For the past ten years, as the first wisps of fall fill the air, I have changed my listening habits. Packed away are the classic rock anthems that seem to go best when summer's high, out come the more melancholic stuff. The two CDs I most associate with this time of year are David Bowie's ...hours and Sting's Brand New Day.
Coming three years after “Mercury Falling,” Brand New Day (BND) was the return of Happy Sting. For many, the 1996 Mercury Falling was a somber collection. Yes, it had its downer songs—what Sting CD doesn’t?—but his Motown influences certainly made the CD unique among Sting’s oeuvre. You can't miss the lightness with BND. If you’re like me, most of Sting’s music reminds me of seasons and weather. If Mercury Falling was a “winter” CD, BND is full of that late summer, early autmn vibe. Musically and lyrically, Sting was in a sunny, warm, and often inviting place.
Coming mere weeks before the millennial calendar change, Sting channeled the anniversary with his first track, “A Thousand Years.” Not one to shy away from grandiose themes, Sting’s meditative singing is almost a devotion to love and longing. Evoking lovers who exist in some sort of transcendental plane not our own, Sting sings of love lost, regained, and cherished. If the album BND is a summer day, “A Thousand Years” is the darkness before the dawn.
If BND is known for one thing, it’s “Desert Rose” (introduced to the world via the Jaguar commercial). The compelling, fast-paced song is intoxicating in its rhythms, beats, and feel. Cheb Mami, an Algerian vocalist, sings the Arabic lyrics that act as counterpoint to Sting’s English lyrics. Interestingly, when Sting asked Mami if he’d like to sing with him, he sent Mami the instrumental track. Both men listened and wrote essentially the same song. How’s that for synchronicity? (Ba dam ching.) This is a happy, fun song, even if the lyrics speak to the lost. More than one critic, in 1999 and beyond, have noted the over synthesized nature of BND. It’s certainly here in “Desert Rose,” but the layers merely add to the overall effect of what is, in my opinion, the best song on the album. I’d rank it in the top two or three of all time. Here's the video from his live concert.
If there is a secret weapon on BND, it’s trumpeter Chris Botti. For Sting, jazz has always been a major influence on his music (remember Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland in the 80s?) and one of his jazz heroes is Miles Davis. With Botti, playing with a Harmon mute, dancing in and out of the shadows of songs, Sting is essentially playing with Davis’s heir. Botti first shows himself in “Big Lie, Small World,” a nice little Brazilian song. Botti’s trumpet flits in and around the melody, sometimes complimenting a lyric, other times doing his own thing. He closes out the song with a solo that, in 1999, had me scrambling for the liner notes to figure out just who this guy was. On tour, Botti played on almost every tune, bringing nuances to the songs that I don't think Sting knew existed. Brilliant trumpeter who knows that silences and rests are just as important as thousands of notes. I have followed his career ever since.
The remainder of the album has the types of songs you’d expect from Sting’s experiemental mind. “After the Rain Has Fallen,” with its call for a life of adventure and romance, is a story song not unlike “The Pirate’s Bride,” a European-only cut from the previous album. With tongue firmly in cheek, Sting sings from a dog’s POV (for the second time; bonus points if you know the first time*) in “Perfect Love Gone Wrong.” Botti’s all over this song. In a fun treat, when the POV shifts to the dog’s owner, the music not only shifts from its jazzy jaunt to deep funk but the lyrics are rapped in French (by a female vocalist). Yeah, really, but it works. “Tomorrow We’ll See” has Sting singing about a prostitute, bringing out his clever use of vocabulary, rhythm, and rhyming. Sting returns to his country & western vein (that he tried out on Mercury Falling’s “I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying”) with “Fill Her Up. It’s a fun, up-tempo tune with steel guitar, fiddle, cat calls and a gorgeous backing choir. If you could say any song is jarring, it’s this one. Not to say it’s bad; it’s just a little off-putting when you’re in music and rhythms that are decidedly European in origin to be jettisoned to Memphis, Tennessee. The message, however, is all Sting: pure optimistic joy at the power of love.
Effervescent, joyous, jubilant, infectious, “Brand New Day” is one those quintessential Sting songs. You can’t help but smile as the song just bops along while Sting tries to get all the words out of his mouth in time and on beat. Stevie Wonder contributes harmonica on the album, something Sting mimics during the tour. As the song fades away, the theme from “A Thousand Years” returns, bookending a fantastic CD. With its exhortations of turning the clock to zero to start a brand new day, it’s no wonder Sting sang this song at midnight of 1 January 2000 in New York’s Times Square.
There isn’t a Sting album I don’t’ like. The first album, The Dream of the Blue Turtles, is a milestone in my musical evolution as I was introduced to jazz in a big way. "Nothing Like the Sun" and "Ten Sumner’s Tales" are classic examples of nearly perfect pop records that speak to love and world issues. Brand New Day can sit right besides those albums. While it’s not as perfect as those first three, it’s a very good piece of music by one of the more erudite and searching songwriters of our times.
The Brand New Day Era was capped with a concert he performed at his home on 11 September 2001. If you remember, he was to simulcast the concert on the 11th via the internet, with many of the BND songs reworked and reinterpreted. In preparation of this event, Sting had a documentary crew film him and his band. The resulting DVD, “All This Time,” showed the rehearsals and gathering of friends, family, and fans at Sting’s Italian home. We know what they didn’t: the attacks were coming. It’s fascinating to watch artists deal with the violence in their own way. In the concert that night, Sting chose to play a reimagined “Fragile” as a tribute to the victims. Here’s the video. What follows, on the DVD, is proof of the things Sting sings about: the power of music and love to deal with unimaginable grief. As the concert progresses, song by song (truncated though it was by the exclusion of certain stables like “Desert Rose” and “Englishman in New York”) you see and hear this band of musicians and audience members find joy despite sorrow and power through music. As much as the song “Fragile” was dedicated to the victims of the attacks, the rest of the concert was as well. For the reworked songs, the DVD (and CD) is worth the price. For the joy you will get by the concert’s end, that’s priceless.
Extras, part 2:
In 1999, many songs found themselves remixed for discotheques all over the world. Usually, this entailed putting backbeats to the song, no matter the original rhythm. Some of the Brand New Day tracks have that. “A Thousand Years” is different. Bill Laswell takes the nearly six-minute song and *doubles* it’s running time. The opening is orchestral, introducing the theme with Middle Eastern effects subtly playing in the background. Back beats do start and Sting’s wispy voice seemed even more ethereal here. But it’s Chris Botti’s trumpet that get all the glory. The vocals end with over four minutes left, leaving Botti time to play with the melody. One could argue that this version of the song should have made the album.
*1987’s “Conversation with a dog,” available on the “We’ll Be Together” single.