Saturday, May 3, 2014

Sting’s Compelling Solo Debut Is More Than The Dream Of The Blue Turtles!

The Good: Lyrics, Vocals, Musical accompaniment still pops
The Bad: VERY short, Dated
The Basics: Sting’s debut solo album, The Dream Of The Blue Turtles is a powerfully political pop album . . . if one is still stuck in the mid-1980s!

Sting lies. I mean, he probably does not lie all of the time, but in a recent documentary I watched, he sure lied. In Poliwood (reviewed here!), Sting tells director Barry Levinson that he layers his political songs with allegory, not naming names or specific situations when he writes a political song. He did claim there was an exception in his body of work, for a song about Pinochet. Perhaps this was a stance he developed, but originally, he sure did name names and write very specific political songs. Going back to his solo debut album, The Dream Of The Blue Turtles, songs like “Russians” where Sting calls out both Reagan and Khrushchev by name.

For a debut album, The Dream Of The Blue Turtles is ambitious in every way save duration. Sting, as he left the band The Police, did not come to his solo career with a wealth of songs ready to go, apparently. The Dream Of The Blue Turtles is short, specific and frequently murky-sounding for pop music. At the same time, Sting is distinctly Sting on The Dream Of The Blue Turtles and that makes the album very listenable for all those who love his works (solo and with the Police). In fact, The Dream Of The Blue Turtles is one of the better debut albums for illustrating how a musical artist’s career would actually progress. In other words, Sting starts out making the music he seemed to want to make on his own (even if it is not terribly different from the music The Police were making).

With only ten songs, clocking out at 41:40, the biggest strike against The Dream Of The Blue Turtles is that it is short. Sting managed to begin his solo career as an artist who seemed to have extensive creative control over his work. Sting wrote the music and lyrics to all ten songs (though he used some of Prokofiev’s music in “Russians”). As well, sting provides all of the lead vocals and he plays guitar and/or bass on each track. Sting also co-produced the album, so it’s hard to say The Dream Of The Blue Turtles was what Sting wanted to create at the time.

Musically, the songs on The Dream Of The Blue Turtles are very much pop songs, but they have a quality to them that is different from other pop music of the time (and certainly now). Songs like “Fortress” and “Moon Over Bourbon Street” are infused with keyboards, bass, and saxophone in such a way that they create a murky sound that obscures some of the vocals. In this way, Sting actually seems like a precursor to trip hop music on some of the songs on The Dream Of The Blue Turtles. When the album is not being upbeat-sounding, obvious pop songs like “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free” or the repetitive ballads like “Children’s Crusade,” the songs are actually deep and rich in sound that makes The Dream Of The Blue Turtles sound surprisingly fresh even now.

Stings vocals on The Dream Of The Blue Turtles are mostly clear. His voice remains in the tenor range on The Dream Of The Blue Turtles and one his social message songs, he enunciates perfectly in order to make his messages clear. He has good lung capacity on “Children’s Crusade” and “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free,” but otherwise, the album has vocals that are unlikely to surprise anyone who has heard Sting perform with The Police or on subsequent albums.

Lyrically, The Dream Of The Blue Turtles is a fairly diverse album. The songs are largely political, though there are some personal/emotional songs as well. “Russians” stands out for its politics and liberal philosophizing. Sting reduces the Cold War to two impossible to defend sides that he nevertheless tries to humanize with lines like “How can I save my little boy from Oppenheimer's deadly toy / There is no monopoly in common sense / On either side of the political fence / We share the same biology / Regardless of ideology / Believe me when I say to you / I hope the Russians love their children too” (“Russians”). Hearing the way Sting tries to illustrate how neither side is as monolithic as they appeared, one has to wish that Sting had written something about terrorists in recent years to try to combat the dehumanizing rhetoric used against their fanatical methods.

Sting isn’t against singing about relationships on The Dream Of The Blue Turtles. “Love Is The Seventh Wave” and “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free” both have Sting singing about how people relate to one another. But the best of the relationship songs on The Dream Of The Blue Turtles might well be “Fortress Around Your Heart.” When Sting sings “Then I went off to fight some battle / That I'd invented inside my head / Away so long for years and years / You probably thought or even wished that I was dead / While the armies are all sleeping / Beneath the tattered flag we'd made / I had to stop in my track for fear / Of walking on the mines I'd laid”(“Fortress Around Your Heart”), he creates a vivid image of emotional distance in the face of love that makes for a compelling song.

On “We Work The Black Seam,” Sting sings about environmental and economic issues that were actually talked about thirty years ago that no longer are spoken or sung about in popular or political discourse. Indeed, while some of the songs are very dated, the themes embodied by the lines “One day in a nuclear age / They may understand our rage / They build machines that they can't control / And bury the waste in a great big hole / Power was to become cheap and clean / Grimy faces were never seen / But deadly for twelve thousand years is carbon fourteen / We work the black seam together” (“We Work The Black Seam”) remain as compelling now as they did when The Dream Of The Blue Turtles was first released.

Ultimately, The Dream Of The Blue Turtles is a strong debut and one that one wishes either there was more of or had more of a universal quality to it. As it stands, it is one of the defining albums of the mid-1980s and because it has so many specific allusions to that period, it sounds like exactly what it is.

For other works featuring Sting or The Police, please visit my reviews of:
If On A Winter’s Night...
Songs From The Labyrinth
Fields Of Gold: The Best Of Sting 1984 - 1994
Sacred Love
Every Breath You Take: The Singles - The Police


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page where the albums are organized from best to worst!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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