Esperanto, like the League of Nations, was one of those good ideas that just didn’t work. Intended as an international language not native to anyone but foreign to no one — an answer to divisiveness dating back to the Tower of Babel — it failed because its design gave a sop to every culture while capturing the passion of none. The same is often true of pop music that attempts to meld the resources of various countries. Native idioms, when taken out of context, can lose their indigenous spark or be reproduced so painstakingly that they become ridiculous in a pop context. The bridge that many groups try to build to the Third World sometimes uses condescension for its supports.
By their second and best LP, Reggatta de Blanc, however, the Police had managed to devise a musical Esperanto that succeeded. Bathed in the watercolor wash of guitarist Andy Summers’ chording, the band’s rhythms and inflections merged into a homogenized yet utterly distinctive sound that didn’t revere its components as much as recontextualize them, creating new passion in fresh places. The group’s approach was relentlessly, calculatedly middlebrow: never identify, never overexplain, flatter your audience into thinking they appreciate cross-rhythms when what’s really hooking them is some of the snappiest songwriting since Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Buttressed by the band’s earnestly liberal message, this approach clicked. Zenyatta Mondatta, the third Police album, made the Top Ten. In a strange way, its sound was so familiar as to be formulaic: Sting’s high, lilting singing, Summers’ shivery harmonics and, most of all, the music’s spare, sculptural quality — the way each number had a core of space in which rhythms changed and grew and echoed.
Ghost in the Machine downplays most of these elements — or, rather, augments them. Chords don’t reverberate in a shaft of silence but find response in overdubs. Sting’s thin vocals have harmonizing partners. The multitrack singing eliminates the attractive tinge of aloneness that’s always been integral to the subtext of Police compositions, while the extra instrumentation — keyboards, guitar parts, Sting’s overdubbed one-man horn section — fills up the open spaces in their music. Ghost in the Machine feels unsettlingly crowded.
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Which is as it should be, since that’s what the album is about: overload, media explosion, the global village, the behavioral sink. The Police’s platform, a spinoff from Marshall McLuhan, Alvin Toffler, et al., is hardly news (sure, Ghost in the Machine is a smart, track-it-down title, but author Arthur Koestler hasn’t been in vogue for quite a while), yet it’s strongly stated, consistent and compelling. The thrashing, denatured funk of “Too Much Information,” the whirlpool riff that punctuates “Omegaman” and the oppressive, hymnlike aspects of “Invisible Sun” all bespeak claustrophobia and frustration, and the lyrics bear them out. The Police skillfully manipulate musical details to underscore their points. Sting brays “information” as if to demonstrate how words, when repeated often enough, can disassemble into meaninglessness. In “Rehumanize Yourself”, the singsong circus-calliope mood of the music works as a taunt to the raw seriousness of the lyrics: “Billy joined the National Front/He always was a little runt/Got his hand in the air with the other cunts….”
They’re still not the Clash — neither the National Front nor the situation in Belfast (broodingly addressed in “Invisible Sun”) is an especially risky target — but the Police display more commitment, more real anger, on Ghost in the Machine than ever before. It’s as if their roles as self-anointed pop ambassadors have shown them the difficulty of healing gestures. For example, the heart-rending joyous-ness with which “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” bursts from the grooves proves its discontinuity with all of the other songs. It’s a moment of liberation, of tossed-off shackles, whereas the rest of the record (even, to some extent, the obsessive “Hungry for You”) emphasizes constraints — if not those imposed by society, then those accepted as responsibility, like the toll that talent exacts in Stewart Copeland’s “Darkness” or the promise to continue to seek knowledge in “Secret Journey.”
Even “One World (Not Three),” a sort of reggae march that’s the closest the LP comes to an anthem, is a kind of trial: by attacking the concept of such categorizations as the Third World, the tune turns inward to interrogate the Police themselves, implicitly questioning the attitudes involved in their rock-around-the-world crusades. Not so incidentally, the number is also a virtuosic instrumental display, particularly by Copeland, whose drumming captures both reggae nuances and rock & roll dynamics. On Ghost in the Machine, not even genius exempts you from tough questions.
The Police’s smarts have always been greatest when they didn’t show — in making unorthodox career decisions or disguising the subtlety of their songwriting as simplicity. Now that the group has been rewarded with success, it’s time to change, to challenge old assumptions. Having seen the world, these guys are starting to look more closely at themselves.