On the Police’s debut album, Outlandos d’Amour, lead vocalist/bassist Sting sings in a sleight-of-hand variety of styles: there’s a high-pitched quaver reminiscent of Ray Davies on the love songs, some Jamaican patois trotted out for the reggae cuts, a bit of Roger Daltrey’s phlegm-that-swallowed-Kansas howling for a big rabble-rouser like “Born in the 50’s.” Sting sounds like a guy who’s just made sergeant and is looking for a voice to back up his new stripes.
His band, too, offers a little something for everyone. If the flexible, jazz-influenced flourishes of drummer Stewart Copeland, a reggae beat and guitarist Andy Summers’ finely honed attentiveness to nuance lend the Police a stylish art-rock elegance, their music still sounds unpolished and sometimes mean enough to let them pass for part-time members of the New Wave—even though it’s a brand of New Wave sufficiently watered down to allow these guys to become today’s AOR darlings. And yet their hybrid of influences has been fused into a streamlined, scrappy style, held together by the kind of knotty, economical hooks that make a song stick out on the radio. Musically, Outlandos d’Amour has a convincing unity and drive.
It’s on the emotional level that it all seems somewhat hollow. Posing as a punk. Sting, as both singer and songwriter, can’t resist turning everything into an art-rock game. He’s so archly superior to the material that he fails to invest it with much feeling. Deft and rhythmically forceful though they are, the songs work only as posh collections of catch phrases (“Can’t stand losing you” or “Truth hits everybody”) thrown out at random to grab your attention: lyrical hooks to punch up musical hooks, with nothing behind them.
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By trying to have it both ways—posturing as cool art-rockers and heavy, meaningful New Wavers at the same time—the Police merely adulterate the meanings of each. Their punk pose is no more than a manipulative come-on. For all its surface threat, there’s no danger in this music, none of the spontaneity or passion that punk (and reggae) demands. Even when Sting says, “There’s a hole in my life,” he can’t convince us it’s keeping him up nights—we know it’s just another conceit. And the larger the implied emotions, the tinnier he makes them sound. A gimmicky anthem manufactured out of whole cloth, “Born in the 50’s” reaches for Who-style generational myth making (down to its ringing, Pete Townshend-like guitar line), but Sting can’t make us see that there’s anything special about this generation, because he knows there really isn’t.
The lack of emotional commitment becomes truly offensive in the minstrel-show Natty Dread accent that Sting puts on for the reggae numbers. The Clash’s great “(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais” works as white reggae because it’s all about Joe Strummer’s painful awareness that he can never claim this music as his own. Sting simply co-opts the style without acknowledging that such questions exist. The Police’s reggae is an infuriating and condescending parlor trick—a kind of slumming that isn’t even heartfelt.
As entertainment, Outlandos d’Amour isn’t monotonous—it’s far too jumpy and brittle for that—but its mechanically minded emptiness masquerading as feeling makes you feel cheated, and more than a little empty yourself. You’re worn out by all the supercilious, calculated pretense. The Police leave your nervous system all hyped up with no place to go.