Synchronicity

Synchronicity is a work of dazzling surfaces and glacial shadows. Sunny pop melodies echo with ominous sound effects. Pithy verses deal with doomsday. A battery of rhythms — pop, reggae and African — lead a safari into a physical and spiritual desert, to "Tea in the Sahara." Synchronicity, the Police's fifth and finest album, is about things ending — the world in peril, the failure of personal relationships and marriage, the death of God.

Throughout the LP, these ideas reflect upon one another in echoing, overlapping voices and instrumentation as the safari shifts between England's industrial flatlands and Africa. "If we share this nightmare/ Then we can dream," Sting announces in the title cut, a jangling collage of metallic guitar, percussion and voices that artfully conjures the clamor of the world.

Though the Police started out as straightforward pop-reggae enthusiasts, they have by now so thoroughly assimilated the latter that all that remains are different varieties of reggae-style syncopation. The Police and coproducer Hugh Padgham have transformed the ethereal sounds of Jamaican dub into shivering, self-contained atmospheres. Even more than on the hauntingly ambient Ghost in the Machine, each cut on Synchronicity is not simply a song but a miniature, discrete soundtrack.

Synchronicity's big surprise, however, is the explosive and bitter passion of Sting's newest songs. Before this LP, his global pessimism was countered by a streak of pop romanticism. Such songs as "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da" and "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" stood out like glowing gems, safely sealed off from Sting's darker reflections. On Synchronicity, vestiges of that romanticism remain, but only in the melodies. In the lyrics, paranoia, cynicism and excruciating loneliness run rampant.

The cuts on Synchronicity are sequenced like Chinese boxes, the focus narrowing from the global to the local to the personal. But every box contains the ashes of betrayal. "Walking in Your Footsteps," a children's tune sung in a third-world accent and brightly illustrated with African percussion and flute, contemplates nothing less than humanity's nuclear suicide. "Hey Mr. Dinosaur, you really couldn't ask for more/You were god's favorite creature but you didn't have a future," Sting calls out before adding, "[We're] walking in your footsteps."

In "O My God," Sting drops his third-world mannerisms to voice a desperate, anguished plea for help to a distant deity: "Take the space between us, and fill it up, fill it up, fill it up!" This "space" is evoked in an eerie, sprinting dub-rock style, with Sting addressing not only God but also a woman and the people of the world, begging for what he clearly feels is an impossible reconciliation.

The mood of cosmic anxiety is interrupted by two songs written by other members of the band. Guitarist Andy Summers' corrosively funny "Mother" inverts John Lennon's romantic maternal attachment into a grim dadaist joke. Stewart Copeland's "Miss Gradenko," a novelty about secretarial paranoia in the Kremlin, is memorable mainly for Summers' modal twanging between the verses.

The rest of the album belongs to Sting. "Synchronicity II" refracts the clanging chaos of "Synchronicity I" into a brutal slice of industrial-suburban life, intercut with images of the Loch Ness monster rising from the slime like an avenging demon. But as the focus narrows from the global to the personal on side two, the music becomes more delicate — even as the mood turns from suspicion to desperation to cynicism in "Every Breath You Take," "King of Pain" and "Wrapped around Your Finger," a triptych of songs about the end of a marriage, presumably Sting's own. As the narrator of "Every Breath You Take" tracks his lover's tiniest movements like a detective, then breaks down and pleads for love, the light pop rhythm becomes an obsessive marking of time. Few contemporary pop songs have described the nuances of sexual jealousy so chillingly.

The rejected narrator in "King of Pain" sees his abandonment as a kind of eternal damnation in which the soul becomes "a fossil that's trapped in a high cliff wall/ ... A dead salmon frozen in a waterfall." "Wrapped around Your Finger" takes a longer, colder view of the institution of marriage. Its Turkish-inflected reggae sound underscores a lyric that portrays marriage as an ancient, ritualistic hex conniving to seduce the innocent and the curious into a kind of slavery.

"Tea in the Sahara," Synchronicity's moodiest, most tantalizing song, is an aural mirage that brings back the birdcalls and jungle sounds of earlier songs as whispering, ghostly instrumental voices. In this haunting parable of endless, unappeasable desire, Sting tells the story, inspired by the Paul Bowles novel The Sheltering Sky, of a brother and two sisters who develop an insatiable craving for tea in the desert. After sealing a bargain with a mysterious young man, they wait on a dune for his return, but he never appears. The song suggests many interpretations: England dreaming of its lost empire, mankind longing for God, and Sting himself pining for an oasis of romantic peace.

And that is where this bleak, brilliant safari into Sting's heart and soul finally deposits us — at the edge of a desert, searching skyward, our cups full of sand.

From The Archives Issue 48: December 13, 1969