Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Police and Sting Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Outlandos d’Amour (1978, A&M)

A

The trio of Sting (vocals/bass), Andy Summers (guitar), and Stewart Copeland (drums) do it all here on their fantastic and confident debut outing: punk (“Next to You,” “Truth Hits Everybody”), reggae (the Bob Marley-influenced “So Lonely,” which was bypassed for single release in the U.S. but became a Top Ten hit in the U.K.), straight-forward rock (“Born in the ‘50s”), and even jazz (“Hole in My Life”). Nearly everything here is backed by a solid and wildly catchy melody (even filler cuts like “Peanuts,” a jab at Rod Stewart), and there are also two huge hit singles – both of them a fusion of reggae and rock – in the tango-tinged “Roxanne” (the band’s first American Top 40 hit and an unlikely ode to a lady-of-the-night, hence the “red light” references), and the dark, suicide-themed U.K. Number Two hit “Can’t Stand Losing You.” The only thing that prevents this debut from being absolutely perfect is that it runs out of steam halfway through the second side, closing on two exceptionally weak numbers, the downright bizarre “Be My Girl/Sally” (a fusion of a song fragment with little more to its lyric than the title with a spoken-word ode to a blow-up doll) and the largely instrumental “Masoko Tanga.”

Reggatta de Blanc (1979, A&M)

B +    

It’s less punk-influenced than their debut (though fans of cuts like “Next to You” and “Truth Hits Everybody” should delight in the similarly-flavored “It’s Alright for You”) and there’s more filler this time out, but there’s still some awfully great music to be enjoyed in these grooves. The classic “Message in a Bottle” (propelled by what is arguably the greatest of all Andy Summers guitar riffs) is here, for starters; while it strangely only climbed as high as #74 on the Billboard Hot 100 (though it would top the British singles charts), it’s one of the band’s most beloved songs as well as perhaps the best showcase for Stewart Copeland’s ever-impressive drumming that the band ever cut. The spacey and atmospheric reggae of the U.K. Number One hit “Walking on the Moon” (which bizarrely missed the Hot 100 entirely) is also here. The surrounding cuts are a mixed bag and there are some obvious throwaway cuts like the satirical Copeland-penned “On Any Other Day” and the former “So Lonely” B-side “No Time This Time” (which was added solely to extend the running time of the album and doesn’t really fit in all that well here), though the album has a good number of very underrated moments in the jazzy reggae of “The Bed’s Too Big Without You,” the clever piano pop of “Does Everyone Stare” (which unusually features Copeland and Sting splitting the vocal duties), and the haunting “Bring on the Night,” which would not only re-appear on but provide the title of Sting’s first live album as a solo artist. (It’s also seemingly where the music for Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen” came from, though hardly anyone ever notices the resemblance.) Even the instrumental title cut proves to be a highlight.

Zenyatta Mondatta (1980, A&M)

A

It’s not entirely devoid of filler, and some of the songs very much sound like they were built around jams rather than brought into the studio as largely-formed songs, but Zenyatta Mondatta is a clearly much-more carefully-crafted album than its predecessor, and its best moments are classics, particularly the album’s two Top Ten hits, the reggae-rock of “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” (a single so fantastic you can actually excuse Sting for rhyming “cough” with “Nabokov”) and the not-as-nonsensical-as-it-seems-at-first-glance “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da,” which shows off Andy Summer’s versatility as a guitarist to great effect. Other highlights include the ska-tinged cuts “Man in a Suitcase” and “Canary in a Coalmine,” the disco-rock of “When the World Is Running Down, You Make the Best of What’s Still Around,” the chilling funk of “Voices Inside My Head,” and “Driven to Tears.” The album’s biggest flaw is simply that it feels slightly unfinished, if only for the presence of not one, but two somewhat forgettable instrumentals; Andy Summers’ Robert Fripp-like guitar showcase “Behind My Camel” is definitely an acquired taste and is likely to be a “skip” item for the band’s more pop-minded fans, while the Copeland-penned album closer “The Other Way of Stopping” is pleasant and well-performed but ultimately not especially memorable.

Ghost in the Machine (1981, A&M)

A

A noticeably more polished and pop-friendly album than any of their previous outings (for the first time, there are no instrumental cuts, nor are there any jokey cuts like “Be My Girl/Sally” or “On Any Other Day” to skip past) and the Police album most reminiscent of Sting’s future solo work, the trio’s fourth disc is arguably its finest-crafted outing since their debut, even if it’s not quite as groundbreaking or as legendary as that album or as raw or edgy as either of the last two albums. (Call the disc “safe” if you must, but it at least sounds finished and not quite as rushed as any of the previous three discs.) The band’s first American Top Five hit, “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” which interestingly adds piano (played by former Cat Stevens sideman Jean Roussel) to the band’s now-trademark hybrid of reggae and rock, is here, as is the synth-laden new-wave of the Top 40 hit “Spirits in the Material World.” (The third and final single from the disc in America, “Secret Journey,” would miss the Top 40, but just barely.) The surrounding non-singles are mostly strong, and the haunting “Invisible Sun” (a #2 U.K. hit), the catchy funk of “Too Much Information,” the ska-tinged “Rehumanize Yourself,” the reggae-infected “One World (Not Three)” (which foreshadows Sting’s “Love Is the Seventh Wave”), and the driving rocker “Omegaman” are all likely to stick in your head afterwards, while the album-closing “Darkness” might be Stewart Copeland’s best composition for the band yet. Sure, this disc leans a little more towards pop than rock than any of their previous albums, but not since Outlandos d’Amour have they offered up a set of songs quite as hook-loaded as the one here.

Synchronicity (1983, A&M)

A +

Sad though it is that the Police would break up after this album, there’s something to be said about going out on top (give credit to the band for splitting up before they could ever get around to releasing a bad album), and you really can’t ask for a much better note for the group to have gone out on than this. The timeless “Every Breath You Take” (easily one of the most ingenious pop songs of the ‘80s and one that deservedly spent eight weeks at Number One, the group’s only single to reach the top of the Hot 100) is here, as is the intriguingly intricate Top Five cut “King of Pain” which impressively keeps seamlessly shifting gears into new territory, ultimately going from what begins as a soft, piano-and-marimba-led cut into a driving passionate rocker. The goose-bump-inducing, Oriental-tinged atmospherics of “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” one of the most hauntingly beautiful melodies Sting has ever composed, is also here, and there is even a fourth Top 40 hit here as well in the bone-chilling rock and domestic-bliss-turned-nightmares of “Synchronicity II.” The surrounding cuts are mostly excellent as well, especially the frenetic title cut, the haunting album-closing ballad “Tea in the Sahara” (CD and cassette versions would tack on the B-side “Murder By Numbers” as a bonus cut), the percussive archaeology of “Walking in Your Footsteps,” and, even better, the terrifying but irritatingly catchy “Miss Gradenko,” both the best song Stewart Copeland has ever contributed to a Police album and perhaps the catchiest song in the band’s entire catalog to not get released as a single. The album’s only real flaw is the presence of the virtually-unlistenable overwrought melodrama of the Andy Summers cut “Mother,” which really should have been left on the cutting-room floor.

The Dream of the Blue Turtles (1985, A&M)

A –

Sure, you could call this album pretentious, but give Sting credit: for as ambitious of a solo debut as this is, he doesn’t completely turn his back on his following from pop-radio, either. Largely casting aside the rock sound of his former band, Sting instead takes a turn towards jazz territory for his first full-length as a solo artist, recruiting players like Branford Marsalis, drummer Omar Hakim from jazz-fusion band Weather Report, former Miles Davis sideman Daryl Jones, and former Wynton Marsalis pianist Kenny Kirkland to flesh out his backing band. This might sound like a really uncommercial move at first glance, but the songs Sting brings to the table still have their roots in pop, so it’s a very intriguing meeting of two worlds, and only a few cuts (namely “Moon Over Bourbon Street” and the brief instrumental title cut) really qualify as full-on jazz. There are four Top 40 hits to be found here, including the soulful Top Ten smash “If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free,” the very, very underrated and Caribbean-flavored “Love Is the Seventh Wave,” the Police-like rock-laced ballad “Fortress Around Your Heart” (which would have fit effortlessly onto Synchronicity) and the classical-tinged symphonic pop of “Russians.” There’s also a re-working of the old Police cut “Shadows in the Rain” that sounds so much like a new song that you actually forget it’s a cover, while the Oriental-tinged “We Work the Black Seam” is easily one of Sting’s greatest non-singles as a solo artist. The album will be a shock upon first listen to those who only know Sting from the Police albums, but it’s a strong way to begin his solo career.

… Nothing Like the Sun (1987, A&M)

A

Not nearly as heavily jazz-influenced as his solo debut, Sting does retain Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland from the cast of players on his previous disc, but he also demonstrates more variety here, dipping into world-music-influenced balladry (“They Dance Alone (Cueca Solo)”) and even dance-pop (the Top Ten hit “We’ll Be Together”), even trying on a Hendrix cover (“Little Wing”). Old bandmate Andy Summers even pops up to add guitar to the percolating grooves of “The Lazarus Heart” and the Top 40 hit “Be Still My Beating Heart.” While “We’ll Be Together” was the biggest hit here, that single might actually be surpassed in greatness by some of the lesser-known tunes here, particularly “Straight to My Heart,” the symphonic reggae of “Englishman in New York” and, best of all, the universe-pondering pop of “Fragile,” the acoustic guitar part of which will send shivers up and down your spine; it’s the absolute perfect song to soundtrack just about any nature documentary (and, indeed, it’d be put to phenomenal use years later in the IMAX film The Living Sea). No sophomore jinx here.

The Soul Cages (1991, A&M)

B –

Inspired by the passing of his father, there isn’t much here on Sting’s third solo outing that can actually be called catchy (or even all that upbeat, for that matter), and not many tracks here hold up all that well when listened to in isolation, but as an album piece, this is one really beautiful and emotionally powerful album, if somewhat insular. Naturally, the nature of the album means that it didn’t do nearly as well on the radio as either of its two predecessors, and there’s only one Top 40 hit here, the lovely breezy rock of “All This Time” (which you seldom hear on the radio these days but is one of Sting’s most wildly underrated solo singles), but there are other fine cuts here as well, namely “Why Should I Cry for You?” and “Mad About You.”