50. Sting - Desert Rose

In late 1999, Sting released a new album called Brand New Day. He released the title track as its first single and although I was (and still am) a big Sting fan (both in The Police and out), I heard the single and wasn't too excited. Don't get me wrong, it's a good song, but it sounded very similar to other Sting hits and I guess I just wasn't in the mood. So I put off getting the album until early in 2000, and even then didn't listen to it right away. It just sat there in my collection waiting for me.

When I finally got around to listening to the album, I was surprised by the first track, "A Thousand Years." That song was more of a departure for Sting and harkened back to his earlier albums where he mixed pop, jazz and other musical styles more consistently. So far I was liking what I was hearing. Then came track 2 and my perception of Sting changed forever. It started with a lilting keyboard and some simple drum loops. Then began some singing that sounded to me like either Arabic or Hindi, and the singer was definitely not Sting. The drums became much more tribal and the influence of world music was clear. This was not your father's Sting song.

It isn't until 53 seconds in that you even hear Sting. And that is precisely why I chose this song as my entry for Sting. He's done tons of great songs and he's done lots of different styles of writing as well (pop, jazz, classical guitar, reggae, etc.). But "Desert Rose" was such a welcome departure for him that I had to reward it with this entry. Don't get me wrong, if it wasn't a phenomenal song on top of all that, it wouldn't make this list (a la "Mofo" by U2, a stunning departure musically and a great song, but not one worthy of this list). But the songwriting in "Desert Rose" would probably stand up on its own even if Sting did it in another musical style. There is justification for putting this song at #50.

Musically, "Desert Rose" is as lush as the desert it talks about is barren. You've got that intricate keyboard loop that weaves its way throughout the song like that desert creek that just refuses to be swallowed up by the desert sand. The drums, both acoustic and electronic match the intricacy of the keyboards, giving the song a texture similar to earlier Police songs, but with a decidedly world feel to it. The drums are played by the brilliant Manu Katche, who also played drums on #62, Peter Gabriel's "Secret World Live." His drum playing evokes his African heritage, even though he was born just outside Paris. He even uses an udu, a Nigerian percussion instrument that you can especially hear at the beginning of the song (it's the drum that almost has a "boing" sound to it).

There are strings that have that Middle Eastern flair to them, mixing perfectly with Cheb Mami's vocals. Sting pulls a Prince and plays bass, guitar, keyboards and even a vg-8 guitar synth. So even though he uses other musicians and leans heavily on their talents, Sting's fingerprints are all over this song.

The lyrics also lean heavily on the Middle Eastern influences of the entire song. It's a song about finding a loved one is the midst of a vast desert. Is it all a dream or is she real?

This desert rose
Whose shadow bears the secret promise
This desert flower
No sweet perfume that would torture you more than this

Even Cheb Mami's Arabic lyrics translate to the same yearning.

Oh night oh night
It's been too long
That I've been looking for my loved one

But the lyrics ultimately confirm that it's all a dream. The yearning will be unfulfilled. And like so many who are looking for that true love, it remains elusive and can only live in dreams.

I dream of rain
I dream of gardens in the desert sand
I wake in vain
I dream of love as time runs through my hand

Sting is one of those men that guys like me want to hate. He's a world-class musician, a talented lyricist and devilishly handsome to boot. But his self-effacing attitude makes him likable, even when he lives in a castle in the English countryside and can have sex for, like, eleven hours. And in previous albums, Sting had become, to me at least, a bit predictable. But with a song like "Desert Rose," he had an unlikely huge hit that brought the limelight to an artist that seems happy whether he's in it or not because he's always made the music that he wanted to make, be it popular with the masses or not. In staying true to himself, he surprised me with an amazing album (and Grammy winner) that had my #50 greatest song of all time.

(Fun Fact #38: Stage names abound in this song. Everybody knows that Sting isn't his given name. Most people know that his real name is Gordon Sumner. What's less well known is that Cheb Mami, who sings the Arabic vocals, isn't his given name either. Cheb is actually a moniker for people who sing rai music, like a rapper who uses MC. His given name is Ahmed Khelifati Mohamed.)

0 Responses