Rock ‘n’ roll was built, in part, on the generation gap, fueled by the distrust and rancor that often brew between teenagers and their parents. As the music matured and the lyrics became more profound and precise, songwriters started to dig deeper in an attempt to make sense of the often complicated relationship they had with their parents.
The most fertile songwriting ground in this little sub-category of rock seems to be the father-son dynamic, which has inspired many a memorable tune. You could make an entire playlist out of just such material and come away with an imposing group of songs. Sting’s “Why Should I Cry For You?” from his 1991 album The Soul Cages would certainly make for a stirring emotional centerpiece of that hypothetical compilation.
Writing in a 2007 collection of his annotated lyrics, Sting elaborated upon how the death of his father first crippled his songwriting but eventually inspired The Soul Cages. “My father died in 1989,” he wrote. “We’d had a difficult relationship, and his death hit me harder than I’d imagined possible. I felt emotionally and creatively paralysed, isolated, and unable to mourn. I just felt numb and empty, as if the joy had been leached out of my life. Eventually, I talked myself into going back to work, and this sombre collection of songs was the result. I became obsessed with my hometown and its history, images of boats and the sea, and my childhood in the shadow of the shipyards.”
“Why Should I Cry For You” is the track on the album that deals most directly with the aftermath of his father’s death, a haunting song that floats along on a bed of tranquil keyboards and guitars, only to be interrupted by crashing drums near the climax. This musical setting mirrors the lyrical journey the narrator takes, at first filled with quiet reflection on the nautical sights and sounds but eventually tormented and beseeched by both the sea and his memories.
As such, reefs of moonshine and seas of silence become Dark angels on a godless sea. Over and over, Sting comes back to the term for all my days remaining, which seems to be a nod to the sense of mortality dogging him in the wake of his father’s passing. His slumber on the water is shattered by visions of the past: Sometimes I see your face/Stars seem to lose their place.
In the closing moments, the barrier that the water provided to protect the narrator from dealing with his issues head-on is eradicated. All that’s left is for him is to ask the nagging questions that lack easy answers: Why should I cry for you?/Why would you want me to?/And what would it mean to say/I loved you in my fashion?
That the old man can no longer answer him is irrelevant. In “Why Should I Cry For You?” one of the most moving explorations of father-son angst in the rock canon, Sting suggests that the healing begins simply by confronting the questions.