The Last Ship is the first album of entirely new songs I've released in almost a decade, and that's a long time in the life of a songwriter. In the interim, I was far from idle, immersing myself in the work of older and long-dead composers and constant touring, but I had very little to show in the way of new songs. I began to wonder if I had lost the passion for writing that had sustained me for most of my life. Of course I've endured fallow periods before, and I would justify these periods to myself as the need to be on input at least some of the time, or the need to regroup, to rethink, to reboot, but as I said, a decade is a long time. I remember a similar period of song drought after my parents passed away, a feeling of emotional and creative paralysis that eventually gave way to The Soul Cages, in 1990.
Making a record always involves a certain amount of soul-searching, and making that one took me to places I would have preferred not to revisit: a confusing childhood, the surreal industrial landscape of the shipyard town I was born and raised in, survivor's guilt, resentment, dormant anger, and a paradoxical nostalgia for what was past, albeit painful, but nonetheless compelling.
The slow death and redundancy of the shipyard that had loomed over my young life and the streets I played in morphed into a grim metaphor for the baleful demise of my parents. The Soul Cages was my attempt at elegy, the least loved, least understood of all of my recorded efforts, but despite that cold reception, it did establish a select and loyal constituency of listeners who I only half-jokingly refer to as ‘the recently bereaved' or the similarly haunted. Not the most cheerful club, it must be admitted, but a thoughtful bunch nonetheless.
And so somewhere around my sixtieth birthday it was this familiar emotional landscape that I returned to, to the town where I was brought up, and the ghosts from there that still haunt me, but hopefully treating them with something more expansive than the navel-gazing obsessions of the younger writer that was me; something more theatrical, a narrative with a wider cast of characters than the ‘I' who'd found himself paralysed. Once I'd set out on this course, of speaking in voices other than my own, of expressing points of view that were perhaps different from mine, I realised that the muse had somehow been set free. A kind of creative ‘projectile vomiting' ensued, where characters, stories, and a myriad of voices spewed out onto the page. It was staggering how much of this stuff came out of me, and how quickly, and all because I'd gotten out of the way, and allowed these other voices to speak through me.
I enlisted the help of old friends, a lot of them from Tyneside, from the banks of the same river that spawned me. Kathryn and Peter Tickell, Julian Sutton, Jimmy Nail, Brian Johnson, Billy Mitchell, the Unthank sisters, The Wilson Family from Teesside, and longtime colleagues Dominic Miller, Rob Mathes, Jo Lawry, Ira Coleman, and Joe Bonadio. We would build a ship of dreams together.
And in all honesty, it is only a ship of dreams, an allegory for what might have been, an allegory about the importance of work, the importance of community as well as the underlying themes of fatherhood, exile, alienation, religion, redemption, mortality, passion, humour and the courage that sometimes emerges from desperation. Something epic is being proposed here, because as the song says, ‘We've got nowt else'. Sting