*** 1/2 STING “The Soul Cages” <i> A&M;</i>

Not since Roger Waters spent one-and-a-half concept albums mourning his father has a pop star dealt so blatantly with familial loss--though Sting’s muted grief is expressed, as you might expect, less howlingly and more elegiacally.

Peaceful as he sounds in these relaxed grooves, lyrically Sting seems far from reconciled to his father’s death. Taking his cues from Job and Solomon, the singer takes on God more than once--berating the priests who’ve come to bless his dying father in “All This Time” (the first single!), angrily demanding that the angels be cast away from his sight at the climax. In their stead, he offers river and sea imagery--lots of ships and watery continuums--as his alternate spiritualism. On an anti-religious bent, he’s as provocative as poor Madonna wishes she could be.

So it’s not exactly the feel-good hit of the winter. Only one song, “Jeremiah Blues,” on this lovely downer of an album has the studied jazz funkiness that made prior Sting efforts percolate. “The Soul Cages” is a quieter and less immediately satisfying outing than " . . . Nothing Like the Sun,” which had Sting painting on a much broader canvas.

When it comes to the dying of the light, he doesn’t rage very hard, and delivers much of the tough stuff in an even, dispassionate clip that will fuel the standard line of his detractors--that he’s “cold.”


But whether you find his themes brave, touching, pretentious or all of the above, taking on dad, deity and death as a melancholy trinity is ample evidence of his encouraging disregard for the marketplace cages.

Rated on a scale of one star (poor) to five (a classic).