Valparaiso is a city in Chile, known as its cultural center. In this song, we get a hint of the history of exploration in the region, where the New World was a mythical place, a dreamworld to which sailors would dare to escape from the mundanities of their seaport homes. Sting has famously told the story of growing up in the North East of England, where the British shipbuilding industry once thrived, building some of the largest ships in the world. When completed, the ships were launched into the sea, and into the unknown – away from the predictability of life in an industrial town. In this light, it makes this song a rather personal one. The metaphor is a pretty strong one as far as pop stardom in the life of a working-class boy from Newcastle. Gordon Sumner created Sting, and launched himself in a similar way, after all.
Sting’s wide musical interest is both a strength and a weakness. It’s a strength because it started him on a path where he could write anything in any style using any of his influences. “We Work the Black Seam” on his first solo album The Dream of the Blue Turtles is a far cry from “Every Breath You Take”, for instance. But, by the early 90s, and after his last solidly consistent record, The Soul Cages, his eclecticism became his undoing for me. His writing became somewhat workmanlike, and Sting himself became less the personal artist and more the pop craftsman. Basically, a lot of what interested me in his writing – the contrasting psychological light and darkness to be found in his work with the Police, and on his first few solo albums – was gone.
Maybe this is why this song strikes me as one of his best in a period of his career when he lost me as a fan of his solo work. It is personal, not an obvious grab at a hit, and less the excursion down the middle of the road than many of the other tunes on the very same album. Sting would later make a return to his roots, re-connecting with Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland for a much-anticipated 2007-08 tour as the Police. He would also continue to delve into various styles which interest him – folk tunes like “My Ain True Love”, written for the Cold Mountain soundtrack and performed with Alison Krauss, and Tudor classical music on the album Songs From the Labyrinth: The Music of John Dowland.
But, whichever way he goes next, I hope that he finds himself unburdened by the pressure to make safe music, and turns again toward the personal. Whatever the material, strong or weak, his voice is one of the most distinct in rock history, and certainly one of my favourites. I hope his next album is worthy of it.