“How many times have I had this dream?” asks Sting in the opening words to his latest opus. “Fifteen!” might be the answer from diehard fans, for that is the number of studio albums the ex-Police frontman has now released. The Bridge finds him on familiar ground, but that in itself is good news for the converted.
Listeners will recognise the carefully studied character he portrays, a restless traveller with a furrowed brow, struggling to rest his weary head. “I’ve been wandering my whole life out there,” he muses to self on The Book Of Numbers. This song treads a well-worn path threading back through the undergrowth to Ten Summoner’s Tales, yet Sting is able to pursue this route for a number of reasons.
This time the uneasy character is a metaphor for the delicate position we find ourselves in, looking to emerge from a pandemic but also treating the natural world with more respect. The vocals are earnest – sometimes overly so – but never short of commitment to the cause, even though the couplets tell a story which can sometimes evince a weary sigh.
Only a minute in and he’s at it. “I see my shrink on an analyst’s couch… hit me with a hammer and I say Ouch.” The medical support team are busy again on If It’s Love. This time his doctor is pressed into service to interpret symptoms that sound suspiciously like the early days of a new relationship. The whistling couplet for the song – which proves infuriatingly catchy! – masks a deeper meaning and yearning within. Even the slightly farcical image of Sting cooking breakfast while pondering his symptoms isn’t too much.
Sometimes the need for confession overrides everything else. Among the talk of burdens and need of redemption, however, the suspicion lies that Sting the pilgrim does still have some unresolved issues and unanswered questions. The autumnal mood of The Hills On The Border brings these to the front, an elegant piece of folk rock that is beautifully scored, ending with evocative string harmonics. Loving You, too, is unexpectedly inward, while the struggle becomes more overt in The Book Of Numbers, searching again for “a place to lay my head”. Sting tells his story well though, as he does with much of his material, creating a picture for the listener’s mind.
It helps that his band have the music under their fingertips throughout. Harmony Road is boosted by an airy saxophone solo from Branford Marsalis, while For Her Love may begin in a similar fashion to Shape Of My Heart but does so with studied guitar and thoughtful vocals. “What would a man not do, what would a man not say for her love?” asks the fragile closing statement.
Songs such as Captain Bateman are less successful, in spite of their sensitive instrumentation. Sting’s phrasing in the verse sounds off here, as he contemplates what he would give for a plate of meat and gravy. With the answering chorus, however, the mood shifts upwards and the song is saved. A word, too, for the unexpected cover of Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay with which the album ends. This could have been ill-advised but turns out to be inoffensive, despite the added seagulls.
The Bridge, then, finds Sting resuming his solo pilgrimage after his dalliance with Shaggy. He remains the troubadour with itchy feet, arriving to stay the night but already with one eye on the next day’s departure. Sometimes the music is too comfortable for such strife, but there is more than enough here to satisfy. The voice still sounds great, too.