As I mentioned earlier, my BFF Julie bought me Sting's Songs From the
Labyrinth for my birthday. Having seen the PBS documentary version
of this album by the same title, I knew that I would like this collection
of songs by the Elizabethan composer John Dowland. But as it turns
out I like the album even more than I thought I would. So I thought
that I would give my impressions of the album.
The album comes with a very nice booklette (libretto) that includes
numerous photos of Sting and lutenist Edin Karamazov, his partner and
soul-mate on this undertaking. It also includes all the lyrics to the
songs, of course.
Sting has chosen to put in a few brief excerpts from Dowland's letters
to give the songs a kind of historical underpinning. There are six
excerpts, most being very short, the longest being about a minute long.
Some people might not like this choice to include the letters. After
listening to the album a good number of times, I found that the excerpts
didn't bother me, and in fact that I could just kind of space out during
them and rest my brain a little before the next song. I think they add an
interesting historical and human dimension.
The second odd thing is that on an album so devoted to Dowland's life
and works that there is included a song by Robert Johnson — no, not the
legendary blues player but the Elizabethan song composer Robert Johnson.
The Johnson song is very nice, though, one of my favorites on the album,
and I'm glad it was included.
And speaking of the blues, this is what you might consider Elizabethan
blues. Life was just incredibly bleak in so many ways back then, even
for the rich, and people lived side-by-side with death on a daily basis.
So perhaps it isn't surprising that death should be the overriding motif
of Elizabethan lyrics. Like the blues, this music takes you through the
tough experiences of life and love and out the other side. Sting says the
music is thus "melancholy" and not "depressing," and I think that one
could call it cathartic as well.
Rest you then, rest, sad eyes,
Melt not in weeping
While she lies sleeping,
Softly, now softly lies sleeping.
I would like to thank Musickna for stopping by and listening to the "Can
She Forgive My Wrongs" track towards the top of this blog. Richard
mentioned a performance of the song (and of many other Dowland works) by
the Consort of Musicke. I listened to the teaser, and I thought it rather
slow and uninspired compared to Sting's rendition. But I must admit
that Martyn Hill certainly does have a fine voice, one superior to
Sting's, and so I recommend that you check out the link for a very
good alternate version.
There has been some criticism of this album at sites like Amazon by
purists who favor "authentic" performance practices and whose view is
that Dowland's songs should be performed by a counter-tenor. To that I
can only say that I sincerely doubt whether in Dowland's day there just
happened to be a counter-tenor standing around the room every time these
songs were performed. In most cases I imagine the songs were either sung
by Dowland himself or by whatever singer happened to be at hand — probably
a musician much like Sting.
Sting and Karamazov on this album truly make the songs live again. And
that, to me, is the most authentic thing possible.
(Photos taken from the album booklette.)