Sting is musically restless in the same way that Elvis Costello is; having emerged as leaders of hugely successful new wave bands in the later 1970s they both established strong solo careers and then leveraged their status to make collaborations and explore vastly different styles.
Now approaching 70, Sting’s 15th solo album, Duets (19 March, 2021; A&M/Polydor) confirms that the Police frontman’s journey has been an extraordinary one. Perhaps because of the Police’s reggae infused sound it was not so unexpected that the singer collaborated with Shaggy on the album 44/876, which went on to win a Grammy for Best Reggae Album in 2019. However as this compilation record confirms this is just one genre that the 17-time Grammy winner has explored, as Duets contains elements of rock, jazz, new-age, worldbeat, classical, soul and – how not? - West African raï.
Produced by Sting, Guénaël “GG” Geay and Martin Kierszenbaum, Sting’s work on Duets is extraordinary because he gives each collaborating artist space to be themselves and, in some ways, even lead the development of the song. Sometimes the Englishman simply adds a vocal, while on many others he contributes with his acoustic guitar, perhaps choosing from his Martin Ditson, Martin 5-18 Terz G, Gibson or Chet Atkins CE.
It would be pointless to try to seek coherence in this album beyond Sting’s unifying presence; it’s diversity is what makes it stand out.
The collection begins with the pop and flamenco-tinged Little Something, with Sting and Melody Gardot collaborating on an upbeat but soothing melody. Eric Clapton’s restrained contribution on the bluesy It’s Probably Me, which was nominated for a Grammy in 1993, is one of the album highlights, before the less familiar name of Mylène Farmer makes an appearance by joining a heavily-bearded Sting on Stolen Car.
Collaborations with Craig David (Rise & Fall), Herbie Hancock (My Funny Valentine), Annie Lennox (We'll Be Together) and Julio Iglesias (Fragile) emerge around the middle of the album but it is his songs with Shaggy and Algerian artist Cheb Mami that really sparkle here. Don’t Make Me Wait is taken from the former’s 2018 album, 44/876, while Desert Rose brought raï music into the mainstream.
Three songs further highlight the album’s diversity in this middle section, with Sting introducing other languages into the mix with Charles Aznavour’s L'amour C'est Comme Un Jour and Italian icon Zucchero’s September. The third curveball here is undoutedly his pairing with Mary J. Blige, who funks things up on Whenever I Say Your Name.
As the album draws to a close, another gem appears in the shape of the blues-driven None Of Us Are Free, with vocal accompaniment provided by the legendary Sam Moore, of Sam & Dave renown. The final track is In The Wee Small Hours, with a warm and sultry contribution by jazz trumpeter Chris Botti, which makes you feel like you are lost in a New York bar at 3am, somewhat the worse for wear.
In this way Duets dances around the globe, radically shifting moods and musical styles as it goes. Sting pulls off the considerable achievement of being very present on each cut but never imposing himself, which means that the featured artist is allowed to shine and bring their unique characteristics to the table. As the saying goes, Two’s Company – and for Sting, on this album, that is the perfect number…