Album: Outlandos d’Amour – The Police
Review: Rolling Stone, 14 June 1979
Author: Tom Carson
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 catchphrases (“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.
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.
This was actually drafted for inclusion over the Festive period but having miscalculated how many I actually needed, I put it to one side, initially for a rainy day and then chose to have it come back as the first of what will be an occasional series given the positive fedback for this sort of thing.
It is fair to say that most of the 1979 reviews were far from favourable to The Police but Rolling Stone was a bit more vitriolic than most, with it damning with faint praise (and as it is an American review I’ve posted, I’ve chosen the more common album cover to be found over there rather than the one UK folk will be more familiar with.)
As time has gone by, there has been something of a rethink about Outlandos d’Amour, with many more than happy to talk up the strengths of the hit singles, albeit the way Sting has gone about his solo career and the high-profile rock star lifestyle he’s pursued has meant he’s remained fair game for many.
Even Rolling Stone has changed its tune. This is from December 2010 when it placed it at #434 in the greatest albums of all time:-
They would get bigger, but they never sounded fresher. The Police were punks who could play their instruments, absorbing reggae into the spare, bouncy sound of their debut album. “Roxanne,” “Next to You” and “So Lonely” proved that Sting was already a top-notch pop songwriter.
Almost the exact same was said in March 2013 during a feature on Best Debut Albums of All Time:-
They would get bigger, but they never sounded fresher. From Sting’s smoothly syncopated bass to Andy Summer’s prog-rock guitar and Stewart Copeland’s precision drumming, the Police were post-punks who could play their instruments, absorbing reggae and jazz into the spare, bouncy sound of their debut album, a record that didn’t sound quite like anything before it. The risque “Roxanne,” ”Next to You” and “So Lonely” proved that Sting was already a top-notch pop songwriter and these songs are in the DNA of everyone from No Doubt to U2.
Outlandos d’Amour came in at #38 in that particular rundown…..which, even for a fan like myself, seems embarrassingly high.