Review by: Dinar Khayrutdinov
Album assigned by: Nina Anatchkova
Winter nights are serious business. That’s the one true conclusion I can make of this interesting but also kind of underwhelming record. It’s 2009, Mr. Gordon Matthew Sumner is 58, and he is too respectable now to just keep singing ‘De Do Do Do De Da Da Da’. In fact, this is as far from Sting’s Police roots as can be, and neither is this your typical winter-comfort-warm-your-bones-by-the-fire album, too. Instead it’s a deadly serious, atmospheric and even somewhat gloomy listen, with most of the tracks being covers of traditional folk songs, carols and even classical pieces by Praetorius, Purcell and Schubert with added wintry lyrics (again, those sometimes include poetry pieces by such distinguished 16th century gentlemen as Robert Southwell and John Dryden). So, yes, it’s definitely winter but winter sometime between the 16th and the 17th centuries. The imagery this music immediately evokes is that of a forlorn castle in the middle of a barren snowy landscape, with a lone minstrel mournfully strumming his harp on the balcony.
This is not an easy album to appreciate, especially with Sting often going for the sort of minimalistic ‘classical’ sound that mostly relies on his singing, and, let’s be honest, his raspy voice is not really as good as it used to be. However, this is definitely a grower, and on repeated listens I was able to enjoy at least half of the songs here, my favourite probably being ‘Cold Song’ – damn, this guy is really convincing when he sings “Let me freeze again to death”! You can almost feel your fingers getting numb from all that cold. Unbelievably uncomfortable but even more impressive for that. “Now Winter Comes Slowly” is another piece that creates similar numb mood. Thank goodness, sometimes the album breaks from that freezing feeling to throw in at least some degree of cheerfulness in the form of some nifty brass and woodwind sections (mostly sax, with some trumpets and clarinets thrown in for good measure). In general I’d say there is still enough diversity here to justify such a large quantity of songs (15 in total): ‘The Hounds Of Winter’ sounds almost like classic Sting for a change (and it is one of the few songs here actually written by himself), ‘Soul Cake’ is an interesting catchy number with some tasty violins and ‘The Burning Babe’ has the aforementioned brass section. Everything else is snowy lonely wistful winter, melancholic carols (as much of an oxymoron as that may seem) and mournful lullabies.
This isn’t a great album, and, as I said, not too easy on the ears (at least on first listen), but it is very fitting for a very specific time and mood. Look out of your window, watch the falling snow and the gray skies, make yourself a cup of hot coffee and put this record on. And who knows, maybe it will find a way to your heart. Indeed, to everything there is a season, as one classic band taught us back in the day.