New York

The office of Sting's publicist looks like a Sting shrine. Gold records, reproductions of cover art and oversize photographs of Sting and the Police vie for wall space. Multiple copies of recent, flattering Rolling Stone and Creem cover stories are at the ready, along with profiles from foreign magazines.

Conspicuously absent are reviews of the 39-year-old rocker's new solo effort, "The Soul Cages."

Sting -- who will be performing at the Capital Centre Thursday -- says he doesn't read his press, but he seems to know that the consensus this time isn't wholly positive. He bristles when he hears the word "pretentious" -- a description that crops up again and again in "Soul Cages" criticism.

"I wish they would define what pretentiousness meant," he snaps. "Then it would be something besides name-calling. Which specific lyrics are pretentious? Show me. I don't know how you can be pretentious dealing with personal issues."

Music is his therapy, Sting says. The critics are penalizing him for writing songs with substantial lyric content. "I'm sorry, I can't do 'moon in June' anymore," he says. "I have to believe what I'm saying."

You'd think Sting would be immune to such attacks by now. Perhaps the negative notices hit harder this time because making "The SoulCages" was such an ordeal. The new album, he says, is his attempt to come to terms with the death of his father in 1987.

Throughout his career, Sting has been criticized for a certain lyrical haughtiness. Since going solo in 1985, he has drifted toward artier grooves and rambling tales. Because his songs have dealt with subjects such as obsessive love and psychological turmoil, Sting says he has been the victim of amateur psychoanalysis.

"I don't think [critics] actually listen to music anymore," Sting says. "What they review is what they perceive as me, and the music gets in the way of that. . . . What are their terms of reference for lyrics, anyway? Are they comparing me to Shakespeare? Or Bo Diddley?"

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