Sting - Why Should I Cry for You?
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
The artist-not-formerly-known as Gordon Sumner might well be the easiest of all soft targets for criticism, whether he's getting lined up for punches from dubious hipster-types who've learned the hard way that they can no longer fuck with Elton John, or merely being called out for obvious chinks in his ideological armor (see the infamous "rain forest guitar"). But while the peanut gallery might enjoy setting Sting up for a fall, they remain oblivious to exactly why he's so ready to take another kick at Lucy's pigskin.
What makes Sting such a likely scapegoat in the adult-contemporary victimization sweepstakes is precisely the same thing that casts him in a heroic light for those who aren't particularly offended when their Dad likes the same music they do. Sting’s peculiar genius (nope, not a typo) as a lyricist and songwriter consists in reclaiming the poetic aphorisms of English Lit. 101 and returning them to an audience that read Milton in high school but couldn't quite separate the juicy bits from the dry ones. The lyrics to "Why Should I Cry for You?" are scattered with a veritable army of Penguin Classics clichés: "for all my days remaining," "asleep on the ocean’s bed," "over a godless sea," "all colors bleed to red," "the stars seem to lose their place," etc. This doesn't make Sting any more of a thief than any number of songwriters. It's simply that his appropriations are stretched so far back in time, so primal, that the material he's ganking may as well be public domain.
The Soul Cages, the album for which "Why Should I Cry for You?" serves as conceptual mid-point, is the lynchpin of Sting’s complex, fecund, and oft-irritating solo career. Famously a tribute to his departed parents, whose funerals he famously didn't attend, it arrived not-so-famously a full four years after their joint cancer-related deaths. It sold neither as well as his first two efforts, nor most of his later, more dubious ones. Yet it has more to commend it than condemn it, and its relative heaviness may just be the reason his latter work seems so determinedly light. A concept album in all but name, its nautical, religious, and emotional themes are grounded in Sumner's family story, with his usual helping of British historical, liturgical, and sociological references dashed atop. But for all the college-kid line-deciphering provoked by "All this Time" (it's about London) or "The Soul Cages" (a decidedly Grecian hell), "Why Should I Cry for You" calls only for a feeling heart and a tolerance for a bit of poetic recycling.
The production of "Why Should I Cry for You" is stylish, but far too populist to be "refined." Sting utilizes unimpeachable session players to elucidate his existential dilemma: "What would be true?" He's smart enough to have not come up with an answer and dumb (read “human”) enough to go on looking for one, so the accompaniment places texture over melodiousness. Crystalline, almost New Age synths drape a stately procession of organic, oceanic whoops and cries and a repeated guitar figure, evoking the toil of "hauling on frozen ropes" and the dreariness of "drifting on empty seas." A pattern of deftly woven drums builds, but Sting remains ruminative, almost unmoved. He contemplates, he ponders, he questions again and again, yet he still gets precisely nowhere. His query is so profound that it eliminates any other subject but himself at times ("Why must I? / Why should I?"), make of this what you will. The fulcrum of the argument is still as clear as sunlight reflecting off an iceberg: to what do we owe those no longer with us? "Why should I cry for you / Why would you want me to / And what would it mean to say / That 'I loved you in my fashion?'"
Whether Sumner is talking about deceased family or departed lovers, it's clear that the self-reflexiveness of all this roaming over godless seas and keeping of arctic fires alight serves the questioner much more so than the one provoking all the questions. Pop music is filled with countless affirmations of undying love and never-ending fealty, but it rarely allows itself to address the consequences of these enviable pronouncements. Within the context of an album bent on grappling with one of the most difficult challenges a person can face, Sting provides us with an uneasy answer—no answer at all. Adult? I'll vouch for that. Contemporary? Well, it damn sure still applies.
Exactly what was the problem again?