Zenyatta Mondatta, by the Police
After the considerable success of the first two albums of the Police, we might expect that the following album would largely follow suit, and in general that is exactly what happened. Boosted by having a couple of hits on each of their first albums, and having shown considerable growth in their technical abilities, aside from the fact that the lyrics were still a bit weaker than one would like, the band continued to push for growth, and so it was that commercially speaking and artistically speaking their third album has an even better reputation than their first two. Looking back on the album after some 40 years, though, does the album still hold up? Does it show the advancement one would hope from a band that was clearly coming into its own? Two songs from this album, one of them quite full of nonsense lyrics, remain well remembered, but what kind of deep cuts can be found? Let’s find out.
The album begins with its biggest and most beloved song, the dark and highly topical “Don’t Stand So Close To Me,” with its problematic lyrics and ominous groove. “Driven To Tears” contains introspective lyrics about a troubled relationship and a look at the outside world with excellent music. “When The World Is Running Down, You Make The Best Of What’s Still Around” provides a long title that expresses its ethics of coping rather than resisting the decline of the world. “Canary In A Coal Mine” is a rather humorous and upbeat song that hides a rather serious criticism of those who are oversensitive to anything going on wrong around them. “Voices In My Head” follows this with a great groove and some lyrics that are pushed back considerably in the mix. “Bombs Away” has upbeat music but rather dark lyrics about South Indian military and political matters. “De Do Do Do De Da Da Da” has a nonsense hook but the details of the lyrics are eloquent in the discussion of the coercive nature of logic and reasoning. “Behind My Camel” provides an ominous and Middle Eastern-sounding instrumental that befits a group that includes the son of a CIA great. “Man In A Suitcase” is an upbeat but rather serious reflection of the troubles of living on the road that includes some spoken word segments. “Shadows In The Rain” examines mental health and distorts the lyrics to provide some tone painting for the lyrics. “The Other Way Of Stopping” then closes the album with an interesting instrumental.
This album marks a consolidation of the Police’s improved musical chops that the second album did, while also adding some considerable increases in lyrical skill and complexity (even if the album does have two instrumentals). One of the most intriguing aspects of the album is how it is that the Police chooses to tackle serious objects in a way that puts Sting in a somewhat unsympathetic light–as a former teacher and a current songwriter, his comments about the coercion in unequal relationships and the coercive way that wordsmiths like poets, priests, and politicians use communication to attain power cut against him as much as anyone else he could be singing about. If the album speaks eloquently concerning mental illness and the stress and strain in living in the crazy world we do, it is less about rebelling against that craziness than finding a way to cope with it, whether through self-examination or humor or some other mechanism. In the apparent nonsense that one finds, there is a great deal of sense of the most practical kind.