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Album Review

Sting relishes a bleak and beautiful season

October 26, 2009

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Pop
Sting If On a Winter's Night . . .
Cherry Tree/Deutsche Grammophon
ESSENTIAL “The Snow It Melts the Soonest’’

Sting eschews the conventional approach to holiday releases - slap dash versions of jingle bell-dressed carols and reverential hymns-with-strings - with this shivery homage to the season of icicles and introspection.

In the liner notes he explains that the snowy season is his favorite, calling it “both bleak and profoundly beautiful.’’ He expertly captures that mood on this mix of traditional songs, lullabies, hymns, and a pair of originals.

The ultra-tasteful arrangements trot the globe from Gaelic revelry to Middle Eastern rhythms.

The upbeat, bluegrass-tinged “Soul Cake’’ offers pleasant Dickensian undertones in the poverty-stricken-yet-jolly lyrics. The melancholic “Christmas at Sea’’ finds Sting setting a Robert Louis Stevenson poem to windswept music. He recasts the midtempo pop song “The Hounds of Winter’’ from his “Mercury Falling’’ album with layers of bass clarinet, melodeon, and cello into a ballad of exquisite wistfulness. As is the simple voice and guitar arrangement of “The Snow It Melts the Soonest,’’ with Sting exploring a ragged part of his voice perfect for the tune’s mournful tone.

The disc absolutely veers into stuffy corners, thick with overemphasized, Sting-ian portent, notably on the mannered spoken word passages of “Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming.’’ And the more contemporary energy of a tune like “The Burning Babe’’ doesn’t mesh as well with its throwback peers.

But mostly, with its wintry hush and flurries of harmonies, the album evokes the title, a not unpleasant vision of contemplatively gazing out a window encrusted with frost in a thick Irish wool sweater drinking a steaming cup of cider.

SARAH RODMAN