- The Washington Times - Friday, October 13, 2006

The late science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick prophesied that songs by the Elizabethan composer John Dowland would one day by covered by a pop singer named Linda Fox, a thinly disguised version of Linda Ronstadt.

Such a scenario seemed less likely to materialize than Mr. Dick’s predictions of a police state — but now a single-monikered pop phenomenon has released an album of Dowland songs on one of the world’s foremost classical music labels.

Judging from the tale Sting tells in his intelligent liner notes, the pairing was inevitable.

The actor John Bird first mentioned Dowland’s name to Sting in 1982, when the musician was performing at a benefit concert. In the 24 years since, it seems a handful of Sting’s friends and colleagues have suggested the doleful tunes of the composer-singer-lutenist might suit one of the most melancholy of rockers.

They were right. In those notes, Sting tries to explain how the work of the composer, who died in 1626, might be relevant to music today: “Born in 1563, John Dowland was perhaps the first example of an archetype with which we have become familiar, that of the alienated singer-songwriter.”

He does a better job simply by singing the songs. Sting’s sometimes traditional, sometimes creative interpretations of about a dozen Dowland songs make it abundantly clear that Dowland was a dynamic artist. “Doleful Dowland,” as he might be called, did a lot more than pen a bunch of laments. His work was part of a renaissance in British culture — his lyrics sometimes echo the poetry of another famous Elizabethan, Shakespeare — whose effects can be felt in British music to this day, whether most youngsters have heard of him or not.

Sting’s distinctive voice melds smoothly into an old-fashioned rendering of a song such as “Clear or Cloudy.” However, he also stretches himself on Dowland’s most famous song, “Flow My Tears.” Who thought Sting could sound like anything but Sting?

Sting’s voice, often beautiful, sounds even better when harmonizing with itself, as on “Can She Excuse My Wrongs,” which features lyrics from the doomed Earl of Essex.

Sting’s accompanist is the Bosnian lutenist Edin Karamazov. Let’s hope his work with Sting brings him to greater notice on this side of the Atlantic. On instrumentals such as “Forlorn Hope Fancy,” his work is a lot more than a simple accompaniment. It sounds utterly modern on this track but with much respect for the composer.

On “Labyrinth,” Sting is sometimes silky, sometimes whispery but always focused on what the song requires. Not every song is a success, but this is a strong album and a welcome diversion for the pop singer, who can sometimes write a timeless-sounding song such as 1999’s “Desert Rose.”

Sting’s release comes just weeks after the latest classical offering from Sir Paul McCartney. Mr. McCartney’s work is original; Sting’s is not. However, in mixing the modern with the almost medieval, Sting may do more to introduce rock fans to the pleasures of art music.


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