Listen to this song by flaxen-haired Novocastrian singer-songwriter and former Police vocalist and bassist most popularly known as Sting. It’s “The Lazarus Heart” as taken from the 1987 album …Nothing Like The Sun, his second solo record and his biggest-selling to date. Perhaps ironically, the record is less commercial than many of his albums in terms of content, with many extremely personal reflections about the nature of history, political upheaval and injustice in the modern day, and the loss of loved ones.
It is with the latter that this song deals; Sting’s mother Doris Sumner died the year this record was being made. In part, this has been identified as one of Sting’s motivating forces in writing it, with a dedication of the record to his mum and “all those who loved her”. But in addition to this, Sting himself had just become a father again the year previous to this tragic life event.
It’s pretty easy to conclude that when this song was recorded, the identity of ‘parent’ would have been pretty strong in the life of the songwriter behind this song on both fronts; as a father, and as a son. Yet, the song contains other elements that make it more universal, and as such, it’s less about Sting, and more about humanity and human experience in general.
By 1987, Sting was continuing to move further and further away from his rock roots established with the Police, and to the chagrin of many. Yet on this track, as on his first solo record, he’s still interested in how jazz, “world” music, and rock music work together, getting better results than many other artists would get in attempting the same thing, including his own work later, arguably.
Musically speaking, “The Lazarus Heart” incorporates two of my favourite textures associated with Sting’s work as a whole. First, former Police bandmate and guitarist Andy Summers‘ impressionistic textures expand the song’s sonic colour pallette. And second, saxophonist Branford Marsalis’ countermelodies and improvisations behind the main melody provide a musical ballast to Sting’s voice. The overall feel of the song is one of menace, with a writhing jungle of sound underneath Sting’s vocals that is comprised of a mix of electrified effects with exotic instrumentation. It’s lush, but very darkly lush.
Thematically, this song was the product of a pretty primal source. The album’s linear notes describes his take on it at the time the record came out:
“I do know that “The Lazarus Heart” was a vivid nightmare that I fashioned into a song. A learned friend of mine informs me that it is the archetypal dream of the Fisher King. Can’t I do anything original?”
My favourite line in this song is “birds on the roof of my mothers house/no stones to chase them away/birds on the roof of my mother’s house/will sit on my own roof someday”. It’s a powerful statement about the nature of mortality, and of grief of losing a loved one all in one. Somehow, you just know those birds are ravens.
These lines of the song alone evoke those feelings of helplessness that come with going through a grief process. It’s those tormented feelings you experience when harbingers of death come to call, and you find yourself with no weapons with which to fight back. The Fisher King reference is most likely to the “wound where a lovely flower grew”, with sentiments woven into the song of being wounded, knowing the nature of the injury, but having nothing inside of oneself to alleviate the pain.
Yet, the wound where the flower grows may be an indication of how to get out of that vortex of loss as well as what it’s like to be caught up in it. Because, much like the story of the Fisher King, dealing with being wounded is primarily about transformation – for good or ill. Life goes on, which is sometimes the most painful part as we feel the loss of those no longer with us, as well as being the most joyous part as we learn to better celebrate our lives as connected to the lives of others.
Sting is, of course, an active musician today. You can learn what he’s up to at the official Sting site, although for some content, you have to be a member.