Sitting at home with my parents on a quiet Sunday evening days before Christmas, we found the ten o'clock news followed by a live session from Sting in New York, a performance of his new album The Last Ship. To me, Sting was that bloke from The Police who went on to write some fairly pleasant pop-rock songs likely to be heard on BBC Radio 2 on a Sunday afternoon. I've never been a fan, nor really taken any interest in the man's work, but this performance struck me immediately as something I wanted to hear again. I was taken.
The Last Ship presents a gorgeous celtic folk style not incomparable to the likes of Capercaillie and even, at times, the gentle harmoniousness of Simon & Garfunkel. From the triple-time title track reminiscent of old Irish drinking songs and sea shanties, to the gorgeous stagey ballad So To Speak featuring the spine-tingling whispering vocals of Becky from The Unthanks and the epic tribute to the great engineer Brunel in Ballad of The Great Eastern, the twelve-track is an eclectic blend of styles and stories invoking a wide range of feelings and the sense of an epic story being told. I enjoyed and welcomed the unusual accompanying of celtic harmonies with the thick Tyneside accents of Sting and his Geordie guests, which include Jimmy Nail of Auf Wiedersehen Pet fame and even Brian Johnson. Helped by these local voices and Sting's tangibly strong emotional connection to the story of the shipyards, this album feels incredibly authentic from start to finish.
Personal favourites of mine are the title track The Last Ship and the breathtakingly beautiful So To Speak, a first-person view on the controversial issue of euthanasia set against the maritime metaphor of a ship that has "already sailed". It should be noted in listening that the album was written for a play, opening later this year on Broadway, and while some songs such as So To Speak seem a little out of place without their stage context, in general the album stands well as a separate and self-contained entity, tied together by the shipyard theme. The one song that really stood out for me from the beginning, however, is Language of Birds. Here the combination of maritime or celtic jigs and heart-plucking ballads found in the rest of the collection gives way to a deep, suspenseful and progressive mood. Largely bass and percussion heavy, but overlaid with poetic lyrics about caged birds and a simply gorgeous celtic violin melody recurring throughout and mirrored in murmuring choral vocals at the end, this track certainly forms a stark contrast to everything else, and I adore it. Overall, this is one of those albums that needs be heard from start to finish to be appreciated, and my words cannot really do it justice. All I can say in conclusion is that I learned a lot about both the man himself and the history of ship-building on the Tyne, and that I was moved by the music. It is celtic folk at its absolute best, but with added Broadway stage presence and a wonderful authentic story.