The Police's seminal debut came at a time when any group that could even remotely be construed as raw or stripped down would have the label of punk affixed to them regardless of the accuracy of that assessment. Thus Outlandos D'Amour was irrevocably branded a punk album despite the erroneous nature of that reflexive tagging, an act of pigeonholing that consistently proves itself to be egregiously inapt over the course of the album.
Truth be told, the Police lack the anger and primitivism inherent to the punk movement, not to mention the fact that their instrumental chops are far too professional to qualify them as punk rockers in the traditional sense of the term. Even Next To You, the track that's the most reminiscent of a punk anthem, sports a catchy pop chorus that instantly dispels its credibility as a product of the punk revolution.
In reality, the band is far more concerned with crafting strong melodies than rebelling against the musical establishment or penning polemical verses functioning as the embittered social commentary of the disenfranchised masses; Outlandos D'Amour may lack the polish of traditional slick commercial fare or the complexity of the fledgling, oft vilified progressive rock movement, but it's still a far cry from the primal rage of punk, a rock album that never professes to be more than a rock album. It's certainly a work of art, but this is due to the level of craftsmanship devoted to the songs as opposed to any desire to tear down authority or change the world.
More importantly, Outlandos D'Amour isn't only a rock album but a very good rock album at that; Sting was a brilliant songwriter right from the beginning, and thus nearly every track boasts a strong melody and a plethora of clever hooks. Whether offering catchy pop tunes, providing harder edged rockers or dabbling in reggae the Police always make sure to build a foundation of strong songwriting for each track, never eschewing memorable melodies in favor of loftier pretensions.
Highlights abound on the album, with only a modicum of filler to mar the proceedings. The record's most famous cut is Sting's touching ode to a prostitute Roxanne; it's been vigorously debated whether the song is reggae, a tango or a bossanova, but regardless of its categorical nomenclature it's an excellent song, a truly haunting number that's deeply moving without ever feeling emotionally forced or artificial.
Elsewhere Truth Hits Everybody is a stellar riff rocker with an irresistible refrain, So Lonely and Can't Stand Losing You are both despairingly beautiful numbers, the previously mentioned Next To You is a catchy fusion of punk and pop, Hole In My Life is simple but rather than inducing boredom its repetitive nature builds the emotional power of the song, Peanuts is a frantic rocker and Masoko Tanga is an exotic experimental track that makes for an excellent closer.
The album isn't perfect; Born In The 50's is bland and grating while Be My Girl-Sally, despite sporting an endearing hyper simplistic refrain, is sabotaged by Andy Summers' spoken poem, a tale of his love affair with an inflatable doll (an idea much better implemented in Roxy Music's Dream Home Heartache) that utterly curtails the momentum of the song without being especially funny or clever and certainly not something one would wish to hear on a regular basis.
Outlandos D'Amour is also refreshingly diverse, shifting from reggae exercises (like So Lonely) to catchy rockers (like Truth Hits Everybody) to pseudo punk (like Next To You) to more experimental numbers (like Masoko Tanga). This ensures that the album never grows tedious, an effort that's compounded by the relative brevity of the record.
Ultimately the album is a highly auspicious debut, featuring superb songwriting and extremely tight performances. The quality of the LP is somewhat diluted by the presence of two decidedly lesser numbers but this is hardly a critical flaw, compensated for with the sheer brilliance of much of the material. The Police were an impressive rock outfit right from the beginning, and Outlandos D'Amour is a testament to the band's considerable innate talent.
While certainly a highly accomplished album, Outlandos D'Amour suffered from a problem inherent to most debuts, mainly the fact that the group had yet to develop their own unique voice. The Police flirted with many styles on their debut, from punk to reggae, and while they proved themselves to be highly adept at assuming those identities they had yet to truly make these genres their own, changing themselves to fit these styles as opposed to making these styles change to fit themselves.
Fortunately this problem is rectified on their sophomore album, wherein the group has fully discovered their own, highly distinctive voice. They still dabble in reggae (as the title suggests) and they still incorporate elements of punk into their mix (in particular on the punk rocker It's Alright For You), but these styles are adjusted to better match the group's artistic voice, resulting in an album wherein the Police have finally truly found their own, unique creative voice.
This new artistic style is infused into nearly every song, cultivating a kind of other worldly vibe in the tracks that defies simple categorization. It can most be felt on numbers like the incredible Walking On The Moon, a song that sounds like nothing else with the band coming together to create an almost dreamlike mood that makes the song utterly hypnotic and fascinating.
Not every track is imbued with this mystical sound, particularly some of Stewart Copeland's compositions. The erstwhile Curved Air drummer proves himself to be a strong creative force in the group by penning three great cuts, the riff rocker Contact, the irresistible insecurity anthem Does Everyone Stare and the charmingly disarming (if, sadly, homophobic) On Any Other Day, but the latter in particular doesn't really conform to the atmosphere sustained for the better part of the album. This isn't a problem, especially given the quality of the songs, but it can be somewhat jarring at first, a paradigm shift bereft of a segue.
Sting's compositions all fit the mood perfectly, making for a highly fascinating, absorbing listen; furthermore, they never hide behind this unique sound, as each one is exceptionally well written and performed (though for some reason Animals alumnus Andy Summers seems incapable of performing a terribly interesting guitar solo, though otherwise he's a huge asset to the band, proving especially adept at conjuring unique, effective guitar tones, a trait that no doubt endeared him to his future collaborator Robert Fripp).
In addition to the aforementioned Walking On The Moon, the Sting written highlights include the classic opener, the tale of loneliness and isolation Message In A Bottle, the enthralling instrumental title track, the stellar Bring On The Night which marries reggae elements to an extremely catchy refrain, the rocker Deathwish which is apparently a collaborative effort from the trio, the haunting, despairing The Bed's Too Big Without You, the punkish It's Alright For You (also mentioned earlier) and the rocking closer No Time This Time which ends the album on a suitable note.
Ultimately Reggatta De Blanc is a new wave masterpiece, marrying a rich, idiosyncratic and highly original sound to exceptionally strong songwriting from both Sting and Copeland. Despite their later conflicts, at this stage of their careers all three members mesh perfectly with one another, resulting in amazing instrumental interplay from the extremely gifted trio. Without this seamless collaboration, feats such as evoking the signature mood on tracks like the minimalistic, entrancing Walking On The Moon would have been impossible, as on that song in particular it feels as if every single note is perfectly selected and placed, something that could only be accomplished by a band fully gelling together into a single creative entity.
While Outlandos D'Amour was an excellent outing, it's Reggatta De Blanc that first depicts the group at their creative peak, with a unique, unmistakable sound and absolutely no filler. Their identity is fully established on this album, though, as was the case with REM's Murmur, the band, after discovering the perfect sound, would intentionally never quite employ that style again, resulting in a truly one of a kind effort from one of the greatest bands of the silver age of rock and roll.
While it lacks the otherworldly mystique that permeated much of their previous outing, Zenyatta Mondatta is another resounding success for the Police, compensating for the loss of Reggatta De Blanc's hypnotic atmosphere with absolutely spectacular songwriting.
The album has been accused of being rushed, with its two near and two full instrumentals being cited as proof of an insufficient amount of time being devoted to the record's developmental process, but labeling an LP rushed tends to have connotations of sub par songwriting and a lack of polish, neither of which could be applied to Zenyatta Mondatta.
While the proliferation of instrumentals may seem like a liability, the truth is that these tracks demonstrate just as much care and craftsmanship as the album's full fledged songs. Voices Inside My Hand is beautiful, with its mantra-like repetition of the title lulling the listener into a kind of serene trance-like state until the violent 'cha's' begin and the calmness is abruptly dispelled and replaced with a bout of sonic menace until the track reverts to its initial soothing nature.
The other near instrumental, Shadows In The Rain, is a deeply evocative number that conjures images that suit the title perfectly, while the full instrumentals, Summers' Grammy winning Behind My Camel and Copeland's The Other Way Of Stopping are both haunting, ominous and consummately unsettling.
Needless to say, however, the meat of the album lies in the more conventional tracks, each of which adheres to the band's usual high level of quality. The classic opener, Don't Stand So Close To Me, is pop music at its finest and most offbeat, pairing an unforgettable vocal melody with lyrics depicting a relationship of mutual lust between a teacher and student as if the bouncy music and the troubling subject matter are a natural match.
Elsewhere Driven To Tears is a scathing indictment of Americans who revel in materialistic capitalism while other nations are afflicted with famine and poverty, all built around a great bassline and Sting's vocals which manage to convey his anger without necessitating that he even raise his volume or modify his tone, while When The World Is Running Down, You Make The Best Of What's Still Around manages to convert the title into a chain of brilliant vocal hooks.
Canary In A Coalmine is utterly infectious ska that may very well be the most purely catchy song on the album, while Copeland's Bombs Away provides both incisive political commentary and a great, memorable melody. De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da, while somewhat saccharine, is still a terrific pop number that manages to be charming in its tender simplicity, while Man In A Suitcase offers yet another irresistible ska anthem, albeit somewhat weaker than its predecessor.
Ultimately Zenyatta Mondatta succeeds, not because of a unifying atmosphere, a stunningly original sound or any degree of thematic cohesion, but rather due to the sheer brilliance of the songwriting. The album may not be as ambitious as the band's previous outings, but this is irrelevant; its chief purpose is to simply provide catchy, memorable melodies, and at this endeavor it acquits itself most admirably indeed.
One respect in which the Police differentiated themselves from most of their, however gifted, contemporaries, was the fact that each album they released was markedly different from the rest of their discography, never resorting to stylistic sequels or rehashes.
Admittedly this isn't a huge accomplishment as the Police recorded a mere five albums during their brief career, but nonetheless it's an impressive feat for any band to achieve, as most groups don't even have five good albums in them let alone five radically different ones.
Thus Outlandos D'Amour was grounded in punk and reggae aesthetics, a comparatively raw album on the whole, Reggatta De Blanc was in many respects a mood piece, cultivating an otherworldly vibe that helps distinguish it from its past and subsequent work, Zenyatta Mondatta was a veritable cornucopia of pop melodies with a lighter, more playful feel pervading it (there are obviously exceptions, of course, as I can't imagine calling Driven To Tears either light or playful) and Synchronicity functions as a segue between the Police rocking style and Sting's subsequent adult contemporary solo efforts.
This leaves Ghost In The Machine, which may very well be the biggest departure from the group's more customary styles. The Police certainly made use of some of the more trendy technology of their day, such as the myriad instances of processed guitarwork on Zenyatta Mondatta, but it wasn't until Ghost In The Shell that the band truly elected to modernize their sound.
This very notion could elicit concern from many a Police fan, with their distress further exacerbated by the fact that the group chose to implement this self reinvention during the eighties, the epoch that corrupted many a talented rock outfit. Visions of noxious slick production and the horrors of synth pop would invariably be conjured into the mind of Police fans, reinforced by the fact that keyboards are indeed ubiquitous on the album, while the band's sound is tangibly influenced by the accursed era, manifesting itself in the forms of production that smooths over the group's rough edges and engenders a more mechanical feel into the album (as the title suggests).
Given these myriad factors it would seem that all of the fans' worst nightmares would be fully realized. Fortunately, however, this is not the case. Keyboards do indeed play a crucial role on the album, but they never obstruct or dilute the melodies, expertly utilized to enhance and enrich the sound, helping establish moods and convey the music without compromising it.
Ghost In The Machine is a far cry from synth pop, never venturing into the more eldritch territories of the decade's fads. The keyboards are used tastefully and artistically, and the slicker production is never really a problem, in all actuality complementing the music as opposed to sabotaging it as one would have suspected.
Thus the album escapes the more common pitfalls of the eighties, assimilating only the elements that could prove useful to the group into the mix. Most importantly these mild technophile tendencies are uniformly married to strong songwriting, which is inevitably what determines the quality of any Police album; none of the other four releases ever disappointed in this regard, and Ghost In The Machine is no exception, filled with catchy melodies and memorable hooks.
The album opens on a high note with the classic Spirits In The Material World, with its infectious refrain and Sting's usual dose of social commentary. It's apparent throughout that had the song been featured on a previous album it would have received their trademark reggae treatment, but it works just as well with its synth dominated sound.
The record's biggest hit, however, is the subsequent Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic. While it can be nauseatingly sweet and saccharine it's still far too catchy and well made to hate it, and even the most jaded listener will inevitably fall under its disarming spell.
The next number, however, is the real best track on the album, the haunting and powerful Invisible Sun, which pairs dark, moody verses with an uplifting chorus. The contrast works brilliantly, making the song a true Police classic.
Despite Sting's inability to approximate anything even vaguely reminiscent of an authentic French accent Hungry For You is a wonderful groove, Demolition Man is a great funk number with a stellar riff, Too Much Information is hyper catchy pop as is its follow up, Copeland's Rehumanize Yourself, One World is lesser but still entertaining, Summers' Omegaman combines one of his usual clever riffs with an unforgettable refrain, Secret Journey is somewhat pretentious but still exceptionally well crafted and Copeland's Darkness is a very good choice for the closer with its somber atmosphere and enervated pace.
Thus Ghost In The Machine is yet another great Police album, filled to the brim with catchy melodies, fascinating layers of sonic richness and a relentlessly tenebrous, moody feel that suits it perfectly. It's not on quite the same level as the group's peak output, and had they retained this style for their subsequent endeavors it would likely have had a deleterious effect on the material, but as a one time dynamic for the album Ghost In The Machine's sound is a fascinating change of pace that makes it truly stand out from the rest of their discography. It may alienate Police purists, but if one keeps an open mind they'll find much to laud on the album, as in reality it features nearly everything that made the Police a great band, albeit taking on different forms from the group's norm.
After a year long sabbatical, the only one in the band's brief career, the Police returned with what would become by far their commercial peak as a rock outfit, their brilliant swansong Synchronicity.
As I'd stated each Police album has its own unique musical identity, but in this case the LP's sound can be directly attributed to one individual; while the band had never quite been democratic with regards to the balance of creative power, on Synchronicity Sting transparently dominates the album, assuming nearly exclusive control over both the songwriting and the performances. It was this creative dictatorship that functioned as the catalyst for the band's subsequent dissolution, but at least for the duration of the record the group manages to hold together, albeit with greatly reduced roles for both Summers and Copeland.
This is not to say that Synchronicity is wholly bereft of the creative presence of Summers and Copeland, as each of them is given the spotlight for at least a modicum of time. Thus Copeland contributes one of his best tracks, Miss Gradenko, a catchy pop song with sinister undertones, while Summers is responsible for Mother, a number that, despite its intentional dissonance, has its own brand of idiosyncratic charm with its manic arrangement and over the top vocals courtesy of the erstwhile Animal.
Elsewhere, though Sting penned the lyrics, Summers composed the music for the bonus track Murder By Numbers, the catchiest tutorial for prospective candidates with homicidal leanings.
This is the extent of their allotted songwriting opportunities, however, as Sting is fully responsible for the remaining tracks. This creative monopoly even extends to the performances, as Copeland is afforded few chance to distinguish himself as a drummer, primarily adhering to basic patterns that fail to betray his usual instrumental brilliance, while Summer's role is most confined to conjuring bizarre guitar tones as if he's auditioning for King Crimson (this isn't to say that they don't add a lot to the album, as they certainly do, and this affinity for experimental guitarwork is what ultimately led to his stint with Fripp).
It's clear throughout the album that Synchronicity is, in many respects, a Sting solo outing masquerading as a Police record. In many departments the album even operates as a kind of gradual transition into his imminent solo career, a segue that's particularly evident on tracks like the pseudo-adult contemporary Tea In The Sahara; this isn't to denigrate the song, as it's quite strong, but its latent easy listening tendencies and soft rock arrangement were certainly signs of things to come in Sting's near future, made all the more conspicuous by the reduced presence of his theoretical partners throughout the entire number.
Sting's totalitarian reign over the album is far from a bad thing, as most of his compositions are uniformly excellent. There are certainly some weaker cuts; Walking In Your Footsteps, a cautionary tale of mankind's impending extinction, is decent enough, but on the whole somewhat bland, a situation exacerbated by some cringe inducing idiotic lyrics.
The other culprit is O My God, a track that's light on melody, preferring to rely on a great bassline that was unfortunately already utilized on both Driven To Tears and Demolition Man; it's somewhat redeemed, however, by the passion in Sting's vocals, which imbued an otherwise nondescript song with a measure of raw power.
As stated, both of those songs are still decent enough, they merely suffer from the inevitable contrast with the other, far superior tracks. Synchronicity I and II (neither of which sound anything like one another) are riff rockers of the highest order, fusing art rock dynamics with spectacular melodies and plenty of head-banging drive and power, while King Of Pain boasts a brilliant, unforgettable vocal melody and Wrapped Around Your Finger is a dark and somewhat menacing number with its irresistible tenebrous atmosphere married to Sting's usual exceptional songwriting.
The album's centerpiece is, of course, Every Breath You Take, the uber hit that became the band's signature song. It's not my favorite song on the album, but it's inarguably a timeless classic, one that regrettably suffered the same fate as U2's With Or Without You, namely invariably being treated as a conventional, straightforward love songs/ideal slow dance backdrop. This egregiously inapt interpretation not only necessitates ignoring the lyrics, but likewise demands that the listener be oblivious to the inherent dark beauty and haunting despair infused into each track.
Overall Synchronicity is an excellent album, and one of the best swansongs in the history of rock. It's amazing that a band so divided could produce a work of this caliber, but fortunately Copeland and Summers remained professionals and persevered with the creation of what's ostensibly a Sting solo album. It's not quite up to the level of Reggatta De Blanc or Zenyatta Mondatta, but it's still a timeless classic that's worthy of the Police name, which is quite an achievement given the high quality of every single release from the short lived band.