As he entered his third decade in entertainment, Sting was growing up. Whether or not that was a good thing is much debated, but the evolution was clearly heard on his third solo album, Soul Cages, which came out this day in 1991. It was an album dedicated to, and much inspired by his dad, who’d passed away a couple of years before.
Getting near 40 years old, mourning his dad and looking back, Sting said “I lived next to a shipyard when I was young. It was a very powerful image of this huge ship towering above the house… tapping into that was just a godsend. I began with that and the album just flowed.” Add to that the fact that his father apparently had loved the sea and wished he’d become a sailor when young, and you have the basis for a somewhat downbeat album with references aplenty to boats and the sea: “Island of Souls,” the “Wild Wild Sea” and references to burying “the old man at sea” in the lead single, “All This Time.”
Super-producer Hugh Padgham had worked on the Police’s biggest hit, Synchronicity…and hated the job. He’d spoken often about how immature and argumentative the band had been and how a good chunk of his work was ensuring they didn’t go after one another physically rather than concentrating on the making of the record, which remarkably turned out great anyway. That said, it is a bit surprising Sting picked him to produce this one, and Hugh agreed. It was a good choice, and one would think, a calmer recording environment this time around. The resultant nine song, 48-minute album (three songs run over six and a half minutes) was put together using musicians Sting chose to help him – Sting himself played bass, as you would expect, but also mandolins and synclavier, an early version of synthesizers – including Branford Marsalis on sax, Cuban percussionist Bill Summers and French-African drummer Manu Katche, reflective of Sting’s growing interest in World Music at the time.
While “All this Time”, the public’s first taste of the new record, sounded energetic and almost jaunty despite reflective, solemn lyrics, much of the rest of the album was much more sombre. Which led to mixed reviews. Entertainment Weekly graded it “C”; Robert Christgau simply labeled it a “bomb”. The L.A. Times understood the lyrical content and mentioned that it was surprising to deal “so blatantly with familial loss” and noting “taking his cues from Job and Solomon, the singer takes on God more than once…berating the priests who came to bless his dying father,” which they concluded meant “he’s as provocative as poor Madonna wishes she could be.” All in all, they consider it a “lovely downer of an album.” Allmusic essentially concurred years later on, giving it 4-stars, calling it “leisurely” and “luxurious” and declaring “All This Time” and “Mad About You” “masterpieces” but finding the rest of the record lacking their interest.
“All This Time” did seem the record’s big saving grace. It snagged Sting the Grammy for Best Rock Song and was a #5 hit in the U.S. – his best since “If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free” – and is to date his only “alternative rock” chart-topper. “Soul Cages” and “Mad About You” both had modest success as singles. The album itself went to #1 in the UK and Canada, and #2 in the States, and got him platinum awards from the U.S., Canada, France and Germany.
His love of ships and the sea stayed with him; years later he wrote the musical The Last Ship, loosely based on the shipyards he grew up near.