Review Summary: Sting's most intensely personal album is one that requires immersion -- but pays off.
Looking back at my childhood, it is difficult to think of an album that affected me more profoundly than this one. The album, which I borrowed (and eventually stole) from my father's collection, would spend weeks on constant rotation in my cheap little CD player, and I would sit, ignorant to the album's overarching metaphor, and try to decipher what was happening. It is a concept album, after all; there is a rather clear narrative throughout. Though my nine-year-old brain couldn't necessarily understand the album, though, it fascinated me, haunted me. The lyrical imagery and the actual music was so dreamlike, so unlike anything I had ever heard, that it profoundly affected me, both cognitively and emotionally. It still does.
So, naturally, there is some inherent bias as I approach this review. But, even as I have grown older and more mature, and have come to understand the actual context and meaning behind the album, it continues to confound me in new ways. Surely this is the sign of album that is objectively masterful, and that my understanding of it is not entirely subjective.
The Soul Cages is dark and deeply personal album, much more so than any of Sting's other efforts. The album is, essentially, Sting's eulogy to his late father, and he very clearly used songwriting to cope with his grief. His father's lifelong regret of never becoming a sailor provides the canvas for the album: the lyrics cast his father as a poor riveter who is injured and eventually dies in a shipping accident, while Sting becomes his son Billy, a boy who longs for an escape from his tragic life.
"The Island of Souls" is largely the narrative exposition to Billy's story, with echoing pipes and rolling strings providing an ominous backdrop for Billy's origin story. His father's job as a shipbuilder becomes Billy's destined fate: "What else was there for a riveter's son? / A new ship to be built, new work to be done." The song borders on becoming a beautiful dirge before a surge of sudden hope as Billy dreams of "a ship on the sea / that would carry his father and he / to a place he could never be found / to a place far away from this town." His father's death later in the song causes Billy to return to this dream ship, though the lyrics (and the music) grow darker: the ship is meant to carry him to the Island of Souls, a metaphorical afterlife that reflects Billy's realization that he will likely follow in his father's ill-fated footsteps -- his father's mortality becomes his mortality. The song's most haunting line becomes its most defining: "A working man works til the industry dies."
The album's second track and single, "All This Time," appears to detail Billy's acceptance of his father's death, and also introduces the religious elements that shape much of the album's back half. The upbeat mandolin sees Billy initially accepting his father's death and his acknowledgement that life goes on: "All this time / the river flowed / endlessly to the sea." It's the album's happiest (and catchiest) track, but even it has a hint of darkness: the priests who arrive to perform the last rites on his father attempt to comfort him using religion, but Billy mocks them by recalling his studies on the fall of the Roman empire: "They prayed to their gods / but the stone gods did not make a sound / and their empire crumbled til all that was left / were the stones the workmen found," he remarks, his mind still set on mortality. "Father, if Jesus exists / Then how come he never lived here?" It becomes clear now and at the end of the album that it isn't just about Sting coping with his father's death; he's also losing his religion.
The two songs that follow are rather tangential to the narrative. The first, "Mad About You," provides a metaphor within the album's metaphor. A Middle eastern-sounding guitar riff sets the stage for a song about a spurned lover. It's a furious song of insecurity and loss, that portrays Sting's own anger over his father's death. "I'm lost without you," the song's narrator, a Biblical ruler, wails to the vanished lover -- and Sting wails to his father. The next song, "Jeremiah Blues (Part One)," seems the least essential piece of the album, a jazzy interlude that is really only related to Billy's story thematically. It's a continuation of the Cold War paranoia that permeated Sting's first two solo albums: it's about the public unwilling to face their own potential destruction. "Everyone saw the big clock ticking / Nobody knew the time," Sting sings, invoking the atomic clock. Mortality is still on his mind in a big way, though, as is the false security of religion: "A Pope claimed that he'd been wrong in the past / This was a big surprise," he remarks in the album's clearest instance of humor.
But the focus goes back to Sting's father soon enough with the album's centerpiece, ballad "Why Should I Cry for You?" Soft synthesizers and a drumbeat are the backdrop for reflection on his father's death, characteristically recounted in nautical terms. The sea becomes a metaphor for Sting and Billy being emotionally adrift, introspectively examining their own grief and finally asking the titular question. The music builds to a chilling crescendo, at which Sting is again reminded of religion: "Dark angels follow me over a godless sea," he sings, still haunted by the Catholicism his father once embraced. The short, beautiful, acoustic duet "Saint Agnes and the Burning Train" follows, though its title remains one of the few aspects of the album I cannot understand.
Introspection over, though, the narrative returns with the slow, swooping strings of "The Wild Wild Sea," which sees Sting finally seeking to confront his guilt head on. It is here that Sting's dreamlike imagery is at its best; though the song, at nearly seven minutes, takes a long time to build to a crackling, stormy conclusion, the protagonist experiences flying ships carrying white horses and eventually sees Billy finding his father as the captain of the ship he has found himself inexplicably pursuing. This leads into the climax of the album: the rocking title track, which sees Billy confronting a terrifying "Fisherman," who has kept his father's in the titular crayfish cages. The imagery is lurid and rather horrifying; Billy eventually challenges this Fisherman -- obviously a metaphor Sting's own inability to give up his father's ghost -- to a drinking game with wine "wrung from the blood of the sailors who died." When Billy wins, the Fisherman dies and Billy and his father are finally able to sail to the Island of Souls, in a beautiful return to the music that heralded Billy's dream in the first track.
The album's final track, "When the Angels Fall," is a bittersweet one that sees Billy haunted not by his father's death, but by the spectre of religion that kept him from achieving true peace. He decides to remove Catholicism from his life ("Take your father's cross gently from the wall / The shadow still remaining"), and, in a hopeful surge of an organ and electric guitar, vows to never burden his children with religion -- and thus, to keep them from experiencing such anguish at his death.
Of course, this is but one, admittedly rather protracted interpretation of the album. That's part of its brilliance: this interpretation is one that his been years, and hundreds of listens, in the making, yet it's certainly not complete, and possibly not even correct. While the instrumentals of this album are fantastic, they exist almost solely to benefit Sting's introspective lyrics, which are a metaphoric venture into his own grieving process. It is Sting's most intensely personal album, and that is the capacity at which it functions best -- only be immersing yourself in the waters of The Soul Cages and viewing it interpretively can you truly appreciate this masterwork.