Though the band released only three studio albums within the decade, new wave pop superstars the Police sported an impressively high percentage of quality tracks, especially when compared to many of their '80s contemporaries who could barely muster three strong tunes on a 10-song LP. As a result, distilling the band's best work into a tidy Top 10 list is more difficult than it has any right to be, given the painfully short life span of the Police. Alas, we can only imagine what could have been, but at least we got those three albums and the impeccable songwriting and instrumentalism from Sting & Co.
This is arguably the first undisputed classic Police tune, from the immeasurably talented pen of primary songwriter Sting. As is typical of that artist's compositions, the song weaves an incredibly dense narrative full of literary heft and panache. Both thematically and atmospherically, it's the pop music equivalent of high art. The Nabokov connection is obvious but not tired, and the dazzling guitar work from Andy Summers and percussive wizardry of Stewart Copeland's drumming provide so many welcome layers. This is one of the most famous classic rock staples to come from the Police, and saturated airplay has not dulled its effects.
It's always been rather the easy way out to label the Police as a mixture of rock, pop and reggae, but the truth is the band always had its own unique take on each of those forms that superseded such labels. This great, nervous ditty about alienation is a perfect example of the singular style the Police introduced and nearly copyrighted in the early '80s. Sting spits out provocative but often opaque lyrics in an almost hip-hop stream, and the band cooks like no other before or after.
As much as its nonsense title seems to suggest that Sting has turned away from his literary, sometimes esoteric songwriting impulses in this song that celebrates the limitations of language, he betrays that concept playfully and delightfully in this, one of his most interesting lyrics. As usual, the hooks are big and bountiful, but what really makes the song resonate is Sting's uncanny ability to get away with describing words as "cheques left unsigned from the banks of chaos" in his mind. Only a special rank of wordsmith can make that work.
As a songwriter, Sting tackled the subject of romantic entanglements from abundant angles but never lost freshness of perspective or delivery. This tune from 1981's Ghost in the Machine celebrates everything that is joyful about romantic devotion while stopping just short of Sting's usual foray into the darker corners of obsession and tainted desire. Even so, fears of failure and rejection surface and help take the song to another level. Musically the tune is an eclectic delight of keyboards, Sting's massive grasp of songcraft and melody, and Copeland's distinct drumming.
As a young fan of rock music, it's almost impossible not to have 80% of Sting's lyrics go over your head. Or at least that's what I like to tell myself to make me feel better. But no matter what, this furious rocker is a frontal assault on several levels, not the least of which is the song's layered and dense lyrics, which delve directly into the chaos and discomfort of the era. The foreboding and unease are obvious, but explicating Sting's narrative does take some effort, as it often does in delightful ways on numerous tracks from 1983's massive hit album Synchronicity.
What else is left to say about this tune, which has to be as nearly perfect as any mustered since the Beatles' reign over the music world? Musically, Sting proves himself quite a master as well, always able to take advantage of both simple and complex compositional impulses without making the slightest misstep. Summers' wonderful, haunting guitar riff is just as important to the song's success as the lyrics, but the structure of the piece itself is a foundational lesson in pop songwriting.
One of the greatest things about Sting as a songwriter is that he never talks down to his audience in his lyrics. I mean, he really doesn't mess around in this song, referencing the Scylla and Charybdis in the first line. The rest of the song is just as cerebral, but Sting is such a skilled storyteller and lyricist that his rhyme schemes and rhythms never sound clunky, even when they have to be fit around "Mephistopheles." Seriously, there's a reason why the Police has always been one of the select few bands to be mentioned in "greatest-band-ever" conversations. It doesn't even matter that this song functions squarely within the realm of soft rock.
Buoyed by exotic rhythms, this tune was a definite harbinger for Sting's later solo forays into world music. It's also a showcase for Andy Summers' dazzling jazz guitar leanings and, of course, Stewart Copeland's consummate skill behind the drum kit. Each member of the Police has gone on to do many worthy things as individual performers, composers and instrumentalists, but they must have known those efforts would never compare to what the trio could accomplish together.