The goofiest concept of the year… goes to this album’s cover. If you were one of Sting or Shaggy’s offspring then probably the sight of them posing together on motorcycles would cause a minor stroke of embarrassment, yet for the rest of us it’s very much more likely to cause an amused “What the…?” kind of reaction.
The second goofiest concept of the year goes to the album itself. Two past-their-prime musicians who share little except their wealth, a penchant for reggae, and the initial letter of their musical personas? One a faded rock star whose stint with The Police in the 1980s was genuinely legendary, one a reggae fusion star whose hit singles in the late 1990s and early 2000s were of dubious quality at best – what on earth are they doing working together now?
Any charitable person would be amused at this unexpected collaboration rather than offended. And yet, as neither has produced a quality piece of music in well over a decade, the hopes for them delivering a great album together should be very low indeed. Although you might, as I did, expect an amusing and minimally entertaining effort to pass the odd hour away with.
Sadly, Sting and Shaggy fail to vault over that already low bar. 44/876 is one of the least imaginative collaborative albums I’ve heard – and collaborative albums are rarely all that imaginative, too often acting as excuses for buddies to prop up each other’s egos on record.
Sting and Shaggy too often fall back on tired reggae-pop tropes that make the album entirely underwhelming. It’s the kind of reggae that’s been neutered of all the dynamic hooks, propulsiveness, and rhythmic ingenuity that made all of its inspirations so great: Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Toots & the Maytals, Desmond Dekker & the Aces, and many more. 44/876 is just so suffocatingly slick; its auteurs don’t seem to have access to the same emotional wilds that those former giants of the genre dipped into with such apparent ease. Not a single track on the album will have you suddenly sitting bolt upright, engaged and alert, and filled with a sudden thrill at being alive that electrifies the soul (for classic examples, see “Pressure Drop”, “Israelites”, “Get Up Stand Up”, “The Harder They Come”). Not a single tune will lodge its way into your brain to be hummed again days later. Not a single rhythm track will have you up and dancing, no matter how much Shaggy might embarrassingly insist over one particularly staid beat: “Well this here one a keep you rockin’ in the streets/I’ll make you skank on the sound, dance off your feet” (on “To Love and Be Loved”).
But then, to be fair to Shaggy, his hardly classic nasally flow is actually reasonably entertaining to listen to across the album, at least compared to Sting’s vocals. Sting’s habit of putting on a Jamaican accent was iffy even on some of The Police’s greatest hits, yet here in middle age it is made all the worse by the audible self-regard that you can hear in every note, a problem that afflicts so many multimillionaire aging rock stars. A lifetime of being told how wonderful he is by millions of people translates here into a suffocating humourlessness, which unfortunately undermines the lightheartedness of the entire project and Shaggy’s contributions.
And though I’m sure the two had fun making the album, the all-round lack of effort involved really does not make it fun to listen to. The title track is a romanticised picture postcard of Jamaica that doesn’t convince thanks to a stock of clichéd images: “island breeze”, “pretty girl walk pon di white sand beach”, even “the ghost of Bob Marley” and his “spiritual truth” are all used to convince a listener of the “positive vibrations” of the nation. What throws it into doubt is an equally romanticised track about America, “Dreaming in the U.S.A.”, which rightly celebrates the ordinary folks who are struggling and working two jobs in the U.S.A., before undermining it with Shaggy’s needless boast: “I’m a military man, who carry arms/And fight in defense of America”.
Not that you’d expect deep thinking from an album with two middle-aged men sitting on motorcycles on the front cover. But if only the pop ditties and ballads that made up the rest of the album had any sort of lingering effect, any sort of reason to come back to. They don’t, and so this album can be safely passed over.