REVIEW: ‘Duets’ proves once more that Sting can artfully defy musical genres

Promotional artwork for ‘Duets’ courtesy of Universal Music Group

As the former frontman of the acclaimed rock band The Police, a successful solo artist, and a 17-time Grammy winner, vocalist and multi instrumentalist Sting has already been written into musical history for decades. Often known for his unique blending of rock with flashes of reggae, jazz, punk, and new wave, it’s no surprise that he is able to bridge multiple genres with ease. On his new compilation album Duets, Sting’s collaborations with a vast range of artists of all different styles over the years are put together in one package. All the way from soulful R&B to catchy pop tunes, whatever genre that’s being utilized, he manages to feel right at home every time. Even with the differences between each track on this project, Sting brings them all together through his amazing adaptivity alongside so many other strong artists and even further proves he has all the skills he needs to succeed in any genre he desires.

Already making a point of his genre spanning talents, on the track “It’s Probably Me,” Sting joins with legendary guitarist Eric Clapton to create an intimate jazzy track layered with rich trumpets and some soft but groovy guitars courtesy of Clapton. The first thing to notice with this song that can be seen throughout the rest of the project is that even when the artists that Sting works with don’t have a vocal part, they always manage to work so well together to make the instruments stand out like the vocal performances. By providing this emphasis for the instrumental aspects of tracks, it makes these duets very balanced and goes to show just how experienced Sting is in making music that is so structurally sound. Even with these instrumental elements of jazz being seen in some of Sting’s work before, this song really shows him doubling down on the genre and still bringing some great vocal work to go with it. 

Not only is he extremely talented with his vocal presentation, Sting’s writing shines through as well with somber lyrics such as, ”You ask yourself, who’s watched for me / My only friend, who could it be / It’s hard to say it / I hate to say it, but it’s probably me.” His vocal delivery sounds so refined along with the quiet instrumentals that Clapton provides to go perfectly with the writing and make it feel like Sting is right there singing softly to you with all the melancholy emotions present with him. Knowing Sting for more upbeat hits throughout his career such as “Every Breath You Take,” one wouldn’t think that he would be able to make something so different but still hit the nail on the head. But hearing all the elements on a slower track like “It’s Probably Me” come together, it shows just how dynamic his creative potential is and just how effortlessly he can shift his sound to a different style and still make a fantastic song. 

Another track with a completely different style than “It’s Probably Me” is “Rise & Fall,” an R&B pop combination with artist Craig David. The latter’s smooth vocal delivery and wide vocal range welds together with Sting providing a chorus that makes an already very radio-friendly song even more catchy. On top of that, there is a sample of Sting’s 1993 song “Shape of my Heart” as the background instrumental, making Sting sound even more naturally a part of the track. If the acoustic guitars that lead the production behind his singing were replaced with a more traditional R&B pop beat instead, it may have made him sound somewhat out of place. But with the great choice to use an instrumental that Sting’s voice is already tailored for, it allows him to stay in a more comfortable realm in terms of his vocals and also makes Craig David’s more modern sound stand out alongside him. 

The one thing that isn’t great from this song is the writing because overall it sounds amateur and for a song that has lyrics that seem like they’re supposed to be emotionally driven, the lack of a lot of creative writing takes away from the overall message. With lyrics like, “That’s when things change / Now I’m too concerned with all the things I own / Blinded by all the pretty girls I see / I’m beginning to lose my integrity,” Sting turns the song from one about reflecting on fame and makes it sound like a high schooler wrote it. Even with this critique though, the vibe does seem like more of a radio kind of song rather than one that is going to be played when someone needs something emotionally charged to listen to. Because of this, the lackluster emotional writing on this song specifically can be overlooked when considering the great instrumental choice and vocals from Sting and Craig David that shine through regardless.

Shifting directions completely from any song on the rest of the record, “L’amour c’est comme un jour” is an entirely French track by the late Charles Aznavour with Sting doing some accompanying vocals. This song shines for many reasons, but one of them is that it really shows just how talented Sting is vocally. Even when he’s alongside Aznavour who is known as one of the greatest entertainers ever and who had an astoundingly rich tenor voice, Sting still is able to complement Aznavour very nicely with his higher pitch and slight rasp which makes for fantastic harmonies between the two of them. 

Sting is also renowned for his great skills with instruments — one of the reasons why he was so great in The Police and why he is such a versatile solo musician. But in this song, it’s extremely refreshing to hear him give his all vocally without the instrumental needing to support his voice much at all. Being from a band that so frequently used so many unique sounds in their production to lift their songs to another level, it’s frankly impressive to hear the frontman from that band have the ability to steal the show with nothing much other than his voice being front and center. This track is yet another example from Duets that perfectly showcases just how good Sting is at molding himself to fit in exactly where he is needed in any musical endeavor. Going from rock to an emotional ballad sung completely in a foreign language, Sting doesn’t miss a beat and seems like he can do just about anything he wants to do in the music industry without fail.

Nearing the end of the project, the track “Practical Arrangement” is another simply gorgeous ballad with vocal performances from Sting along with Australian singer Jo Lawry. Not only is this song fantastic sonically from the incredibly emotional vocals to the lush pianos blanketing the track, but the writing is some of the best on this entire project. The light pianos that play across the song are perfect and create a mood of hopeful sadness for the listener that goes beautifully with the song’s narrative themes. 

In regards to the writing, Sting’s ability to write great songs is something he’s been looked at in high esteem for his entire career, but this song shows not only great writing skills but the skills to make that writing tell a meaningful story as well. The narrative tells a story of a man who is in love with a woman, but she has been divorced before and doesn’t know yet if she wants to be with another man. The two will have to wait to see what comes of them being together. The emotions running through this song bring such a bittersweet feeling with lyrics such as, “Empty promise when some grey and stormy rain cloud hangs above me / When I’ve heard it all a hundred times from a man who said he loved me,” and it makes the song feel like an experience to listen through, with it being able to bring tears to a listener’s eyes in a matter of minutes. Of all the songs on this project, this track encapsulates exactly how a track should be written and performed the best, with both the lyrics and the vocal inflection that Sting and Lawry use fitting the narrative so perfectly and making the writing real to a point where it feels like they are telling you a true story. 

Duets … perfectly showcases just how good Sting is at molding himself to fit in exactly where he is needed in any musical endeavor.

Finishing off the project is the track that has without a doubt one of the best vocal deliveries on the record: “None of Us Are Free.” The track is sung by Sam Moore with Sting doing a verse and some backing vocals as well. Within the first 20 seconds of starting this track, the sheer emotion and soul in Moore’s vocals causes goosebumps. Combine that with the sharp tinge of an acoustic guitar being plucked between his sentences, immediately this song pulls you right into the action. Then arrives Sting’s verse, in which he comes with a surprisingly satisfying follow-up to Moore’s verse before it. It’s not at all that Sting wouldn’t be expected to have a good vocal performance, it’s just that Moore’s really is that great. But even with Moore’s nearly unbeatable opening, Sting’s vocals differ from Moore’s in a complementary way which allow him to stand out nonetheless. With Sting being higher-pitched and having a slightly more gruff sound to his voice, it allows the two of them to juxtapose each other masterfully. As he has shown throughout this project, Sting once again is able to stay pretty true to his typical sound while still being able to shift to fit the genre in which he is working with — blues in this case — and he makes himself sound as experienced in the style as anyone else. 

Duets is a fantastic album — not just because the songs sound great, but because of how successfully they show how adaptable Sting is as an artist. Throughout the entire album there is emotional but refined writing, infectious vocals, toe-tapping instrumentals, and anything else you could want. But what really makes this album so unique is the extremely wide range of genres and styles that Sting touched on and made his own with the help of so many other artists across the music industry. Not only that, but when working with other artists in their genres, he makes himself sound like he belongs right there with them every time. After all the years that Sting has been around and all the projects he’s worked on from albums with The Police to his successful solo career, this record makes it clear that he is here to stay. No matter the genre that’s popular or the style that’s sweeping the nation, Sting proves he’s always ready to take on a new musical challenge and make more great music while he’s doing it.

Liam Fitzpatrick is a pop culture critic for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl

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