That Sting Dowland album

Amid all the hoo-ha (Scott has links) surrounding Sting’s new album of songs by the apparently obscure John Dowland (England’s greatest songwriter? Nope, never heard of him), ANABlog has a couple of taster tracks to listen to. And you know what – they’re alright. Not great, but well-intentioned stabs at some great music that everyone deserves to hear. No surprise there, then. But what did surprise me in my reaction is that I wish that Sting’s voice actually sounded more like Sting; unlike Jessica Duchen, for example, I sort of wish there were more breathy pop articulations – those are what makes Sting’s voice distinctive after all – rather than a poor impression of plummy Early Music Specialist Type A (I agree with Jessica though that the twangy vowels are off-putting). I think Dowland’s songs are robust enough to take plenty of roughness to the edges, and it’s a pity that Sting didn’t push that a bit himself. That said, the close mic’ed production on ‘Can she excuse my wrongs’ is way off. I hear what you were trying (some punky energy, no?), but the song’s too busy already for it to work.

Update 1: Jonathan Bellman has a few more thoughts on Sting’s vowels, and hits the nail with this one: “Sting, to my ear, is giving the songs such a careful, kid-glove kind of treatment that his natural enunciation has gone into slow motion.”

Update 2: Pliable believes this is nothing more than a commercial move on Sting’s part; an argument I I take issue with on two counts – 1) who’s bothered? Sting’s a commercial recording artist (as, for that matter is everyone who has recorded Dowland for money); 2) Sting could have done plenty more commercial things with his brand name. (John Dowland, however – now there’s the sell-out. A pox on him.)
Update 3: Guthry Trojan has some interesting points – maybe a folk recording approach might have worked better? Also, he has a fine response to Pliable, above:

I think it might be more revealing if we were to ask who was responsible for bringing Sting’s “labour of love, labour of curiosity” to the notice of Deutsche Grammophon. This, I imagine, is where the commercial exploitation begins – and it exploits Sting as much as the rest of us. An aging rocker, living a super-real life, whose lasting fame is founded on fickle, transitory pop music, is easy prey for a culture monger like DG.

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8 comments

  1. Just to link to the Stockhausen item below I half-expected Lauren Laverne (who er, interviewed Sting on the ‘culture show’ about these) to burst out laughing as he played one of his Dowland covers on the show.

  2. Listening to Sting perform on the CBS show, I thought he did sound like most of his post-Police work. He always has some odd vowel colors in his songs, they were just emphasized by the sparseness of the lute.

  3. I made mention on my blog (The Crunch) of the difficulity of approaching this kind of music through the medium of ‘pop sound’. Our expectations of how this repertoire should sound are governed by, and intrinsic to, our previous experience.
    Sting’s efforts might’ve been more laudable, or creditable, had he employed a more folky approach with a more acoustic, less overtly pop sound.

  4. I doubt very much that Sting could be considered “easy prey” – it’s not like he’s going to be working as a security guard five years from now muttering how DG chewed him up and spat him out.

    What’s more, DG and A&M, Sting’s regular label, are both owned by Universal Vivendi. I expect that if Sting fronted up to A&M with a classical album there would have been a swift decision higher up to release it on their prestigious sister label, which desperately needs a crossover hit for its struggling bottom line.

  5. VERY interested to hear what folk are saying about Sting’s kind of interesting take on John Dowland – it’s not boring, to say the least, and, as a classical singer and teacher, I find the performance of the white lily growing song really quite expressive. His elongated diphthongs are, however, hysterical, and none of my lute-playing colleagues have heard of his lute player, even though he’s billed as Europe’s foremost player…..

  6. I give Sting a lot of credit for trying something different. But his love of Dowland’s music should have remained as an ambitious hobby rather than a serious record release. Obviously no one in the Sting camp was capable of saying these two words, “Bad idea.” In this arena there are students in arts universities who could sing the same songs with more authenticiy, technique and passion. For me, one of the finest readings of Dowland was recorded by Alfred Deller, counter-tenor and Robert Spencer, lute, in 1978. Two volumes were recorded for Harmonia Mundi and are available on CD.

  7. What a load of pompous hooha. I love Dowland and have for years. I treasure my Anthony Rooley Emma Kirkby Consort of Music recordings.

    But the Sting is breathtaking, OK there are faults, but certain tracks really give me the tingles down the spine feeling.

    Opera singers doing crossover rarely works, but this is brilliant.

  8. The little I have heard of the album leads me to think that it is a nice try. His voice is OK, but not really up to it. As to pronunciation, he may not be as far off as many think. A modern-day pronunciation is definitely not right (although perhaps unavoidable, methinks) for 16th century English, so the oddities may actually be more suitable than many think. That said, I somehow doubt that Sting did any studying on the matter!


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