Sting seemed to tire of pop songs sometime early in the 21st century, wandering away from the format after 2003's well-mannered Sacred Love. Over the next 13 years, he entertained his esoteric interests -- he collaborated on a classical album, he rearranged his old tunes for an orchestra, he reunited the Police, he wrote a musical -- before he returned to pop/rock with 2016's 57th & 9th. The fact that he named this comeback album after the intersection he crossed on his way to the studio speaks to the workmanlike aspect of 57th & 9th: there is no grand concept, no unifying aesthetic -- it's merely a collection of pop songs.
Across the last three decades or so, Sting has led one of the more interesting careers in popular music. Between New Age and world music-informed releases like 1993’s massive Ten Summoner’s Tales (which was carried by the adult contemporary classic “Fields of Gold”), Brand New Day in 1999 (which featured the unforgettable single “Desert Rose”), and the lute-centric Songs from the Labyrinth, it seemed like the guy who sang “Roxanne” and “Message in a Bottle” had forgotten how to rock. That feeling, though, makes his latest record, 57th & 9th, such an unexpected joy.
It's been ages since Sting even seemed to conceive of himself as a rock artist, which is why his straight-ahead new LP is so surprising: 57th & 9th is a no-lute zone. You'd have to go all the way back to "Born in the 50's," from the very first Police album, to hear him sing over guitars as rough as the ones on the lonely-horn-dog anthem "I Can't Stop Thinking About You" or the no-frills driving banger "Petrol Head. " The highlight "50,000" offers a clue to this newfound urgency; over guitarist Dominic Miller's dark chords, Sting pays tribute to Prince, recalling ecstatic stadium shows, then flashes to a bathroom-mirror vision of his own mortality: "These lines of stress, one bloodshot eye/The unhealthy pallor of a troubled ghost.
Named after the location of the Manhattan studio in which it was recorded, 57th & 9th is Sting’s first rock album in years. I Can’t Stop Thinking About You has the punchy chorus and driving bass of the Police circa 1980, while If You Can’t Love Me has an echo of the creepy narrator of Every Breath You Take. There’s a strong whiff of the 1980s, too, on the Wembley-sized plod of 50,000, a song about the absurdities of being an aged rock star: “Where did I put my spectacles case?” The start of Sting’s career is the subject of Heading South on the Great North Road, on which he is accompanied by a single acoustic guitar, a moment of respite from the album’s bluster.