As far as most of the rock press is concerned, the trouble with Sting is that he's too clever by half. Indeed, he just about beats listeners over the head with his erudition, quoting Shakespeare and cribbing from Prokofiev in his songs. And since these are purportedly just pop tunes, more than a few critics have accused him of pretentiousness in the first degree.
Sting, though, is more than clever -- he's also devilishly sly. So with his fifth solo album, "Ten Summoner's Tales" (A&M; 31454 0070), he manages to show off his smarts without drawing a lot of attention to them. It's almost a kind of compositional sleight-of-hand, as Sting uses catchy melodies and pop-savvy arrangements to distract our attention away from just how crafty these songs are.
It helps, of course, that the writing here ranks among his most tuneful to date -- no mean feat, given his past success as a solo artist and with the Police. Most singers would give anything for a song as insinuating and dramatic as "If I Ever Lose My Faith in You," yet Sting more than equals it with the likes of "Fields of Gold" or "It's Probably Me."
Even so, there's more afoot in "Ten Summoner's Tales" than mere popcraft. After all, anybody can do catchy; what Sting is interested in is seeing how many jokes, lyrical and musical, he can slip into each song without diminishing its melodic allure.
"Love Is Stronger Than Justice (The Munificent Seven)" is a perfect example. Probably the album's most elaborate musical prank, it burlesques spaghetti westerns, snickers at pop sentimentality and teases the trend toward country -- all in just over five minutes. It sounds almost dizzying, described like that, but as diverse as the comic elements might be, the song as a whole is seamlessly melodic. Indeed, unless you're looking, you may not even notice touches like the Ennio Morricone-ish guitar hook, or the way the beat slips easily from a jazzy 7/4 on the verse to a countrified straight-four on the chorus.
Nor are all the jokes here musical. "Seven Days," for instance, pokes fun at Sting's brainy reputation by having him fret over romantic competition from a muscular rival "over six feet ten." Sings Sting, "Ask if I am mouse or man/The mirror squeaked, away I ran." Even the protagonist's procrastination becomes grist for the joke mill, as Sting ends the song with a snatch of "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" -- another number about a man too love-smitten to act on his desire.
That sort of self-referential humor is a constant here, from the album's title -- a joke alluding both to Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" and Sting's real name, Gordon Sumner -- to a none-too-subtle gag in "Saint Augustine in Hell" that finds the Devil introducing its denizens: "barristers, certified accountants, music critics, they're all here."
Still, the album's most telling moment is probably its last, the "Epilogue (Nothing About Me)." In it, Sting suggests that no matter what he might expose in the course of a pop song or personality profile, he ultimately reveals nothing of himself. In fact, he says, the more minutiae we absorb, the less we really know, until we're left, in the end, with nothing more than the chorus: "You still know nothing 'bout me."
And in a way, that's the best joke of all.