We’re at the halfway mark, folks. Intermission time, as they say in the theater. And Sting dutifully obliges by providing an appropriate musical passage – the equivalent of our seventh-inning stretch – in “Saint Agnes and the Burning Train.” He (on bass) and Dominic Miller (on acoustic guitar) take turns serenading the listener with this ethereal, classically-based interlude, a soothing if slightly melancholy diversion from the “godless sea,” “mountains of endless falling” and doom-laden “dark angels” of the previous number.
This is followed by the seventh track, “The Wild Wild Sea,” a song that “manages to exhibit latter-day sea shanty possibilities,” according to Q magazine’s Peter Kane. Sure enough, Sting’s love of literary language and British romantic poetry (Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” readily comes to mind) manifest themselves to the fullest in this winding, winnowing showpiece:
I saw it again this evening,
Black sail in a pale yellow sky
And just as before in a moment,
It was gone where the grey gulls fly.
If it happens again I shall worry
That only a strange ship could fly
And my sanity scans the horizon
In the light of a darkening sky
As part of the CD’s packaging, the accompanying booklet includes a color reproduction of a black-sail ship against a pale yellow sky amid the maritime expanse, as described above. In fact, all of the paintings (credited to artist Stephen Campbell) serve to contextualize the songwriter’s lyrics in a way that never detracts from, but instead enhances, our enjoyment of them.
But we’re not out of the woods yet. Sting talks of plunging into the ocean’s depths (“That night I walked in my slumber / I waded into the sea strand / And I swam with the moon and her lover / Until I lost sight of the land”). Guitars and synthesizer sounds swirl all around him, like hungry gulls skimming the crest for sustenance. After swimming all night, he finds himself on the deck of the self-same black-sail ship:
All around me was silence
As if mocking my frail human hopes
And a question mark hung in the canvas
For the wind that had died in the ropes
Enough ropes to hang oneself? Possibly, but not until he finds what he’s been searching for:
Did I see the shade of a sailor
On the bridge through the wheelhouse pane
Held fast to the wheel of the rocking ship
As I squinted my eyes in the rain
For the ship had turned into the wind
Against the storm to brace
And underneath the sailor’s hat
I saw my father’s face
Now we know: Sting was seeking his poor dead father – to see him, to be with him, for a precious few moments or two, and for old time’s sake. Will he stay by his side, forever? The last lines provide the key:
If a prayer today is spoken
Please offer it for me
When the bridge to heaven is broken
And you’re lost on the wild wild sea
You’re lost on the wild wild sea…
There’s no going back. “You’re lost on the wild wild sea” is repeated, over and over, the drum-pounding taking over the rhythm, the electric guitars pulling the theme along in the manner of the lyrical ropes mentioned above. Just then, as the music begins to die away with the verse, the Northumbrian pipes are heard in the distance – reminding us that all is not lost, that life goes on as before. Well, maybe not as before, but it will go on. One day our loved ones will join us in death, Sting is saying, his voice spare, lean and stark against the rising tide.
Catharsis and Apotheosis
With the emergence of the title tune, “The Soul Cages,” all hell breaks loose, musically speaking. No longer fenced in by the songwriter’s sonic restrictions, the musicians are set free to blast away in a veritable free-for-all. Manu Katché takes the lead as the driving force of this, the most impressive cut on the album. It’s the only place where Sting purposely emphasizes his British accent, the nasal, twang-filled discourse of a Newcastle native – proud, deliberate, defiant – throwing caution to the winds, drawing the listener into his world, the world of a “boy child… locked in the fisherman’s yard.”
Where is the fisherman, where is the goat?
Where is the keeper in his carrion coat?
Eclipse on the moon when the dark bird flies
Where is the child with his father’s eyes?
Yes, dear listener, where is that child? And for that matter, where is his father? Why, they’re right here, “in the cage with me,” claims Davy Jones, in this patented Dante-inspired vision of a seagoing Inferno:
These are the souls of the broken factories
The subject slaves of the broken crown
The dead accounting of old guilty promises
These are the souls of the broken town
It’s the theme of “Island of Souls,” of the “broken factories” of aging shipbuilders, of reality breaking in on the band’s frolic for one last go-around, with the reedy oboe in lieu of those unnerving pipes. The same lyrics are interposed as well, so there’s no missing the point (“He dreamed of the ship on the sea / It would carry his father and he / To a place they could never be found / To a place far away from this town / A Newcastle ship without coals / They would sail to the island of souls”). This is Sting’s rock anthem, and by all rights the CD should wrap it up here. But it doesn’t. What comes next is the most perplexing, most offbeat number of all: a morose, dirge-like downer of a ballad, the track “When the Angels Fall.”
What possessed the man to do this? Why not end this tribute to dear old dad on a more upbeat note? There was a time when I couldn’t bear to listen to this number. I used to program my compact disc player to bypass mode, looping it back to the opening “Island of Souls” instead of plowing through this depressing piece. In recent years, however, I’ve opened myself up to its hidden treasures. Lord, this is a gorgeous setting of a masterfully composed song! It’s taken me “all this time” (tongue planted firmly in my cheek) to appreciate the myriad sonorities and psycho-acoustic properties inherent in it.
As the longest cut on the album, it provides us with the catharsis one needs in order to form a concise opinion of what went on before. “When the Angels Fall” takes the form of a sermon (echoing the earlier “All This Time” with its priestly visitors), and is the most overtly “spiritual” of Sting’s musical missives. Symbols abound and recur from previous tracks: of angels watching over us as we sleep, of seagulls soaring in a cloudless sky, of “shadows on the wall” and other references to death and dying:
Take your father’s cross
Gently from the wall
A shadow still remaining
See the churches fall
All of this in minor key, with keyboards and guitars gently permeating the air, with voices from other songs (especially “Island of Souls” and “Why Should I Cry For You?”) wading in and out of the sound-scape. Finally, we reach an apotheosis, the culmination of Sting’s vision of the afterlife:
These are my feet
These are my hands
These are my children
And this is my demand
Bring down the angels
Cast them from my sight
I never want to see
A million suns at midnight
The image of the redeemer (“These are my feet / these are my hands”), which is indicative of Christ’s showing of his wounds to a skeptical flock of Doubting Thomases, clashes with our contemporary notions of an all-loving, all-forgiving godhead. What he demands of his people, then, is more problematic. It’s not the demons he wishes us to cast out, Sting tells us, but the fallen angels, knowing full well that Lucifer (Satan’s former self) was once the Prince of Angels, before he was cast down to earth for fomenting rebellion (“Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven,” per Milton’s Paradise Lost), in another of Sting’s many literary allusions.
Again, mirroring “Island of Souls” and its lyrical construct, the singer’s voice rises in agony and scale, reaching the height of torment as the song shifts into high gear (and switches to a major key) for its concluding thoughts:
Your hands are empty
The streets are empty
You can’t control us
You can’t control us anymore
When the angels fall
When the angels fall
Droning on ad nauseam for several minutes, this brilliantly executed coda, in addition to Miller’s quasi-cavaquinho-like guitar mode (very Brazilian sounding, I might add, and book-ending “Island of Souls” quite nicely) and Manu’s lightly tapped rim shots, ends softly – just as The Soul Cages began – with the simplest of sign-offs, i.e., Sting tossing off a casual “Good night” to his audience.
I’ve held back many of my comments to keep this analysis down to human proportions. I could go on and on, though, extolling the virtues of Sting’s most personal recorded statement. But I’d rather leave it to readers to come to their own conclusions about The Soul Cages. I’ll be going back to it soon, I assure you. It’s that good.
All songs were written and arranged by Sting © 1990 Magnetic Publishing, Ltd./Blue Turtle Music (ASCAP)
Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes