STING — Ten Summoner's Tales (review)

STING — Ten Summoner's Tales album cover Album · 1993 · Pop/Art Song/Folk Buy this album from MMA partners
4/5 ·
Chicapah
As I inferred in my review of Sting’s magnificent “Soul Cages” album, in the process of making that masterpiece he accomplished two significant and pivotal tasks. He, to the best of his ability, expressed his debilitating grief over the passing of his parents, his father’s in particular, and in so doing expunged a large portion of that oppressive burden. Secondly, he finally realized and presented a sound that didn’t instantly bring to mind that of The Police. A little over two years later he released “Ten Summoner’s Tales” and it was obvious that Sting had completely exorcised the demons that had been haunting the halls of his psyche, escaped his sad, personal dungeon and emerged into the warm sunlight of a promising decade. The tracks are as powerful and polished as ever but the lyrics are less introspective and more fictionalized than before, casting him in the role of a sage storyteller rather than a tortured existentialist.

While the professional setback of losing an immensely gifted drummer like Manu Katche would normally cause a drastic decline to occur in that vital department, replacing him with a stickman of Vinnie Colaiuta’s caliber is a rare instance of literally not missing a beat. However, losing the expert services of sax man Brandon Marsalis and not replacing him at all is another matter altogether. Otherwise, Dominic Miller’s understated guitar work and David Sancious’ multi-faceted keyboard wizardry continued to supply everything Sting needed to paint a vista of colorful scenery behind his inimitable voice. And, as always, the sky-high fidelity of the studio production makes even a cheap stereo system sound like it cost a million bucks.

The CD opens with the irresistible throbbing R&B of “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You” a song whose strong rhythmic undertow is almost hypnotic. The cavernous depth achieved by the layered guitars and dense synthesizers give this infectious tune a massive amount of character that puts emphasis on lyrics like “You could say I lost my faith in science and progress/you could say I lost my faith in the holy church/you could say I lost my sense of direction/you could say all of this and worse…” His point being that he can survive the death of most anything save his belief and trust in unconditional love. The clever use of harmonica and tambourine to provide texture in the mix shows how subtle additions can make a profound difference in the final product. The spaghetti western-like theme that distinguishes “Love is Stronger Than Justice (The Munificent Seven)” could’ve been embarrassingly gauche but the 7/8 time signature it gallops atop lends the number a jazzy slant that’s delightful. Vinnie’s drum sound is flat-out fantastic, David’s jazz-heavy piano solo at the end is wonderfully wild and the whole song pokes fun at folklore stereotypes as the tale’s hero boasts of loyalty to his siblings until a gorgeous senorita enters the equation. “I look forward to a better day/but ethical stuff never got in my way/and though there used to be brothers seven/the other six are singing in heaven,” he sings with a wink. “Fields of Gold” is an example of contemporary AOR fare that isn’t patronizing. The penetrating northumbrian pipes are the special ingredient that sustains the lush, wistful aura and Sting avoids unnecessarily complicating the tune’s simple charms. I admit I have a soft spot in my heart for romantic nostalgia and this one fits right in my shirt pocket.

The jazz/funk feel he and his band lay down for “Heavy Cloud No Rain,” an amusing observation of human frustration in its various forms, is absolutely delicious. The crisp soul brother horns honking in the background are sinfully sneaky, Miller’s guitar ride slithers across like a viper on a mission of evil intent and both the organ and harmonica flourishes contribute greatly to the cut’s cool, overcast atmosphere. “She’s Too Good For Me” sports a boisterous shuffle beat that comes on like a prize fighter at the bell but just when you think Sting’s getting predictable he tosses in a jazzy string quartet breakdown midway through that highlights his intelligent sense and use of humor. It’s about a couple who have nothing in common but an exceptional sex life together yet that’s enough for him to put up with her nagging. “Oh, the games we play,” he smiles. Arresting plucked strings accent the brisk 5/4 tempo of “Seven Days,” a song in which Colaiuta’s drumming is as svelte and tight as virgin jeans and Sting’s sly wit is on full display once more as the story’s protagonist must fight a rival for the hand of the maiden he adores. “The fact he’s over six feet ten/might instill fear in other men/but not in me, the mighty flea/ask if I am mouse or man/the mirror squeaked/away I ran,” he blushes. The scintillating “Saint Augustine in Hell” is another excursion into tricky 7/8 meter and this one is aggressively driven by the rhythm section of Vinnie and Sting, resulting in a rampaging track that’s impossible to ignore. The jazzy dissonance inside Sancious’ keyboard chordings exquisitely gives an edge to the words about a pious priest’s damning weakness when it comes to his insatiable lusting after the flesh. “The less I need the more I get/make me chaste but not just yet/it’s a promise or a lie/I’ll repent before I die,” he pleads to God. The spoken-word interlude is like eavesdropping in Lucifer’s cocktail lounge as Wormwood assures our boy that he won’t be alone in Hades. “We’ve got cardinals, archbishops, barristers, certified accountants, music critics… They’re all here!” he chortles. David’s Hammond organ comes screamin’ out of that bar scene like a terrified banshee and it’ll scorch your eyebrows.

Alas, the momentum starts to flag slightly with “It’s Probably Me.” The Latin groove flows gracefully and the muted trumpet bestows upon it a cosmopolitan hue but what bothers me is that at this juncture the overly-slick production gets to be too much. The droll lyrics about a selfish man who, when his luck runs out, finds that he’s the only friend he’s got fit the mood well but they’re still a downer. “Shape of My Heart” with its up close and personal Spanish guitars is better and the entrance of the raspy harmonica is right on time but after a few minutes it grows old. The poetic lines that use the suits of a deck of cards to illustrate the fickle game of love are admirable yet they can’t overcome the onus of boredom instigated by the dynamically dry music. The mysterious, liquid aura of “Something The Boy Said” is enticing at first but the song never escalates into anything magnetic and the vague, macabre words don’t help much. It’s here that I really miss Brandon Marsalis’ soaring soprano sax that enlightened the previous three albums. Thank heaven for “Epilogue (Nothing ‘Bout Me).” Sting wisely ends on an upswing with a ferocious, jazzy shuffle driven by Vinnie’s hot snare smoking underneath while the horns provide sharp contrast and Sancious’ piano solo is murderous. The ever-ascending chord progression on the chorus entertains generously as Sting goads the nosy paparazzi that hound him mercilessly but in vain. “Search my house with a fine-tooth comb/turn over everything/’cause I won’t be at home/set up your microscope/and tell me what you see/you’ll still know nothing ‘bout me…” he sings with assurance.

When an artist sculpts a masterwork as Sting did with “Soul Cages” it’s inevitable that what follows will be compared to it for better or for worse. With “Ten Summoner’s Tales” he didn’t disappoint me in the least. The first seven tunes are as fine as anything he’s ever done and I find no fault in them. They’re spectacular. What drags this album into a shallow rut of complacency is the lack of a change of pace the last quarter of the record would’ve benefited greatly from. It’s hard to criticize the three songs that don’t measure up because they’re still superior to 90% of the vapid crap that passes for decent music in the industry today. Sorta like dissin’ a friend’s new Mercedes Benz because it has standard radials. Shame on me. Make no mistake; this is a superb album that brings to the surface the jazz angle in Sting’s music arguably more often than any other in his catalogue.
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