DOWLAND: “Songs From The Labyrinth” – Sting – DGG/Clear audiophile vinyl

by | Jan 15, 2014 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

B000ICM0YO  DOWLAND: “Songs From The Labyrinth” [TrackList follows] – Sting – DGG 00289 476 5730/Clear 180-gram audiophile stereo vinyl, 48:24 ****:

(Sting – vocals, archlute; Edin Karamazov – lute, archlute)

In 1983, The Police released the album Synchronicity, and became the biggest rock act in the world. That same year, principal songwriter/singer and bassist Sting left the band and embarked on a solo career. He started his musical journey recording music that reflected various genres of world music. Albums like The Dream Of The Blue Turtles (1985), Nothing Under The Sun) 1987) and Soul Cages (1991) expanded his musical translation, embracing many styles, including classical. In the 1980s he became aware of Elizabethan composer/minstrel John Dowland.

This lutenist was renowned in sixteenth-century England, but found success and fortune in foreign countries. (Mid-twentieth-century jazz and blues musicians might understand these circumstances.) His music was based on the English consort aesthetic and popular dance music. In Edin Karamazov, Sting found a lutenist and kindred spirit in the pursuit of a modern adaptation of Dowland. The duo collaborated and studied these pieces for a year, releasing Songs From The Labyrinth in 2006. The CD (on the mostly classical label Deutsche Grammophon) garnered mixed reviews, and was a slow seller for a Sting album, but enabled Sting to cross over into another arena.

Songs From The Labyrinth has been reissued on audiophile vinyl. [Most sites are asking $45 for this  pressing…Ed.] Sting, who readily admits to being deficient in classical training, is interpreting Dowland in a pop context. The album consists of Dowland songs (mostly) and spoken letters. There are definitive interpretations of Dowland (specifically Songs For Tenor and Lute by Nigel Rogers and Paul O’Dette) that will draw comparisons to this project. To Sting’s credit, this appears to be a labor of artistic passion, not conceit.

Side 1 opens with a short introduction (“Walshingham”) that flows into the first song, “Can She Excuse My Wrongs”. This epitomizes the internal artistic clash. Sting possesses a flexible jazzy vocal style that is not always suited to lower-register singing. His articulation is steady, and Edin Karamazov’s lute playing is sprightly. The modern technique of tracked vocals adds to the aural texture, but feels weird. But these tenuous factors coalesce on “Flow My Tears”. Sting and Karamazov exhibit significant chemistry. The melancholia-filled lyrics of despair, grief and pity are embraced by this haunting melody. Sting is expressive and his delivery is effective.

The duo covers a Robert Johnson (Elizabethan, not Blues) tune. Here Karamazov delivers a ringing intro and more textured play. There are three spoken letters that are segues and offer some insight into Dowland’s life. Outside of Graeme Edge (Moody Blues) this has not been conducive to the flow of an album. Different compositions highlight the versatility of this “sixteenth century pop sensation” (according to Sting). “Fine Knack For Ladies” demonstrates a self-effacing humor, and “The Lowest Trees Have Tops” is actually festive. Throughout these numbers, Karamazov shines on lute and archlute. His performance on “Fantasy” (an instrumental) is hypnotic and graceful.

Side Two begins with another dark melody, “Come Heavy Sleep”. Again Sting challenges purists with tracking harmonies. The vocals are occasionally uneven. It is impressive that the morose narratives of Dowland were transformed into accessible, popular music.  Karamazov sparkles on another instrumental, “Forlorn Hope Fancy”. He exhibits an aggressive plucking technique to complement the elegiac folk aesthetics. The lute sounds like a classical guitar.. Dowland appears conflicted on “Come Again”. There is a core of romantic sentiment, but it is framed by desultory imagery (“In deadly pain and endless misery…”). Bad love resurfaces on “Wilt thou Unkind Thus Reave Me”. The cynical brooding is intriguing. Sting manages to persevere through the challenges of classical singing. On “Weep You No More, Sad Fountain” and the finale “In Darkness Let Me Dwell” there is a supple interplay between voice and lute. Certainly there are climactic passages that would benefit from the power and tonality of a skilled tenor, but the essence of Dowland’s acerbic meditations is not obscured.

Clear Audio has done a masterful job in re-mastering Songs From The Labyrinth to 180-gram vinyl. The intimacy of this music is rendered with warm, rich acoustics. The tonality of the different lute instruments has a full, dynamic resonance. As far as the inevitable criticism of a rock star attempting to channel Elizabethan classicism, take heart Sting! They booed Dylan at Newport when he strung on the electric guitar. At the Monterey Jazz Festival there was an audible gasp as Miles Davis played fusion. You are in good company! [Reviewers have universally compared these recordings to Alfred Deller’s historical versions and Sting definitely comes out on the short side. Sting did say himself that he wasn’t a trained singer for this repertory. Right…Ed.]


1.  Walsingham

2.  Can She Excuse My Wrongs?

3.  Ryght Honorable: As I Have Bin Most Bounde Unto Your Honor…

4.  Flow My Tears

5.  Have You Seen the Bright Lily Grow [by Robert Johnson]

6.  Then in Time Passing One Mr. Johnson Died…

7.  The Most High and Mighty Christianus the Fourth, King of Denmark, His Galliard

8.  The Lowest Trees Have Tops

9.  And Accordinge As I Desired Ther Cam a Letter…

10. Fine Knacks for Ladies

11. From Thenc I Went to the Landgrave of Hessen…

12. Fantasy

13. Come, Heavy Sleep

14. Forlorn Hope Fancy

15. And from Thence I Had Great Desire to See Italy…

16. Come again

17. Wilt Thou Unkind Thus Reeave Me

18. After My Departure I Caled to Mynde Our Conference…

19. Weep You No More, Sad Fountains

20. My Lord Willoughby’s Welcome Home

21. Clear or cloudy

22. Men Say That the Kinge of Spain Is Making Gret Preparation…

23. In Darkness Let Me Dwell

—Robbie Gerson

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