In the opening months of 1996, I was twenty-three years old. My temp-to-perm job had just gone perm—my first real job. Now that my job was permanent, I was about to move out of my parents’ house and into my own apartment. And Sting was about to release a new album.
After 1993’s brilliant, creative, and occasionally crazy Ten Summoner’s Tales—which I must have listened to five hundred times—I was awash with anticipation for Sting’s next full-length album. Ten Summoner’s Tales had captured the same kind of energy that early Sting albums had, even though it wasn’t as jazz-tinged as The Dream of the Blue Turtles and Nothing Like the Sun. I was a music nerd, too, so I absolutely loved the odd Brubeck-like time signatures of “Seven Days” and “Saint Augustine in Hell.” So when Mercury Falling landed in record stores (remember those?) on Tuesday, March 8, 1996, as soon as my First Real Job let me go at five o’clock, I ran out and bought it. I ran home, put it in my CD player, and started listening to the opening strains of “The Hounds of Winter.”
"It’s like I had expected a filet mignon; I would have been disappointed with a burger, and, you know, some burgers are really good. But this wasn’t even a burger, this was boiled tripe. I wanted juicy, melt-in-my-mouth Sting-y goodness, and instead I got an earful of pig intestines. I hated this album so much that it’s adversely impacted the quality of my metaphors."
And… I was a little let down. The energy definitely was more Soul Cages than the driving beats of Ten Summoner’s Tales. The chorus of Mercury’s opening track is, uh—well, it’s kind of sleepy.
OK, I thought to myself, it’s just the first song. I thought back to the first time I listened to The Soul Cages, which was ultimately a solid album, but it took many listens to appreciate it.
Next song: “I Hung My Head.” Like the second track on Ten Summoner’s Tales, it’s a ballad-style song about a Western-themed story in an odd time signature. That’s a little better than “The Hounds of Winter.” The odd time signature is interesting, though the song is definitely morose. The energy is still flagging—and the lyrics are certainly not very thematic or poetic. It’s about a guy who kills another guy, and he’s super sorry about it. I think the lyrics are, “I killed this other guy, and I’m super sorry about it.” If those aren’t the actual lyrics, the real ones aren’t much better.
But that’s all right, I think. This is just another Soul Cages-type album. And I ended up liking that album after repeated listening. So let’s go to “Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot.” Which is a super-cheesy title, but it’s the single. Maybe it’ll be like “All This Time.”
“Pilot” is syrupy-sweet and watered-down at the same time. During my initial listen, I thought it was by far, by far, the worst song in Sting’s catalog. In fact, I’d rather listen to "Mother" on repeat for an hour than listen to that song again. Even now, 24 years later.
Okay, I thought to myself. Weak, sad opening song; morose but rhythmically interesting second song with some potential, then I’ll skip the third song. Let’s see what’s next.
But no. “Pilot” is just the first of four songs with the same syrupy, empty-calorie, no-theme, no-poetry, no-energy, high-production-value vacuousness. After “I Was Brought To My Senses” and “You Still Touch Me,” I wondered if I’d need an insulin injection. How could songs so sickening sweet just completely disappear from my mind when they were over? It’s like they were never played. Even when I was writing this answer, I had to re-listen to those two songs to remember them, and I’ve totally forgotten them now, three minutes after I heard them again. Do these songs actually exist? Wasn’t there a Doctor Who episode about this?
We’re halfway through the disc, and I paused the CD to reflect on first five songs. “The Hounds of Winter” was a low-energy melancholic opening song, much like “Island of Souls” on The Soul Cages. I remembered that after repeated listening, I realized the themes in “Island of Souls” pervaded the whole album—the metaphors and imagery, the ships, the feelings of desolation—while “Island of Souls” wasn’t a very enjoyable first listen, it grew on me, and I actually enjoyed the song. But there’s a difference: “The Hounds of Winter” is just a big ball of sad with very little metaphor beyond the title to anchor it. And unlike The Soul Cages—that album downshifts into “All This Time,” “Mad About You,” and “Jeremiah Blues (Part I)”, Mercury Falling never gets going.
I’ve now gone from “I really didn’t enjoy that song, but let’s see what the next one is like” to the slow realization that this is the album—a syrupy mess surrounded by a big puddle of melancholy, devoid of theme or metaphor.
I hit play, and we start Track 6.
So, I mentioned I thought the worst song on the album was “Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot.” In the first ten bars of the faux-country weepie “I’m So Happy That I Can’t Stop Crying,” it plumbed a nadir I didn’t know could exist on a Sting CD. The music is cloying. The lyrics are so in-your-face about what’s happening—the narrator is a recently separated man in whose wife wants a divorce—that it completely leapfrogs poignancy and dives directly into being maudlin. There’s nothing clever in this song, there’s no insight, and it’s an English guy trying to write (and perform) a Waylon Jennings song. Everything about this song is terrible. TERRIBLE. I cannot fully express how bad this song is, because the English language—in spite of its often-frothy mix of words from the Germanic, Latin, and French traditions—does not have a word that can adequately express how truly horrible this song is.
Okay, maybe that’s not completely fair. I know some men who have been through a divorce for whom “Can’t Stop Crying” was a salve for their soul—they told me listening to this was the only way they got through the dark times. I’ll grant them that. But, you know, Nine Inch Nails’ March of the Pigs got me through a horrible breakup the year before, and that’s a pretty awful song too. Just because it’s what you needed to hear at the time doesn’t make it good music.
By the time I hit “All Four Seasons,” I was grumpy. This album not only didn’t meet the bar of my expectations, it wasn’t even in the same state. It’s like I had expected a filet mignon; I would have been disappointed with a burger, and, you know, some burgers are really good. But this wasn’t even a burger, this was boiled tripe. I wanted juicy, melt-in-my-mouth Sting-y goodness, and instead I got an earful of pig intestines. I hated this album so much that it’s adversely impacted the quality of my metaphors.
So: “All Four Seasons.” This song is a midtempo snap-your-fingers number, and it’s fine. It would have been a low-to-middling song on Ten Summoner’s Tales, but I wouldn’t skip it. It’s burger-quality, is what I’m saying.
Then there’s an acoustic guitar song over a latin beat, with French lyrics, which is perfectly pleasant and enjoyable, if not particularly memorable. (For those of you who are saying, “HEY! What about ‘Twenty-Five to Midnight’?” that song wasn’t on the original release of the CD in North America. So my CD didn’t have it on there.) “La Belle Dame sans Regrets” is the best song on the album so far, because it is pleasant and enjoyable. But it’s not great, either. It’s not even Sting’s best sung-in-French song. (That would be “Hungry for You” from The Police’s Ghost in the Machine.)
Now, look, if this hadn’t been a Sting album, I would have given up long before now. But it was Sting. So I looked at the liner notes, thought “there are only two more songs to go,” and I listened to “Valparaiso.”
Oh, thank God, finally. “Valparaiso” is a beautiful song—yes, it’s sad, even morose, like some of the earlier dreck on this album, but there’s metaphor and heart and longing and hope in the lyrics and in Sting’s voice. And in the coda, the song picks up and gets a rhythm that was absent before yet feels like a natural progression—I can’t help but think of Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” which has a similar structure.
When the song is done, I hit the back button on my CD player so I can hear it again. It’s a good song. Maybe even a filet mignon song.
And then, dammit, all the good feelings I had vanish in a puff of smoke with the opening strains of “Lithium Sunset.” If listening to “Valparaiso” was like looking at the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, hearing “Lithium Sunset” is like seeing someone puke on the floor of the Louvre next to the Mona Lisa. And they have very recently eaten boiled tripe.
“Lithium Sunset” is tonally opposite in every way from “Valparaiso,” with Sting trying yet again to channel country and western, sounding fake and saccharine and cheesy and weird and ugh. The best thing about “Lithium Sunset” is that it’s only two-and-a-half minutes long. The worst thing about it was that it ruined “Valparaiso.”
I’m prone to hyperbole, but I’m not exaggerating when I say I felt sick to my stomach when the CD finally stopped playing. No one else was in the room, but I said out loud, to myself, “I am never playing that CD again.”
I did, of course; remembering how much I disliked The Soul Cages on first listen and how much I liked it a year later, I tried. I tried to like it. I still like “Valparaiso.”
I have never had such high expectations and had them so thoroughly dashed as on Tuesday, March 8, 1996, when I purchased and listened to Sting’s Mercury Falling. I’ve had grander expectations; I’ve had bigger disappointments. But never has the delta between the two been so great.