Tuesday, 14 January 2014

The POLICE: Synchronicity



(#282: 25 June 1983, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Synchronicity I/Walking In Your Footsteps/O My God/Mother/Miss Gradenko/Synchronicity II/Every Breath You Take/King Of Pain/Wrapped Around Your Finger/Tea In The Sahara

(Author’s Note: Cassette and CD editions of the album – indeed, Synchronicity may well have been the first major album to enjoy simultaneous release on all three formats – included a bonus track, the single B-side “Murder By Numbers” which, though excellent, does not in my view make for a satisfactory ending to the album. The above track listing, therefore, comprises the sequence of this album as I understand it.)

“The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight…”
(WB Yeats, “The Second Coming”)

It is easy to forget just how major an event Synchronicity was in the summer of 1983, and from a British perspective almost immediately on the heels of Mrs Thatcher’s second election victory. The Police could not unreasonably be described as the biggest band on the planet at that time. Most contemporary reviews were sympathetic, and then some; interviewing the band in Atlanta later that year for the NME, the late Richard Cook remarked, “...if that record (Ghost In The Machine) was difficult, Synchronicity is like Chinese algebra. Its relentless exposure refuses to obscure that Synchronicity is a deep, complex collection, as profound an achievement as rock is going to throw up.”

Listening to the record a lifetime later, it is easy to marvel in retrospect at how easily people were taken in by it. But then, set next to the likes of War, Thriller and Let’s Dance, it has to be admitted that the album did seem challenging and involving. However, divorced from its time, I now view it with scepticism. It has also become clear to me that Ghost In The Machine – the Police venturing out to face the world – is the superior record; better written and played, more thrilling, more of a sense of three musicians playing together (despite multiple effects and overdubs, as well as the occasional guest player). Whereas Synchronicity finds the Police out in the world, but unsure what to do with it.

Their nominal main inspiration was the theories of Carl Jung, although I suspect that Koestler’s explanation of synchronicity in The Roots Of Coincidence had a greater effect. By this point the three musicians were hardly speaking to each other, and indeed recorded their parts in separate rooms at AIR Studios in Montserrat – Andy Summers in the studio, Sting in the control room and Stewart Copeland in the dining room. There is therefore next to no palpable feeling of a group playing; instead, they all exist at something of a distance from each other except when they (or, more accurately, Copeland’s drums) turn the heat up (i.e. both title tracks). It is appropriate that Hugh Padgham should produce, since this is rock music as a gated community might know it.

The two “Synchronicity” songs are fine in themselves; “I” gets the album off to a rousing start with its beginner’s guide to Jung, even if it does sound like Yes covering the Fifth Dimension; but then the sag comes – where Let’s Dance’s hits were all front-loaded, the Synchronicity hits mostly turn up on side two, so the “experimental” stuff appears first. “Walking In Your Footsteps” fails to recapture the effortless spaciousness of “Walking On The Moon” – with lyrics of the calibre of “Hey Mr Dinosaur/You really couldn’t ask for more,” you wouldn’t really expect it to do so – although Summers’ increasingly discordant guitar does its best to retain the listener’s interest, even as Sting muses about power, extinction and atom bombs. “O My God” is another of Sting’s Messages To The World – and its pleas to “Take the space between us” might intimate some familiarity with Avalon – but one of his more directionless ones, first signalled by an extended paraphrase of the second verse of “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” but finally scuppered by a semi-improvised chorale of the great man’s unlistenable saxophones (I suppose Sting’s saxophone playing might be quite exciting to anybody who hadn’t heard Ornette Coleman, but it’s no surprise that when he went solo he immediately hired Branford Marsalis).

Then, the disaster of three-way democracies; Summers’ preposterous “Mother” is in terms of Then Play Long badness down there with “Ito Eats” and “She Was One Of The Early Birds.” It is so terrible that it makes Genesis’ “Mama” sound like the Intruders’ “I’ll Always Love My Mama.” Summers thinks he’s Peter Hammill (vocally) and Robert Fripp (musically) and it is a complete, irredeemable, hysterical mess, like Peter Glaze (who had anyway died in February 1983) impersonating David Byrne; sub-sub-Exposure stuff. Summers was, at the time, in his early forties. This is followed by Copeland’s “Miss Gradenko” which musically is a little better and far more to the point – it lasts only two minutes, and is sung by a distorted Sting – but its hackneyed noo wave-isms emphasise that it’s only because of Sting that these songs were released at all. “Once Upon A Daydream,” the morbid B-side of the “Synchronicity II” single, thereby completing a somewhat gloomy package (its downbeat thoughts soundtracked by what sounds like a backwards harmonium), would have been a much better choice at this point, as indeed would have “Murder By Numbers.”

Matters are greatly relieved – or perhaps the listener is woken up - by the appearance of “Synchronicity II,” one of the Police’s great rockers and a not-too-cringeworthy shaggy dog story about the Repressed Common Man in tandem with the emergence of the Loch Ness Monster. The mood remains Yeatsian – the reversal of man into its savage status as described in “The Second Coming” – and it is notable that “Synchronicity I & II” are really the only songs on Synchronicity which talk about synchronicity. Nevertheless, as someone said on I Love Music, it does mark the moment where the band said “Fuck it!” and decided to be Rush – specifically, the Rush of “Subdivisions,” from their 1982 album Signals (“Be cool or be cast out”). Sting mouths phrases like “a humiliating kick in the CROTCH!” with real relish, and there is a feeling of systematically increasing horror, even if the subject matter does stem from Copeland’s four-year-old “On Any Other Day.”

Then come the big hits. I recall watching American television at some point in the mid-eighties and coming across Marie Osmond and Andy Gibb, in the midst of some JC Penney's bargain basement Grammy award ceremony, cooing at each other with lovelorn eyes and waning toothy smiles "Every Breath You Take," and I took that performance as final proof that most people simply want the pop song to be a simulacrum, to take their pleasure from its melodies and atmosphere while placidly ignoring the words that are being sung.

Inspired by Sting's messy divorce from his first wife - he sings the song from Ms Tomelty's perspective, thereby making himself the object of desired compassion - "Every Breath You Take" was the biggest-selling single of the Police's career, and melodically achieves the rare knack of sounding like a song which has been around forever; more than one DJ at the time mistook it for a reworking of a golden oldie. But as a song it is determinedly nasty, squalid and brutish; you can see Sting's golden eyebrows narrowing to the focus of radar as he runs off the various ways in which he plans to stalk the object of his disaffection. The fact that he clearly sees himself as the injured party - compare with "King Of Pain" where we are asked to believe that all the sins of history are collected up and manifest themselves in the form of Sting's huge golden field of a face, scowling ruefully over the rest of humanity - becomes apparent when the piano cascades break the song open in its middle eight in order to allow Sting to reclaim his "Message In A Bottle" vulnerability (that last "please" which trails off, unfinished, into the sizeable ether). But then the song retreats into its guilt-flooded shadows and the warning is repeated for a fadeout which lasts for nearly a minute.

Unlike the close-up attack of their early hits, the Police now sounded as expensive as any pop group has ever sounded; the haze of Padgham's polished marble halls of sound putting the band at one distance from the listener. Where they were once intimate, they had now sealed themselves off and were gazing down at their audience from a self-constructed podium, as though about to launch into space.

Sting began to maintain the distance that he kept. Back to Richard Cook: “Ghost In The Machine and Synchronicity explore a spiritual bereavement in the midst of a rich, overspilling world that is at these privileged fingertips: Sting, in his splendid isolation, is looking out as a citizen of a world he can't return to. In his masterpiece, 'King Of Pain', his soul - his last private possession - is suspended over the globe. It's a tragedy which they are all rather enjoying.”

That ambivalence, I think, nails it. “King Of Pain” has to be one of the most self-pitying songs in the history of pop or rock. Super Sexy Sting sees wounded animals, rulers and losers all over the world and points to them: “That’s me, that is.” To which one could reasonably retort: well, isn’t this what you wanted in the first place? Apart from emphasising Sting’s vocal similarity to that other displaced Geordie jazzer, Alan Price, I find the song uninvolving, pretentious and portentous. “I’ll ALWAYS be King of Pain!” sings Sting at fadeout with no small exultation (and with Summers’ incongruously loud and punchy guitar). Underneath these molten grey skies, he is still Mr Lonely, an ECM Phil Collins; “Wrapped Around Your Finger” continues to obsess expensively on the divorce/woe-is-me theme – it sounds like Spandau Ballet for distressed middle-aged people, though its central keyboard/guitar figure reminds us that “Decades” is still, three years on, not that far away.

Then a satisfying, if terminal, end with “Tea In The Sahara.” Inspired by a Paul Bowles story – you can tell from Sting twice crying “Beneath THE SHELTERING SKY” – the song does find the group once again inventive and exploratory, atomising before our eyes into AR Kane land. The story? The one about the three sisters prepared to wait in the desert to dance and have tea with an unspecified “young man” in the Sahara desert. But the man never returns and they end up dead from the heat, their cups full of sand. Waiting for the miracle that was never going to come. As terminal endings go, this rivals that of The Final Cut, but there is an additional metaphor; three musicians, not really communicating with each other any more, on their way towards three separate exits.

And so the Police petered into semi-existence with an album which, in the final analysis, can only be described as “not bad,” and lacking the direct engagement of its predecessors. More than anything, you can hear Sting already mapping out his future route as “Tea In The Sahara” dissipates into systematic nothingness. They were here, they were a great singles band who never made a great album, they showed that Men At Work who was boss, and they finally fitted into the sunburned glossiness of the early eighties only too well.

Next: The sound of a suburb.

3 comments:

Evan Parks said...

Spot on I feel in identifying the inherent hollow nature of many of the tracks on this, for me, mystifyingly overrated album. The overall quality control of side one, in particular, leaves a lot to be desired. Summer's astonishingly awful Mother, is an unforgivable blight but I recall being really disappointed that Copeland could not summon up anything like the inspiration of the beguiling Darkness on Ghost in the Machine.

I still revere Zenyatta Mondatta, the one album that critical consensus can find little to commend but generally it's hard to quibble with the mantra of The Police being a peerless singles act. The likes of Russians and charmless later production jobs like We'll Be Together only serve to highlight the riveting alchemy of The Police at their most mercurial.

Great post, thanks.

J said...

AIR Montserrat intrigues me because it only existed for a few years before it was closed after having been damaged by Hurricane Hugo. Much like Brothers Of Arms (recorded there) compared to Communique (compass point), I picture it as analogous to how pop albums sounded 'bigger'/overblown in the late 80s, and how awful and oppressive a lot of those sounds seem now. Hurricane symbolizing violent end of the whole studio 'mystique' fetish (which still exists in the whole retrorock jack white wilco land)

Robin Carmody said...

Relevantly to the Thatcher landslide, and just as this album was heading for number one, Sting owned a winning horse at Royal Ascot (not televised because of a technicians' strike: I wonder whether that was deliberately timed, especially because it wasn't the only time that happened when the BBC unions had the power). That fact seems to tie that election and this album together, and points forward to pop's eventual (partial) fate as mere playground for those who'd have been going to Royal Ascot anyway, completely merged with that culture.

The setting of "Synchronicity II" - which could have been straight out of the Winter of Discontent; I find it surprisingly voluminous considering who it's by and where they then were - is interesting here; it's as if Sting is glancing back to the world he's left behind and is ambiguous about, making a last gesture to it before it is routed and closed down.