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By Terrence McCoy
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By Michael E. Miller
There are some artists who can't escape their past, no matter how hard they try.
Paul Simon is inextricably linked to Simon & Garfunkel. Robert Plant will always be the tousle-haired, bare-chested vocalist of Led Zeppelin. John Fogerty will never fully put Credence Clearwater Revival behind him. And Sting, despite a prolific 30-year solo career, will always be compelled by certain diehard devotees to replay the Police.
Of all those artists, though, Sting (born Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner) might be doing his best to distance himself from his earliest successes. A recent reunion tour notwithstanding, he has expanded his parameters far beyond the brash pop punk proffered by his former trio. Though many of the songs he composed for the Police ("Roxanne," "Don't Stand So Close to Me," etc.) took their cue from reggae rhythms and a bare-bones approach, Sting's first move after going solo was to expand, enhance, and elevate his sound.
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Consequently, jazz, which he'd been attracted to in his youth, became a new obsession. His initial solo album, The Dream of the Blue Turtles, found him enlisting the support of respected players such as Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland, and Omar Hakin, fueling his transition and providing him with instant credibility in the process.
Even though Dream yielded several hits ("If You Love Somebody Set Them Free," "Love Is the Seventh Wave," and "Fortress Around Your Heart," which could all have been stripped down and refitted for the Police), some listeners resented and even reviled his new direction. Still, it would be silly to begrudge an artist's desire to move on and opt for the unexpected, rather than merely feed fans the same familiar fodder.
On subsequent albums, Sting continued pushing forward, blending folk, pop, world music, and recordings for films with albums wholly devoted to classical tradition (Songs From the Labyrinth), seasonal sounds (If on a Winter's Night), and even musical theater after he was drafted for a Broadway revival of The Threepenny Opera.
Happily, though, Sting has never abandoned his penchant for pop. His 1993 comeback of sorts, Ten Summoner's Tales, yielded a pair of huge hits in "If Ever I Lose My Faith in You" and "Fields of Gold." Two of his most enduring entries, those songs made him a darling of the adult-contemporary crowd. And although moving from his early punk precepts to the instant accessibility of easy listening might have seemed strange, he appeared at ease with this newfound maturity and sophistication, as he would continue to prove on 1999's Brand New Day, a mishmash of styles that consolidated his new direction.
Encouraged to experiment, Sting eventually opted for big-band arrangements and orchestration to enhance his sound. But for every step forward, there has also been a glance in the rear-view mirror, as illustrated by numerous live albums, the occasional Police reunion, and various greatest-hits compilations. Of the last, the most recent, 25 Years, is also Sting's most comprehensive — an expansive four-disc CD/DVD box set released to coincide with his current Back to Bass Tour.
Back to Bass? That's logical, considering that for all his instrumental embellishments, bass has always remained Sting's instrument of choice. But back to basics? That just doesn't seem likely for this adult-contemporary guru.