The more artists change, the more they stay the same. Sting was a schoolteacher before he made it big with The Police, for whom he wrote songs that referenced everything from Vladimir Nabokov to Carl Jung. In spite of his pretension, he has always sought to educate, whether about rainforest devastation or the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. In the last decade, however, his didacticism took a back seat to superficial pursuits like Jaguar commercials, Vegas casino openings and proselytizing about the joys of tantric sex. Finally, however, he's focused on something greater than himself, namely the music of Elizabethan composer John Dowland.
Songs From the Labyrinth finds Sting incorporating passages from Dowland's correspondence in between his performances of the man's lute-based compositions. In the same way Sting picked up the saxophone to give Ghost in the Machine its punch, the aging rock star now grapples with a 15-stringed instrument. Although Edin Karamazov handles most of the lute-playing, it's Sting's interpretations of Dowland's lyrics that really shine. When, for instance, he digs into lines like "Seas have their source, and so have shallow spring / And love is love in beggars and in kings," it's almost as if the singer has been waiting all his life to inhabit this material--you know, rather than to star in Dune.
Labyrinth is a literary album that dutifully explains why the name Dowland still resonates in the classical community. Sting does audiophiles a huge favor by illuminating a forgotten mode of songwriting. Now, if only we could all forget that awful song "All for Love" he did with Rod Stewart and Bryan Adams.