Sting's latest better with each listening Album review: Keep it on and "Mercury Falling" will keep revealing its charms.

March 12, 1996|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Mainstream pop tends to be about instant gratification, the immediate jolt of pleasure derived from an infectious rhythm and don't-bore-us, get-to-the-chorus songwriting. It isn't meant for rumination; instead, it plays to the gulp-and-go audience, listeners who don't have the time for anything more than a quick bite of sound. It's fast food for the ears.

That's fine as far as it goes, but there are a lot of listeners who'd like something a little more lasting. They hunger for depth and subtlety, for songs that have words in need of chewing over, music that begs to be savored.

What they want is something like the new Sting album, "Mercury Falling" (A&M 31454 0483, arriving in stores today).

It's an album you don't listen to so much as steep in, as it takes time for its full flavor to come through. But unlike much pop product, which loses luster as its novelty wears off, "Mercury Falling" seems to reveal something new with each listen. You could spend days on the thing without exhausting its charms.

That's not to say the album is without gut-level pop appeal. From the gospel-fired uplift of "Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot" to the whining pedal steel of "I'm So Happy I Could Cry," to the Stax-style pulse of "You Still Touch Me," the album is well-enough grounded in the pop vernacular to make any listener feel at home. Even when Sting gets adventurous, as on "I Hung My Head," with its loping 9/8 ostinato, or "La belle dame sans regrets," with its French lyrics and sophisticated bossa nova harmonies, each chorus remains easily accessible, ensuring that the most casual listener will have little trouble humming along.

The simple elegance of those melodies can be deceptive, though, for it gives no hint of the depths hidden below. "I Hung My Head," for instance, sounds for all the world like an old-style ballad, with a clockwork cadence to the verses, a typically tragic story line, and a nicely circular melody tying it all together.

But dig a bit, and you'll notice all sorts of subtle touches. Some are narrative devices, such as the rifle-crack snare shot that follows the verse in which the protagonist inadvertently kills a man, or the skittering acoustic guitar figure that underpins the description of the killer's flight; others are purely textural, such as the la-la-la vocal line buried in the first chorus, or the slow-building brass at the end of the song.

And there are probably some you won't notice until your 50th time through the song.

Sting's fondness for hidden meaning isn't just limited to the music, either, for "Mercury Falling" contains some of the craftiest lyrics of his career. Some of that depth has to do with the spiritual content of "I Hung My Head" and "Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot," but more often than not, what drives these songs is the sheer joy of wordplay.

Whether it's the meteorological metaphor of the changeable woman in "All Four Seasons," or the implied circularity of the album's beginning and ending with the same words ("mercury falling," of course), there's plenty to ponder on this album's lyric sheet.

At bottom, though, what makes "Mercury Falling" worth giving time to is that it invariably rewards the listener's efforts. It could be the multi-layered appeal of "La belle dame sans regrets" that does it, which tickles the ear with a deftly devised chord progression while coaxing the foot with quietly percolating Latin percussion; it could be the way "I Was Brought to My Senses" slips from Celtic melancholy into the lush Brazilian cadences of its chorus. Or it could be the challenge of unraveling the ethnic influences in "Valparaiso," which evokes Northumbrian balladry, Andean folk music and Cuban jazz without quite quoting any of them.

Regardless of what snags your attention, rest assured there's more where that came from. All that's needed is the patience to find it.

Pub Date: 3/12/96

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