Sting opens his set with Russians, a 1985 single about the cold war that he has reworked and reissued to raise funds for a Ukraine relief charity. “I’ve hardly played it in years, because I thought it wasn’t relevant any more,” he sighs. “But, in light of recent events …”
Accompanied only by a Ukrainian cellist, Yaroslava Trofymchuk, the black-pleather-clad 70-year-old croons the song’s chorus and earnest central message: “Russians love their children too.” He cautions us: “Don’t forget, a lot of brave Russians are protesting against this war.”
It could be mawkish, but Sting carries it off through his evident sincerity and, primarily, its haunting melody, pulled in part from Prokofiev. It is a potent start to the veteran star’s six-night London Palladium residency as part of a Covid-delayed world tour he is simply billing as My Songs.
Sting has always been a divisive figure. Ever since his faux-punk days in the Police he has been a consummate musical craftsman, cleverly weaving trace elements of rock, jazz, reggae and global music styles into punchy pop tunes. The problem? It is all too evident how good he knows he is.
The slickness with which Sting dispenses Police musical heavyweights Message in a Bottle and Every Little Thing She Does is Magic early in the set topples so easily into smugness. He is prone to distilling these sharp-edged songs, with hooks to hang your hat on, into freeform jazz.
New songs If It’s Love and Rushing Water, from his lockdown album The Bridge, are exquisitely honed exercises in classy, adult rock that long for us to take them as seriously as they take themselves. Sting sporadically glances up from between his cheekbones, to check we appreciate how clever he is being.
There is noodling aplenty. The sprung rhythms of Walking on the Moon segue into Bob Marley’s Get Up Stand Up and Sting looks very, very white. Roxanne remains a masterclass in sublime pop alchemy but cannot emerge unscathed from a bout of sub-Cleo Laine scat-singing.
The sleek menace of Every Breath You Take still resonates 40 years on and, as a composer of infectious pop nuggets, Sting is near-peerless. But you leave the Palladium knowing that if he could eat himself, he would.