“More than two decades into his solo career” (Paulin), and with “over 20 million CDs in the US” (ArtistDirect.com), “Sting's musical explorations have already taken him farther afield than” (Paulin) “fans of the Police's bouncy, ska-inflected new wave” (CdUniverse.com) “could have predicted. Even so, his latest venture comes as a surprise, and ultimately quite a pleasant one” (Paulin). “Sting reaches back across the centuries to interpret songs by John Dowland (1563-1626), one of the greatest composers of Elizabethan England” (Paulin), who was known as “the ‘melancholy madrigalist’” (Roden). “The exercise may not be to everyone's taste, it is further testament to the stylistic range and ambition of this 20th-century pop icon” (CdUniverse.com).
“Originally inspired by the gift of a lute” (Roden), Sting’s interpretations of Dowland’s work do “not mix pop or genre elements with Dowland's compositions” (CdUniverse.com), but are “faithful to the originals in spirit and sound, and historically accurate in execution and instrumentation. Sting sings, plays guitar” (CdUniverse.com) and is “joined only by the exquisite lute playing of Edin Karamazov” (Paulin) “on a set of Dowland's haunting, minor-key madrigals with their equally haunting lyrics” (CdUniverse.com). Karamazov “also solos on some of Dowland's meditative lute pieces” (Paulin) and there are also “a few short recitations from an autobiographical letter Dowland wrote in 1595” (ArtistDirect.com).
“Casual pronouncements are made every so often that the lute songs (the lute is a plucked stringed instrument, an early cousin to the guitar) and madrigals of Elizabethan and Jacobean England were the popular music of their day. And Sting, who alludes to the likes of Vladimir Nabokov in his lyrics, is hardly uneducated in the legacy of fine arts, and he has a certain cerebral, inward sadness that matches the dominant mood of English music around 1600 well enough. Thus some might easily have thought it would be a short leap from Sting's own music to the lute songs of John Dowland” (Manheim).
“But the leap is anything but short, and Sting gets credit for having thought out fully the problems in making it” (Manheim). For one, “listeners [may be more] accustomed to hearing material of this period interpreted by rigorously trained early music stylists… [instead of] Sting's sometimes tight-jawed, chest-heavy vocals” (Roden), or his ‘unschool tenor’” (Manheim), as “pianist Katia Labèque, one of the classical musicians who introduced Sting to Dowland's music” (Manheim) called it. “In four-part harmonies, the singer, tightly overdubbed, comes across like a combination of the Swingle Singers and Queen (meaning Freddy Mercury and crew, NOT the first Elizabeth)” (Roden).
Another hurdle “is the great divide between rock (and other traditions ultimately rooted in Africa) and the European tradition: speaking in generalities, the former prizes "noise" — sound extraneous to the pitch and to the intended timbre of an instrument or voice — as a structural element, whereas in the latter it is strenuously eliminated. Sting's voice has plenty of ‘noise.’ The listener oriented toward classical music will object to its being there; the rock listener, noting that Sting is singing very quietly, may wonder why there isn't more of it” (Manheim).
“Why, then, does this album work well on the whole?” (Manheim). First, consider that although his voice “may seem amateurish” (Roden), Sting is “displaying heartfelt admiration for the composer and a considerable degree of earnest charm” (Roden). “It is a courageous effort” (Roden).
Also, “Dowland's songs are not really difficult” (Manheim). “Music of this period was routinely heard as a casual diversion in private homes, even more often than at Court. It was considered a crucial social skill to be able to join in with an adequate degree of skill, but not everyone was able to negotiate the perilous melodic twists and turns typical of the era's music” (Roden). “With this in mind, the overall effect is of a candle-lit, postprandial entertainment in the home of an English gentleman” (Roden).
It’s also important to note that “Sting took 20 years to think about how to interpret the refined melancholy of Dowland songs like Come, Heavy Sleep. His booklet notes tell the long story of how he happened to make this album, and it's quite an interesting one, involving a ‘labyrinth’ of encounters with Labèque, with the Bosnian lutenist Edin Karamazov, who performs on this album, with a friend who gave Sting a lute inlaid with a labyrinth design based on a pattern in the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France (Sting later reproduced the maze in his garden at home), and finally with a Swiss voice teacher who schooled him in pitch precision and the occasional octave run. Sting constructs two crossover points between this temporally remote music and his popular audience. First, he intersperses the songs with selections from Dowland's letters. This has surely been done before, at Elizabethan dinners and the like, and for modern listeners it has the beneficial effect of situating Dowland's music at the center of the social and political life of its time. Sting's second crossover point is more radical: he replaces the melody line in a few of Dowland's verses with multitracked harmonies, apparently consisting entirely of his own voice. These sections appear rather randomly, but they do break up the texture in a way that suggests an additional dimension of modern perspective” (Manheim).
“Sting passes a key test for vocal music of any kind: he understands and means what he is singing” (Manheim). “The deep emotions and dark beauty of songs like Flow, My Tears or Come, Heavy Sleep communicate themselves very clearly to a contemporary audience, and there's no cause to wonder at Sting's attraction to them” (Paulin).
Sting also “brings something of his own sense of humor to the lighter ones; a certain smirk in his reading of Come Again suggests that he is aware an audience of Dowland's time would have heard the line ‘To see, to hear, to touch, to kiss, to die with thee again’ as a sexual allusion” (Manheim).
“He sounds like himself, even while purging rock's blues-based treatment of pitch from his singing; he also takes a few turns on the large archlute. And Karamazov proves an ideal collaborator, creating a sharp, edgy tone that stands up to Sting's rough voice” (Manheim).
“The only moments that feel really indebted to pop are Sting’s multi-tracked vocal harmonies on Fine Knacks for Ladies and a few other songs that momentarily bring the Beach Boys to mind” (Paulin).
“Sting doesn't pretend to be a classical singer, but the eloquent melodies are intact, despite a gravelly grain and an occasional strain in his voice – something that actually turns out to be ideally expressive when he sings a line like ‘Oh let me living die, till death do come,’ in the devastating closing song, In Darkness Let Me Dwell” (Paulin).
“As the album progresses, you appreciate more and more how much Sting's pop talents and his very personal approach allow him to penetrate and animate the inner emotions and meanings of Dowland's timeless music” (Paulin). “In making Dowland's songs his own, Sting has accomplished something that really has never been done before, and perhaps he’ll show some of his own fans that Renaissance music is more than an accompaniment for silly jousting competitions – it is a labyrinth that leads us toward the roots of our own culture” (Manheim).