how Sting’s work has been incorporated to serve the narrative of Message In A Bottle, alongside the choreography of Kate Prince and the astonishing movement of ZooNation. “This is my dream life exposed” Sting ventures.

With songs that are both powerful and poignant, Sting has come a long, long way since “Last Exit.”

This article was reprinted by permission of Message in a Bottle

Message In A Bottle
Feb 13-25, 2024 • Buell Theatre