Sting's begging for it. An album of songs from Elizabethan composer John Dowland, performed solely by voice and lute? Is this supposed to deflate the man's image as pompous and self-important?
For many, "Songs From the Labyrinth" will appear as Sting's "Spinal Tap" moment, his own personal rendition of that fictional band's lowering of a Stonehenge model onto their concert stage. This all makes great fodder for jokes at the expense of the artist formerly known as Gordon Sumner. "Fetch me a fair wench and a flagon of mead!" and all of that.
But any even semi-scholarly approach to this album reveals it to be full of hidden charms and even (gasp!) a healthy sense of humor. That Sting's sense of humor rings in sympathy with that of a 16th century classical court composer casts no small amount of light on his status as misunderstood artist. The guy often seems too smart for his own good, or at least, for the good of his "pop star" self.
"Songs From the Labyrinth" is the most nakedly musical, least commercial Sting recording since his first post-Police effort, "The Dream of the Blue Turtles." That album employed then-young jazz musicians Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland and Darryl Jones in service of a new pop music based on jazz harmony and scathing improvisation.
Dowland's music is close to the exact opposite of this African-American-meets-pop hybrid -- it's about the whitest music ever written, precisely because it was often composed to please the reigning sovereign of the day, and because its tonality and rhythms can't help but sound a bit "skipping through the forest in tights and slippers" to the modern ear.
To "get" the dense "Songs From the Labyrinth" requires serious investment, which likely means that the record will appeal only to serious Sting/Police fans willing to make the required leap of faith, or trendy types who will relegate it to background music during wine and cheese parties. Either way, the record comes up smelling mostly like roses, though occasionally the stench of self-import is a bit thick.
Sting hooked up with one of the world's true lute virtuosos, Edin Karamazov, for the difficult task of embodying the man the singer calls "the first alienated singer/songwriter." Karamazov's playing is simply sublime, elevated, transcendent throughout the record. Mostly, Sting's singing -- though he's admittedly a tourist in this classical world, albeit a convincing and talented one -- is also reliably impressive. And Dowland's compositions are at turns raucous, bawdy, lyrical, and harmonically bewildering. There is much to be learned here, if you're willing to dig deep.
The opening tidbit "Welshingham" reveals Karamazov's elegant, lyrical style immediately, and also sets the scene, which is more Shakespearean farce than modern pop. "Can She Excuse My Wrongs" sounds like a Sting song in some ways, its lilting meter and perfect elocution not unlike something that might've appeared on "Ten Summoner's Tales," minus the pop structure. A bit more than a minute into the piece, Sting astounds with a multi-tracked bit of vocal polyphony, straight-up 16th century church music that the man somehow makes sound contemporary -- no small feat.
The spoken-word interludes -- excerpts from Dowland's letter to Queen Elizabeth I's Secretary of State Sir Robert Cecil -- are well-intentioned but still a bit cloying.
Dowland was in danger of punishment at the hands of the state for his dalliances with Catholicism while living in Italy, and his letter to Cecil finds him at once attempting to make plain his loyalty to Her Majesty, and shilling for a gig in her court.
Sting clearly finds this material humorous, touching, compelling, but the interjection of no fewer than seven spoken-word soliloquies makes "Songs From the Labyrinth" feel like a formal night at the theater, rather than illuminating the warm, human composer Sting sees in Dowland.
Right around the album's mid-point, it fully takes off. "Come Heavy Sleep" reveals the enchanting melodic and harmonic subtlety of Dowland's writing -- this is probably the very stuff that appealed to Sting when he began studying Dowland's canon nearly 20 years back. He sings this piece beautifully, and makes the slippery chordal and melodic construction his own.
That's ultimately what makes "Songs From the Labyrinth" worthwhile -- it breaks down the perceived barriers between what we consider modern and what we might label old-fashioned. There are flaws here, but on balance, Sting and Karamazov make Dowland's work relevant for 21st century ears.
Now, about that Police reunion, Sting ...
Songs From the Labyrinth
Review: Three stars (Out of four)