David Shankbone

‘The Last Ship’: Sting’s British Folk Musical

Sting’s promotional tour continues for his latest album, The Last Ship, as Broadway prepares to incorporate its songs into a new musical coming this fallThe Last Ship is inspired by Sting’s childhood in the maritime town of Wallsend in northeast England, where shipbuilding was once king.

The musical centers on the life of Gideon Fletcher; the protagonist returns home after a long journey to find the shipyard in steep decline. The workers of the town rebel, determined to see one last ship built before obsolescence claims the yard entirely.

In a poignant story at the Huffington Post, Sting describes the source material from his own childhood: “My early memories are of the Swan Hunters shipyard at the end of the street, where some of the largest ships ever built were constructed; the imposing presence of ships, towering over the roofs of the terraced houses we lived in, represented a very potent symbolism for me. I watched thousands of men walk down our street every day on their way to work on these mighty ships. My great-great-grandfather was a master mariner, one of my grandfathers was a North Sea pilot, another was a shipwright, and my father served his time as an engineer. So my family over the generations has always been connected to the sea and ships. Eventually, the economic downturn and lack of orders for new ships led to the closure of the yard in Wallsend. While writing for The Soul Cages, which coincided with the death of my father, I used the demise of the shipyards where I was born and raised as a metaphor for mortality.”

The shipyard is indeed a powerful metaphor, and one suited for England, given the pivotal role of sea power in the country’s colonial history. As the shipyards like Wallsend’s have closed, so has Britain lost its grip on world affairs.

Since Beowulf, British folklore has preserved sea stories and shanties. In particular, The Last Ship recalls J.M.W. Turner’s famous 1839 painting, The Fighting Temeraire.

The work is a masterpiece of romanticism that sneaked into a key scene in Skyfall (2012), the most recent James Bond film. The painting depicts the aged 98-gun sailing ship as it is tugged to Rotherhithe to be scrapped. The drama occurs in the honeyed light of sunset. Once the pride of Britannia for its role in the Battle of Trafalgar, the Temeraire sees a peaceful, honored end.

The storyline of The Last Ship, however, has universal appeal; nearly every nation has undergone cultural identity crisis at some point. Globalization was probably considered the principal threat to traditional livelihoods in the 1990s. Nowadays, climate change is a culprit for cultural loss; witness the vanishing of the Maldives.

On the Amazon Exclusive Super Deluxe Edition, The Last Ship sees its fullest, 20-song presentation. Themes of nostalgia and homecoming intermingle in warm, folksy constructs.

“The Last Ship” is prologue to the album’s odyssey through British maritime culture. For Sting fans who came of age humming “Fields of Gold” and “Every Breath You Take,” the tune is strong tonic. It’s a sea shanty of sorts, sung with a believable yearning that will melt the heart of a sailor.

Sting has a feel for the music of words:

Oh the roar of the chains and the cracking of timbers,
The noise at the end of the world in your ears,
As a mountain of steel makes its way to the sea,
And the last ship sails.

The song is well-produced and well-played; each instrument rings clearly. The background vocals lend an elegiac air to the last verses.

“Dead Man’s Boots” tells of a young man’s quest to surpass his father’s livelihood and walk in his own shoes: “Get this through your head, I’m nothing like you, /I’m done with all the arguments, there’ll be no more dispute, /And ye’ll die before ye see me in your dead man’s boots.”

“So there are elements of me,” explains Sting, “and the ambivalence I have toward my upbringing, where I come from, and then the exile and then having to come back and deal with the ghosts of the past.”

“The Night the Pugilist Learned How To Dance” finds Sting in a natural emotional habitat, singing the part of the hard luck romancer:

In a bout where the strategist’s bridges were burned,
Where it seemed that his fortune had suddenly turned,
‘Twas the night that this scrapper was suddenly dapper,
And this poor fellow’s heart was still going like the clappers,
The night that the pugilist finally learned how to dance.

Fortunately, Sting has the vocal powers to sand down a consonant-heavy, Latinate word like “pugilist” and discover musicality.

The album closes on a subdued note with a duet by Sting and vocalist Jo Lawry. While thematically the song strays from ships and ship-makers, its leads have strong harmony.

The Last Ship, says Sting, “gave me back my reason to write music.” Surely a folkloric follow-up is inevitable. England abounds with stories; Wallsend is just one corner of Shakespeare’s archipelago.