The Police felt like legends almost out of the gate, a not-quite-punk, not-yet-New Wave act with just three members, fronted by a lead singer and songwriter whose vocal talent, musicianship, and good looks were only matched by his staggering ego. They broke up at the height of their fame and have — so far at least — only reunited once.
They were inevitably headed in different directions anyway: drummer Stewart Copeland found a respectable career spanning movie and game soundtracks, session work, and orchestral compositions; lead guitarist Andy Summers released a solo album and did some composing of his own; and Sting disappeared into self-parody (a state he might have started slowly crawling out of with his gently self-mocking appearance in Only Murders in the Building, but it’s far too soon to tell).
The continued acrimony makes sense (Copeland has said that he and Sting get along, but only if they don’t talk about music), but it feels jarring when confronted with the band’s actual body of work. From the first tracks of their debut album to the year they threw in the towel, the Police had a remarkably solid and consistent sound. They certainly were capable of growth and change, and Summers and Copeland always had a crack or two at songwriting, but to an outsider they usually feel like one band with one purpose. (Who else would have recorded “Be My Girl — Sally?”) Ghost in the Machine might be their most coherent album; Synchronicity is a magnum opus, a big-swing artistic statement with an astonishing set of successful singles, but the cracks are showing. It’s much less obvious which tracks on Ghost in the Machine aren’t written by Sting, the band’s dominant songwriter, and Sting’s swing toward pop still allows room for jazzy backing tracks and reggae rhythms. Even the album cover shows uncharacteristic coherence, showing all three members of the band as digital versions of themselves (for years, I hadn’t looked closely at the art and thought the red figures were just three numbers. Not so much.)
Summers has recounted feeling disappointed with the album’s turn toward pop, but if more pop sounded like this, it’d have a much better reputation. And the album’s lyrics are still quirky and memorable, including Copeland and Summers’ interests alongside common Sting themes like spiritual enlightenment, politics, and whatever had been on Sting’s nightstand in the past few weeks.
Opening track “Spirits in the Material World” combines a few of those themes at a go, talking about the disconnect between ordinary people and their “so-called leaders” and hoping for another way to go about life in this modern world. The simple, tight beat provided by Copeland gives the track coherence, and the reggae-flavored sound is the very definition of radio-friendly. (It was the third released single from the album.)
The second track (and the second released single, the album’s most successful), isn’t bothered with politics at all. It’s hung up on a girl.
Oh I have tried before to tell her
Of the feelings I have for her in my heart
But every time that I come near her,
I just lose my nerve, as I’ve done from the start…
You can hear the keyboards already, can’t you?
“Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” is a straightforward pop tune, the story of a love that, while it might not be wholly one-sided, doesn’t seem to be wholly reciprocated. Sting’s layered vocals have just enough melancholy to undercut the peppy, upbeat instrumentation. It’s a big enough umbrella, but it’s always him that ends up getting wet. (Sting repeats that phrase in the very next album, during “O My God.”) Sting wrote this one in the late ’70s, but couldn’t get it to click. (According to Copeland, one of the challenges was finding the right rhyme to “magic.”) Copeland and Summers found this arrangement too poppy, and didn’t like the pianist Sting brought in, but even they had to concede the final result worked. Copeland would say in an interview many years later:
“I remember saying, ‘Okay put up Sting’s original demo and I’ll show you how crummy it is.’ So Sting stood over me and waved me through all the changes. I did just one take, and that became the record. Then Andy did the same thing on the guitar. We just faced the music, bit the bullet, and used Sting’s arrangements and demo. Damn.” (Copeland has also credited Summers for a lot of the band’s harmonies, and I assume he’s responsible for those lovely layers of harmony at the end of every chorus.)
“Invisible Sun” is the first of two apocalyptic-ish tracks on this 11-track album, which seems a bit dour, but that was the ’80s for you. Sting wrote this one during the Belfast hunger strikes, which makes the song even darker than it seems at first glance. Copeland describes his birthplace, Beirut, “going up in flames” while they were recording. “Invisible Sun” is haunting, repetitive, and looks straight into the face of despair. Why do people go on when everything seems lost? It’s a question worth asking, and the Police don’t really have an answer. They just know something’s there, and it’s something worth the struggle. The deep hook that pulls the song together has echoes of the Prokofiev theme Sting chose for “Russians” four years later on his debut solo album; it feels like some kind of strength being pulled from the depths.
“Hungry for You (J’Aurais Toujours Faim De Toi)” changes tone again, a fast-paced banger about lust, mostly. Oh, and all but the last couple of lyrics are in French. It mostly sounds good to my tinny American ears, though I do feel a bit bad for the French teacher I asked to translate back in the day (this was before printed song lyrics were ubiquitous, and they certainly couldn’t be Googled). It’s pretty spicy. My apologies, Mme Yale.
“Demolition Man” is hard-driving, jazzy, and one of the tracks where everyone really does seem to have been working toward the same goal. (In this case, it was outclassing the Grace Jones version, but hey, whatever works.) Sting’s saxophone sounds like a siren, and the bass (recorded, without credit, by roadie Danny Quatrochi) add layers to the core of those battering, relentless drums. Sting’s vocals — a cold, hard punch with every word — are layered on top.
Side B kicks off with “Too Much Information,” a song that makes information overload seem oddly appealing, if you don’t listen too closely. It’s only one of the songs on Side B that feels ahead of its time, at least lyrically.
Sting and Copeland collaborated on “Rehumanize Yourself,” a song that addresses how modern capitalism isolates ordinary people, police officers hiding behind the authority of their uniforms, and the rise of neo-Nazis. (Like I said: ahead of its time. Or it’s just that everything old is new again.)
“One World (Not Three)” is a plea to think of the world as, well, one, rather than a set of arbitrary divisions. This is one of the weaker tracks, heavily dependent on a bouncy reggae beat that actual reggae artists were better at, so it seems like as good a time as any to bring up one of the central tensions of the Police, then and now: Sting was an arrogant, know-it-all prick who was right, like, so much of the the time. “One World’s” message is as shallow as a pie plate, but he was on to something: the phrase “Third World” started being phased out around a decade later. He was right about “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” and “I Burn For You” (a song the band recorded during the Ghost In the Machine sessions but only released later). He told Terry Gross on Fresh Air that by the time Synchronicity dropped, he knew when a song would be a hit (he also says he lost that gift during his solo career), and he does not seem to have been lying. Hell, according to The Sweatbox, he saved the ending of The Emperor’s New Groove. He must have been absolutely infuriating to work with.
Of course, Sting wasn’t right all the time; according to Summers, he prevented A&M from releasing “Ωmegaman” as a single. It’s impossible to say for sure if it would have sunk or swum, but it’s an indisputably good song. Summers said in one interview that he based the song on Soylent Green, but I think it’s more likely that he’s conflating or combining that movie and The Omega Man, which shared a director and lead actor Charlton Heston. “Always talking to myself” sounds much more like The Omega Man, based (like The Last Man on Earth and I Am Legend) on Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend.
“Secret Journey” was released as a single in some countries due to label shenanigans, and it’s another song the whole band seemed to agree on. It’s a good old-fashioned story song, inspired by Meetings with Remarkable Men by G. I. Gurdjieff. It falls into the “white man finds enlightenment” tradition, but it’s not about the inscrutable East. (Sting has rather infamously practiced in the yogic tradition, but in that Fresh Air interview, he says he flirted with becoming a Catholic monk when he was young.) It’s not necessarily about the West, either, of course; it’s a secret journey, which could be to and from anywhere. The imagery in this song is quite lovely — “I chased his thoughts like birds” is great — but the chorus is what gets me. “You will see light in the darkness/you will make some sense of this” is the kind of lyric that stays with you. The holy man figured out where that invisible sun was. If you take the secret journey, maybe you can too.
The album ends on a down note, but “Darkness” might be my favorite Copeland song. The refrain “Life was easy/When it was boring” has certainly popped into my head on more than enough bad days. There’s a lot of looping repetition here, but the lyrics and the appearance and reappearance of Summers’ lead guitar elevates it beyond a dirge. The album ends sadly, and thoughtfully. The band’s next and final studio album will start in a very different mood.
As I was prepping this article, Stewart Copeland dropped a new album, a set of Police covers featuring a full orchestra and female vocalists. (I was unaware it existed until I heard an interview about the release on the radio driving home; talk about synchronicity.) I think “Demolition Man” might be the most successful track on the album, but I’m not going to lie; most of the arrangements gave me a new appreciation for Sting’s vocals. That shit isn’t as easy to sing as it might appear.