If making a successful rock and roll album was simply a matter of following a formula, Sting's new album, "The Soul Cages" (A&M7502 16405), which was released yesterday , would be a recipe for disaster.
It isn't that the music is bad. Even though few of the nine songs collected here boast the sort of insinuating immediacy that made his work with the Police so radio-ready, Sting's swirling blend of styles -- everything from rock to jazz to R&B to Caribbean pop -- is nothing if not listenable.
Listen closely, though, and what Sting sings about is anything but typical hit-parade material. Whether he's forecasting the demise of civilization, as he does in the biting "Jeremiah Blues (Part 1)," or being haunted by the death of his father, as he is in "Why Should I Cry for You?" and the title tune, Sting's lyrical focus could hardly be called upbeat, much less light-hearted.
It's bad enough that the album's only love song, "Mad About You," describes romantic passion in terms of desperate insanity. But even the single -- the cheerily melodic "All This Time" -- can't stay awayfrom the big issues, wrestling as it does with death and religion.
Can't this guy just write a simple pop song?
Well, sure he can. But what makes "The Soul Cages" so captivating is that Sting manages to convey most of the pleasures of a simple pop song -- the engaging rhythm, the hummable tune -- without making the album seem overly simplistic.
If anything, the songs collected here practically beg to be debated and dissected, argued over and analyzed. Part of that stems from the lyrics, which convey all the intelligence of his earlier albums but none of the name-dropping ostentation.
Rather than try to impress us with allusions to Shakespeare and Jung, Sting lets his language speak for itself -- and as a result, his lyrics almost sing. "All This Time" seems a particularly apt example, being filled almost to bursting with vivid imagery and wonderfully poetic language, yet Sting never makes a show of its verbal virtuosity. Instead, he keeps our attention focused on the sound of the song, not in hopes of distracting us from its meaning, but so the music's whimsy is what colors our understanding of the words.
It's not an obvious way to make pop music, but then, "The Soul Cages" is not an obvious pop album. Certainly, it has enough pop appeal to reward the casual listener, but considering how much more these songs have to offer, it's hard to imagine why anyone would want to give them only half an ear.