This is a difficult thing to have to write, but the Sting and Shaggy album isn’t utterly abysmal. It could have been. On paper, Mr Lover Lover vs Mr Tantric Lover is odd, potentially ludicrous – two men who show no self-doubt about their prowess, creative or sexual, spilling their musical man-mess and expecting a grateful public to lap it up.
Yet when ego meets ego, they appear to have cancelled each other out, Sting’s pretension and Shaggy’s preposterousness dissolving into a breezy, casual bromance. It’s cross-cultural reggae-lite done with sincerity and affection. Those who’ve mocked Sting’s white boy cod-reggae stylings for years now might have to take a step back. If Shaggy’s cool with it, surely we have to be.
The pair explain their friendship on the opening title track, named after the respective dialling codes for the UK and Jamaica. Over Europop beeps and bleeps, there’s talk of booking flights and Shaggy taking a call from the “Englishman” who wants some “island life”. You’re permitted a snigger when Sting reciprocates about how it “shakes me to my soul with a positive vibration” and “the ghost of Bob Marley that haunts me to this day,” but this is a man approaching 70, and like the old boy on the bus dressed in scruffy old trackies cos he no longer cares what anyone thinks, nor does Sting. He likes reggae. Deal with it. Once you’re over laughing at Sting call-and-responsing with “my good friend Shaggy,” you can just slip on into some easy Caribbean pop.
Morning Is Coming, To Love And Be Loved and 22nd Street are the most straightforward of these; the former two are upbeat urges to skank, the latter a lazy, sultry love song to chill you out. It’s less in keeping with the mood, but in Gotta Get Back My Baby, they’ve got a genuinely fine pop moment to put a spring in your step. Difficult to tell which of their traditions it comes from either, because melodically it sounds like neither of them. Perhaps, it’s a more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts thing.
Just One Lifetime‘s plea for peace and unity vaguely recalls the social consciousness of early UB40, and takes the Beatlesy approach of channelling Lewis Carroll: ” ‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said, ‘To talk of many things: ships, and shoes, and sealing wax, of cabbages, and kings’ ”
Waiting For The Break Of Day is the most Sting-like offering, and worse for it. It sounds like something from his turn-of-the-90s hotel foyer jazz era given an ineffective make-over. There’s also some very Police-like guitar stabs on Dreaming In The USA, a kind of inverse Englishman in New York that emphasises shared cultural interests rather than the differences.
On the Shaggier side of things, courtroom drama Crooked Tree obviously has many precedents in reggae and ska, with Shaggy making like Judge Roughneck off the Specials’ Stupid Marriage. It also shares some thematic ancestry with Sting’s I Hung My Head. Shaggy’s toasting can be hard to take seriously though, he’s done so much disposable stuff (remember Me Julie?)
Mind you, for something truly risible, you have to get the deluxe edition. No-one asked to hear Sting do Michael Ball’s Love Changes Everything, and after hearing it no-one will again, unless it’s to answer the question, ‘what’s the stupidest thing you’ve got in your record collection?’
Other than that though, you have to cut them some slack. They’ve made a theoretically farcical proposition actually work. If Bob Marley really is haunting Sting, it won’t be because of this.