With 16 Grammys to his name and spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Sting long ago earned the right to do whatever he wants. And in recent years, the former Police frontman has been exercising that power freely: His last few albums have included the music from his Tony-nominated musical (2013’s The Last Ship), classical reinterpretations of his greatest hits (2010’s Symphonicities), traditional holiday music (2009’s If on a Winter’s Night…), and his infamous batch of lute songs (2006’s Songs from the Labyrinth).

Sting’s twelfth LP, 57th & 9th, named for the New York City intersection he traversed every day on the way to the studio, marks his first rock release in more than a decade — and it proves that years of passion projects haven’t dulled his songwriting instincts. That’s partly thanks to a loose and unfussy recording process that saw Sting write on the spot with a tight team of musicians, including members of his touring band and Tex-Mex group the Last Bandoleros, with whom he shares management; there’s a lean muscle powering songs like the hooky opener “I Can’t Stop Thinking About You.” But it’s also because Sting doesn’t hold anything back when it comes to his feelings about the state of the world, whether he’s poking fun at climate-change skeptics (the urgent “One Fine Day”) or empathizing with European refugees (“Inshallah”). Sting is hardly the first artist this year to write about pressing social social issues, but he writes plainly yet poetically about them—a style that keeps his messages from feeling heavy-handed or self-important. Here, he’s just an elder statesman speaking from the heart.

The sounds of 57th range from folksy acoustic numbers to epic stadium-fillers, but the record’s most poignant tunes have stories of loss and mourning in common. The quiet album closer, “The Empty Chair,” was written from the perspective of journalist James Foley, who was killed by ISIS in 2014, and it might be one of the most heart-wrenching songs Sting has ever written — good luck not getting choked up as he sings about keeping a place for Foley at the family dinner table. On “50,000,” which was inspired by the deaths of David Bowie, Prince, and Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister, Sting confronts his own mortality and the mythologizing powers of fame by admitting he’s “still believing that old lie…rock stars don’t ever die, they only fade away.” Looking enviably fit at age 65, Sting doesn’t seem in danger of the former anytime soon; and with records as robust as this one, he doesn’t have to worry about the latter, either.

Key tracks

”I Can’t Stop Thinking About You”

Sting’s rocking meditation on creativity and inspiration is the perfect way to kick off his rock comeback

”The Empty Chair”

A moving tribute to the James Foley, which Sting wrote for the documentary Jim: The James Foley Story