CLASSIC ALBUM: The Police – ‘Synchronicity’

CLASSIC ALBUM: The Police - 'Synchronicity'

The Police by December of 1982 had achieved fame and fortune and were much admired by both critics and the public at large. Their 1981 release “Ghosts in the Machine” had cemented the accolades they had received after the release of their breakthrough album 1980’s “Zenyatta Mondatta”. The band was at a point where many inside and outside the band wondered if they could top those efforts. Their 1983 release “Synchronicity” would display that The Police possessed that singular legacy making tendency that all great artists possess. Rather than resting on their laurels churning out more of the same Sting, Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers would experiment with new sounds and ideas as they followed their own path. They would take a chance disregarding the demands of critics, fans and their label and end up with a blockbuster. “Synchronicity” was a masterwork that is often obscured by the untimely breakup of the band. That break up in some ways cast a shadow on what The Police accomplished with this intelligent, quirky at times but always heartfelt effort. The album that initiated my life long love of lyrics fell into a memory hole of sorts. So consider this my attempt to correct that occurrence some 36 years later.

The album that would become “Synchronicity” was recorded at AIR Studios on the island of Montserrat and Le Studio in Quebec, Canada. It was recorded between December of 1982 and February of 1983. It was produced by Hugh Padgham and the members of The Police. The personal trials and tempestuousness of the band’s social dynamic drove the recording. Padgham resorted to recording each of the band member’s parts in different recording studios at different times to keep the argumentative nature of the members in check. At one point refereeing the pugnaciousness nature of their social interaction would see Padgham threaten to abandon the project, but in the end, the recording was completed and released in June of 1983. It didn’t take long for it to become The Police most successful effort.

“Synchronicity” would unleash four mammoth singles; “Every Breathe You Take”, “King of Pain”, “Wrapped Around Your Finger” and “Synchronicity II”. MTV was in its heyday and the videos for three of the songs would garner increase popularity for the band. The release would go number 1 in both the US and UK, it would sell 8 million units in the US alone and receive critical acclaim for its ability to cohesively merge disparate genres and sonics with intelligent lyrics. The 1983 Rolling Stone Readers poll would vote “Synchronicity” Album of the Year. The album would be Grammy nominated for Album of the Year, win for Best Rock Performance and take home one of the big prizes, winning the Grammy for Song of the Year with “Every Breathe You Take”. To give some context to that award, the song bested Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” from “Thriller”. The album would also move “Thriller” out of the number one spot for 17 weeks. Not too bad for an album about esoteric ideas provided by the likes of psychologist Carl Gustav Jung and author/journalist Arthur Koestler.

The album gained its title from Carl Gustav Jung’s book “Synchronicity”. The word by definition means unconnected events that have a causal connection. That definition really informs the overall concept of the album with each song being so individual yet each song fit like a puzzle piece that once connected created a total picture. “Synchronicity” delved into many archetypal struggles that mankind has faced for an eon but it was also about the break down of relationships. Sting and Andy Summer’s marriages were ending during the recording and the aftermath of that emotional turmoil seeps into many tracks along with the band’s struggles to get along with each other. This would prove to be a task they failed at miserably. The album was a sum total of all the cacophony the band was confronting, fears that lingered and the break down of relationships. Those topics make for a universal appeal that was akin to Jung’s theories of motif and coincidence that gave the album its title. Like all masterworks, each encounter with the album revealed something new and it maintains its relevance even 36 years after it’s released. What was so alluring about the album was its ability to convey a sort of end of the world gyre that the poets had warned about.

“Synchronicity” closely examined the world, relationships both marital and personal and the idea of understanding God and it was all accomplished in 43 minutes of song. The landscapes in which this examination took place spanned from the Sahara desert to tiny impersonal office boxes in bleak industrial parks. “Synchronicity” was peopled by obsessed lovers, Amazonian Soviet secretaries, thwarted apprentices, serial killers, yearning eccentrics and a chap at the garden gate philosophizing about mankind’s fate. Betrayal hung heavy in the air and is found in almost every track; be the betrayer a spouse, employer, humanity or God. Throughout Sting begs for reconciliation or at least for the pain to stop. The album was looking for a way to transcend the unmitigated difficulties of life.

“Synchronicity I” begins the album with a hit and run of sorts and an intro to the premise defining the title as per C.G. Jung, “A connecting principle, linked to the invisible…causally connectible, yet nothing is invincible”. It is an intense and demanding song with a serious rhythm that is filled with Latin-tinged explosive percussion and Fairlight synths. The layering of the vocals drives the song to almost manic levels. Portrayed is a giddy race down the road to oblivion. If for nothing else sit back on this song and enjoy the wonder of Stewart Copeland’s drumming. From that hyper intro, the cool pan pipes allow the listener to enter into another soundscape with “Walking in Your Footsteps”. The haunting and evocative sonics drop the listener into a prehistoric world that is then paralleled to our current world. The track identifies our society’s maddening disregard for our own potential extinction. Lyrically Sting points out that we like the dinosaur are at the top of the food chain but that is no insurance that that this situation will go on infinitely. He makes the point that the dinosaurs had no lessons or examples to draw upon but we do and to make changes. To emphasize this Sting sings “Hey there Mr Brontosaurus don’t you have a message for us, you thought your rule would always last, there were no lessons in your past”. He continues “They say the meek shall inherit the Earth” as a warning to think beyond our lofty perch.

I have always taken “O My God” as a kind of modern psalm. There are some that see this song as shaking a fist at God, others liken it to Job, Psalms and Ecclesiastes where man questions God’s seeming cruelty. Sting in the song seems to plead for God to manifest himself and intervene in our personal hells removing our doubt about his existence. He exhorts, “The fat man in his garden, the thin man at his gate, My God you must be sleeping wake up it’s much too late.” He then moves on to supplication of sorts, “Take the space between us and fill it up some way.” There is a poignancy in the restating of the lyric from “Don’t Stand So Close to Me”, “It’s a big enough umbrella but it’s always me that ends up getting wet”, which closes the song. This time the lyric doesn’t speak to romantically getting the short end of the stick but instead to the existential angst of man’s relationship with the higher power. Sonically the song shows the mature mastery of the band with Copeland’s apt drumming, swirling synths, Summers’ chimaera like guitars, and Sting nailing that sax solo at the end punctuating the forlorn nature of the track. Much is often made of the Every Breathe You Take Trilogy on the second side of the album. Those songs garner most of the attention on “Synchronicity”, but the first trio of songs is lyrically as powerful and they really push the sonic edge of what was happening at the time musically.

There is always a lot of disagreement over the next two songs, “Mother” and “Miss Gradenko”. They were the album’s songwriting contributions from Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland. Some feel they ruined a masterwork others find they do plug into the overall theme. When I was young I agreed with the former but as I got older I have come to appreciate the songs as presenting yet another aspect of the overall concept. “Mother” crashes into life with a disturbing claustrophobic track. The narrator could be Norman Bates at his most psychotic. Talk about your Freudian/Oedipal conflict. Portrayed is a narrator who is frantic to escape his mother only to have the girls he dates turn out like her. As disturbing as this song is with epic strum and drang it perfectly fits into the themes of psychological investigation going on in the album. There is no denying the song sticks with the listener as it brings to mind padded cells and breaks from reality. It is madness captured both in lyrics and sonics a kind of Primal Scream therapy. Where “Mother” is complete madness, “Miss Gradenko” is paranoia. We are suddenly transported to an imagined Soviet Rezidentura. The idea of nonconformity even in its most innocent form, simply asking a question is frowned upon in this extremely controlled environment. You can feel the claustrophobia. Copeland captures that vibe accurately and it can be translated from the atmosphere of the Soviet Union of the day to many a Multinational corporation in our current existence. In both instances, conformity is demanded no matter how wrong. The drumline and guitar solos on the track are inspired as the intentional monotony of the singing on the refrain conveys the oppressiveness of the situation. I often wonder if these songs placed somewhere else in the playlist would have worked better than where they were placed, but they remain great tracks deserving note.

“Synchronicity II” bookends the first half of the album. The song was inspired by the Yeats poem “The Second Coming”. The imagery of the track is spectacular. In a few succinct lines, it describes the frustrations and mind-numbing realities of modern life. There is ever-present ennui conveyed as a grandmother is slowly going out of her mind, the self-generated drama of a bored housewife/mother and a father who is slowly unravelling into madness. Captured is the unrelenting stress of being normal in an abnormal world and the threat of what can happen when our coping mechanisms snap. Here is a world, a man and a family racing horribly to an unavoidable ending as that monster insanity (here personified by Nessy) approaches the door to wreak havoc. This song has always felt like the darkest track on the album and that is saying something for an album that features murder and betrayal as the main course. The sonics on this song are balls to the wall with the mantic intro and each band member’s musical brilliance on full display. They convey all the sinister dancing on the edge of darkness feeling that is on this magnificent track.

You have to have been in a coma to not be familiar with “Every Breathe You Take”. However, familiarity does not reduce the impact of this song, which is massive. What it is not is a song for weddings as it was about doomed/unrequited obsessive love. The song was triggered by Sting’s imploding marriage to his first wife Frances Tomelty. One of the reasons it was so popular is that it spoke to heartbreak and a yearning for what could never be or never was in a love relationship. Sting truly sings his heart out and it takes a stone cold person not to be moved. The video underlined the voyeur stalker element but the song also contained identifiable crushing heartbreak. The strings arrangement is a thing of beauty, minimal but lush, simple but gorgeous. Summers and Copeland once again prove their genius with apt drumming and guitars. The song is brilliant alchemy and it is no wonder it won Grammy Song of the Year as it has endured in popularity through the decades.

After “Every Breathe You Take” it becomes obvious Sting was in a bad place while he was songwriting for the release. “King of Pain” erased any doubts this was the case as he dialled up his misery to 11. Each tragic occurrence listed whether in antiquity or current, hammers a blow upon a bruise. The building up of tragic occurrences makes the pain palpable; the brutal nature of the Earth’s life cycle, the mistakes of mankind, the monotony of our stupidity. This catalogue of woe could have become pastiche if not for Sting’s careful songwriting. Things are relentlessly bleak, “I’ve stood here before inside the pouring rain, with the world turning circles running around my brain, I guess I’m always hoping that you’ll end this reign, but it’s my destiny to be the king of pain.” The heartbreaking refrain after each unfortunate image, ‘That’s my soul up there” builds the pathos to an almost unbearable level. This all takes place with the piano coda and marimba ticking off the seconds with the break into full percussion and bass taking over in a building swell of feeling adding once again to the drama of the track. This is a song that reaches for perfection and it is beautifully composed and executed.

My all-time favourite track is “Wrapped Around Your Finger” and has the alluring narrative of an apprentice besting a master. The lyrics are filled with allusions to Greek and Roman classics and mythology. Sting parallels them to the cat and mouse of a relationship that was the song’s initial inspiration. I love the build to the goosebump-inducing turning of the tables and the victory of the apprentice, “I will turn your face to alabaster when you find your servant is your master”. This song is simply a glorious creation. Sonically Summers perfectly places his guitar riffs and the drums are a true wonder as the Fairlight synth builds the drama. Once again every element The Police brought to the track is shown to its best advantage. It is truly an unforgettable selection.

I am deep track lover and “Tea in the Sahara” might have started that tendency, I love this song. It was inspired by the Paul Bowles novel, “The Sheltering Sky.” The song unspools like a parable about the dangers of endlessly searching for the satisfaction of romantic yearning. This atmospheric song transports the listener to the desert where it suddenly becomes perfectly reasonable to desire a tea party. The track is filled with yearning and forlorn desire, which is ever to be thwarted as the naïve subjects of the tale will eternally seek the unfulfilled somewhat mad goal they have fixated upon. The hypnotic feeling of this track eases the listener off the heavy-hitting songs that have unspooled earlier. This song is about eccentric madness and obsession. The ice-cold chill of the track is melded with the throbbing heat of the desert creating a dreamy surreal surrounding. There is a great bass line that feeds the selection as Copeland marks time till the chorus and then makes his mark. The song gets under your skin and haunts you.

“Murder by Numbers” was a bonus track initially on the US version of the release that was eventually added internationally. The song’s narrator is a serial killer who coldly explains how he came to murder and why he continues. The track indicts faceless governments and officials who kill at will with the blood-curdling description, “…but you can reach the top of your profession if you become the leader of the land. For murder is the sport of the elected you don’t need to lift a finger of your hand.” Sting delivers a song that spoke to bloodlust, the idea of being one of the elect and again the concept of madness in its ultimate representation. The delivery was tongue and cheek much like Edward Gorey’s “The Gashlycrumb Tinies” and was effective in getting its point across. This sardonic track is the last original entry into The Police discography and made even more poignant by the clapping at the outré. It was a flash of positive in a very dark and gripping release.

Most people know what transpired in the near future after the dust settled with the release of “Synchronicity”. The band would acquire the top perch in the world of Rock Music as undeniable leaders. They would attempt a sixth album, however, the band’s fraught relationship with each other, which at the best of times was a clash of brilliant ambitious egos, would lead to the band breaking up officially in 1986. Sting would head off to his successful solo career; Stewart Copeland would continue to jump in and out of various musical projects landing successfully in producing. Andy Summers would record with various musicians like Robert Fripp and publish his photography. Time would eventually bring the band together from time to time, first on the last three stops of the Conspiracy of Hope Amnesty International Tour in 1986 and then a The Police reunion tour that the band swears was a one-off in 2007. I guess fans were foolish to think that the super concentration of musical brilliance the likes of the three members of The Police could last, like some kind of comet they were destined to burn out. But what an album they released before they parted. “Synchronicity” would prove to be an intricate combination of dazzling sonics, glacial doom and pop hooks. Sadly too often its magnificence is overshadowed by the never-ending question of what might have been if The Police has remained operational.

When you move beyond that question it is apparent the release deserves appreciation for what it was and it is a masterwork. It defined the musical zeitgeist of the era challenging future artists to match and exceed its vision and brilliance. If you have never listened to the album please make sure to avail yourself before you exit this world. I can attest to its power as personally “Synchronicity” set me off on my own musical journey ever so long ago and that journey continues today; thanks Sting, Stewart and Andy, I am eternally in your debt.

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