Albums You Might Like: The Soul Cages by Sting

Sting on the Soul Cages Tour, 1991. Image credit: Alex Sánchez on Flickr Creative Commons.

There was a lot of talk earlier this year about Sting’s new Broadway musical, The Last Ship. I like Broadway shows and the songs are fine, but I don’t have a bajillion dollars to haul myself up to NYC to see it. But I can take solace and instead listen to what I think is Sting’s finest album that covers similar territory as the musical: The Soul Cages. Granted, this is not an upbeat album that you play at parties or dinners or bop around the house on a Sunday morning. This is a very strong conceptual album that is bold, riveting, and yeah, horribly depressing, but a fantastic piece of work.

The Soul Cages was written around the time that Sting’s father died — his previous album, Nothing Like the Sun, dedicated to his mother’s passing. But as where that album was still steeped in Sting’s forays into jazz, then The Soul Cages strips all musical pretensions and gets down to business of making a concept around fathers and sons, death, shipyards, and the sea.

Unlike some Police fans, I accepted Sting’s post-Synchronicity direction in the 1980s. His music became more overproduced, but I liked his songwriting, despite all the production. But as where his first two solo albums were jazzy, sing-songy, and wistfully pleasant, this album originated completely from another place and was unlike any other album that appeared in 1991. It missed the funk and horns from his previous works and used the music mainly as means to tell a story instead.

The album is built on a story of Billy and his father, an injured shipworker who is dying. It’s a loose story (maybe more like mood pieces), starting with the opening track, “Island of Souls.” It’s a luxurious, haunting song with keyboards and light guitar. It moves into “All This Time,” probably the greatest pop single to ever be written about the death of a parent (and there have been how many?). “All This Time” features bumbling priests, a jaded, dying father, and a question about whether there is a god or an afterlife, and does all this smartly. It’s such a likable song and melody, I can sing it for days and not feel depressed by it’s topic.

The theme veers away with “Mad About You” and “Jeremiah Blues, Pt. 2,” before jolting back into the second-best single ever about the death of a parent, “Why Should I Cry for You?” While the Grammy-winning title track is a great rock song and ties back to “Island of Souls” thematically, “The Wild Wild Sea” is a challenging track set right in the middle of the album. This is not an easy song. It meanders without percussion for awhile and has a very loose melody, telling the story of our narrator’s dream or vision of being lost at sea in a storm, only to piloted out by his dead father. It’s an emotionally riveting piece that starts quietly, the crescendos with the storm, and after the quiet solemn last verse throws us with narrator back out to sea:

If a prayer today is spoken
Please offer it for me
When the bridge to heaven is broken
And you’ve lost on the wild wild sea
Lost on the wild wild sea..”

It’s interesting that this is Sting’s only album where he doesn’t appear on the cover. Instead, he provides abstract cover art and a very solid concept album for us to make our own. Allmusic says “there are few entry points into The Soul Cages — and, once you get in there, it only rewards if your emotional state mirrors Sting’s.” I disagree. It is a powerful statement of loss and the struggle to right oneself’s through that last. Yes, it’s deeply introspective, but it’s very musical and can be funny, powerful, sad, and jolting all at once. There are, in fact, many entry points to The Soul Cages, with the right mood. Once there, you will be rewarded.

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