A review of Sting's CD, which resurrects the music of John Dowland (1563-1626)
|With his latest release, Sting departs the world of 21st-century pop and instead delves into the musical discourse of the 17th-century. Both enchanting and relaxing, Songs from the Labyrinth illuminates a very different side of the pop icon’s musical demeanor, and transports the listener into a musical realm not often visited by the modern masses.
Resurrecting the music of composer John Dowland (1563-1626), Songs from the Labyrinth features not only some of Dowland’s songs, but also extracts from an autobiographical letter. Sting’s readings of various fragments of Dowland’s letter are interspersed with the songs on the album, creating an enriching experience and intriguing (albeit limited) view into both the musician’s life and 17th-century Europe.
Sting’s interest in and fascination with music from this time period was sparked when he received a lute (an old-style acoustic guitar) as a gift. While the former Police front man does play the lute in a couple of the songs on the album, his primary performance centers on the vocals, while Edin Karamazov leads on the lute. (For anyone wondering what a lute sounds like: if you’ve ever been to the Renaissance Fair, or have heard Robin’s minstrels in Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail, then you have a general idea of the style of the music and its main instrument.)
Songs from the Labyrinth certainly captures magically and soulfully charged renditions of Dowland’s creations, but the album is not without its flaws. Sting’s vocal talent seems to be pushed beyond its boundaries during certain songs, and his legendary raspy voice mutes at times the more finely tuned and subtle emotional layers woven into Dowland’s creations. Whatever technical skills Sting lacks in his vocals, however, he more than compensates for with his love and passion for the work, which are abundantly evident throughout his performance. In some ways, too, Sting’s renditions seem to bestow a more comforting feeling: not because it’s Sting in particular, but specifically because he doesn’t have the well-trained and polished vocal range. This difference makes the songs feel more personal, as if a friend or significant other were singing, and not some world-famous pop singer.
Overall, the album succeeds in offering a snap shot of a historical period and truly bringing it to life. It’s not just that the songs are enjoyable to listen to; they evoke a sense of wonderment and provide transportation into an unfamiliar world. The music sounds beautiful in its simplicity, and its simplicity is what allows the emotional aspects of the songs to thrive. As an additional treat and a nice final touch, the CD comes with a booklet, where Sting describes how the album came about, gives some insight into Dowland’s life, and discusses the songs themselves.
While some would say that there are other albums that deliver better or more proper renditions of Dowland’s creations, Songs from the Labyrinth remains almost more important or more powerful for one reason: Sting. People, who perhaps never thought they would like 16th- or 17th-century music, or never even gave a thought to it, may be riveted by this “new” genre of music, determined to learn more about it. If Sting’s latest helps to educate and inform a few people from several generations, then the minor shortcomings of his performance can certainly be overlooked. Plus, he deserves credit for genuinely pursuing something close to his heart, even though many – including some of his avid fans – may deem the album a ridiculous trifle.
Inspiring, whimsical, melancholic, poignant, and positively captivating, Songs from the Labyrinth definitely deserves a listen, both by those who do and do not typically enjoy Sting's work. As Sting himself describes Dowland’s compositions, “...they are pop songs, written around 1600, and I relate to them in that way; beautiful melodies, fantastic lyrics, and great accompaniments.” What more could one ask for?