How Sting Built The Soul Cages 30 Years Ago

Looking back at the Policeman’s understated triumph as songpoet and stealth-progger

Sting ’91 (Art: Ron Hart)

The Soul Cages stands as both Sting’s deepest excursion into singer / songwriter territory with a capital “S” up to that time and the stealth-prog album some always suspected he had in him. 

Three decades after its release, with Sting approaching septuagenarian status, it stands up as moment when his artistic ability proved equal to his lofty ambition. In other words, he made his pretensions pay off like never before or since. 

On the singer/songwriter side (to use the term in a strictly idiomatic sense), The Soul Cages marks the first time Sting fully divorced himself from his Police-era approach to writing. Sure, there were plenty of arty, harmonically sophisticated pieces on his first two solo records, but there were also songs with more groove-based settings that you could imagine as part of the Police continuum. 

Sting The Soul Cages, A&M 1991

There are none of those holdovers from Sting’s previous life here. Opinions will vary as to whether that’s a good or bad thing, but Sting stands or falls here as a man owing nothing to his past. And even his artiest applications of craft on The Soul Cages feel more organic than they did his previous couple of times at bat. 

Stylistically, Sting’s M.O. seems closer to the contemporaneous output of Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell or even Leonard Cohen than anything else. The free-flowing phrasing and poetic language spilling out over a solid rhythmic base on the album’s biggest single, “All This Time,” sure seems to suggest some quality time spent assimilating Simon’s Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints. On “Mad About You,” the dark, romantic-but-stately vibe and the arrangement’s mix of synths and vaguely ethnic exotica calls Cohen’s I’m Your Man to mind. And the jazzy extrapolations and open-ended feel of “The Wild Wild Sea” might not have sounded out of place on Mitchell’s Night Ride Home.

 

VIDEO: Sting “All This Time”

A strong case can also be made for The Soul Cages as a sneaky sashay into prog territory. First of all, it’s a freakin’ concept album. Something about Sting’s late father always wanting to be a sailor — don’t worry about it, he probably made more sense of the maritime themes when he wrote his musical, The Last Ship, a couple of decades later. It makes more sense than Jethro Tull did on Thick as a Brick, and that’s a masterpiece, so there you go.

Then there’s the stylishly inscrutable cover art, for which Sting commissioned hotshot Scottish painter Steven Campbell and wound up with something that sort of looks like the front of a science fiction novel about shipbuilding. Or a robot laying an egg. Or something. Again, don’t worry about it — it would have worked just fine as a Yes cover, and that’s all you need to know.

 

VIDEO: Sting MTV Unplugged 1991

Now, The Soul Cages doesn’t may not offer much in the way of dazzling solos or tricky time signatures. But the atmospheric washes, elegant, agile melodies, and jazz-informed changes on tracks like “When the Angels Fall” and the aforementioned “Wild Wild Sea” — not to mention the nylon-string guitar instrumental “Saint Agnes and the Burning Train” and the preponderance of songs in the six-to-seven-minute range — all stand as evidence of Sting’s fully-minted status as the official art-rock auteur he probably always wanted to be underneath his pop-star ambitions.

But none of the above would add up to much if The Soul Cages didn’t work as a piece of music. The singles — “Mad About You,” “All This Time,” the teary ballad “Why Should I Cry For You,” and the more muscular, rocking title track — all stand up and walk around under their own power. And the whole thing flows in a way that’s hypnotic enough to pull you in and substantive enough to keep you interested.

Naysayers might not be willing/able to set aside their prejudices long enough to see it, but in terms of balancing artistic goals with accessibility, The Soul Cages just might be the ultimate Sting album.

 

 

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