Has any other artist in the history of rock and roll ever squandered as much good will as Sting? In the late 1970s, the schoolteacher/jazz sideman moved to London and co-founded the Police, who bridged postpunk, pop, and reggae over five hit albums in five years. Just as the band reached its peak in 1983, Sting embarked on a solo career that started out fairly dubiously and went downhill from there. Starting with The Dream of the Blue Turtles in 1985, he traded the punk thrills of his original band for a self-consciously erudite jazz-pop that sounded like a man confusing the joys of a rock star with the duties of a schoolteacher. Whether singing about the plight of the disappeared in Pinochet’s Chile or recording an album of seventeenth-century hymns on lute, Sting sought to instruct rather than entertain, and his zeal for the former, coupled with his disdain for the latter, resulted in music about as exciting as a pop quiz.
Sting has had greatest hits packages before—most notably the not-at-all-hubristically titled Fields of Gold in 1994—but 25 Years is the first to examine the full arc of his solo career, from ‘80s monoculture superstar to ‘00s rock dinosaur. At three CDs, one DVD, and extensive hardbound liner notes, it’s less an artist retrospective than a history book, and because Sting was such a singularly highbrow artist, even his early material lacks the giddy punch of ‘80s nostalgia. Still, those early albums—parts of Blue Turtles through parts of The Soul Cages—represent Sting’s best years, when there was at least some novelty to the smooth sax solo on “Englishman in New York” and the vampire anthem “Moon Over Bourbon Street,” which was sort of the Twilight before Twilight. “Seven Days,” which in retrospect was only a minor hit in 1993, has a sharp melody and a strong hook, making it one of his liveliest pop tunes and one of the standouts on this set.
As 25 Years proceeds, the music grows fussier and increasingly self-impressed in its jazz and world music flourishes, yet even as Sting’s voice grows slightly deeper and more textured over the years, he never really evolves or develops as a solo artist. He may have jammed on the lute, signed with Deutsche Gramophon, and scored a late-career hit with Algerian vocalist Cheb Mami, but simply looking beyond rock for inspiration and identity doesn’t make an artist adventurous or restless, and each song on 25 Years sounds further entrenched in a surprisingly narrow comfort zone. Ultimately, the true trajectory of this retrospective isn’t musical, but pop cultural. It traces a precipitous fall from a great height.