December 13, 2009

NT's greatest hits, no. 23 (of 34)

Just when you thought it was forgotten…

"Message in a Bottle" by the Police

I have a sister, three years older. Based on her musical tastes, I often speak of a subgenre of rock & roll I call "Older Sister Music." Sort of pop-goth acts, e.g., Depeche Mode, the Cure, the Smiths. Not that only older sisters are into these sounds—I love the Smiths, and the BQT's door girl Sherry—youngest of three—is a hardcore OSM fan—but these bands seem emblematic of a type of teenage girl of the '80s and '90s who seemed perpetually two to four years older than me.

Yet far and above, growing up my sister's favorite band was the Police. Not a unique choice in the early to mid-'80s, but she was particularly dedicated; she had a three-foot-diameter copy of Synchronicity hung on her bedroom wall. And while I never picked up on Depeche Mode via next-bedroom-over osmosis, I did become a pretty ardent Police fan, of which I remain (Sting solo I can take or leave, especially after his management office fired DJ GB's husband).

Like the Beatles, the Police hit a sweet spot of massive fan adulation and critical appreciation. And listening to their best work, it's kind of amazing how such creative musicianship broke through to the masses on the level it did; the first few Police records combined punk rock and exotic, far-afield rhythms in a way that no one else picked up on, at least until the past few years (Vampire Weekend and bands of that ilk seem to get it, and they do have their moments). But "Message in a Bottle," my favorite Police song, is on the more conventional side: a terse and tense new-wave rock tune, with an intensely repeating guitar figure. It's a good opportunity for the band to show off its musical chops—Stewart Copeland is justly hailed as a mind-blowing drummer, but I don't think Andy Summers and Sting ever got full credit for how adept they were at their own instruments, to which "Message in a Bottle" is strong testament. And while Sting's high and yelpy vocal style is ripe for parody, it worked perfectly for this music and subject matter, at least back then (1979 this song was released).

Speaking of which, "Message in the Bottle" shows Sting's lyrical style mutating from open expressions of isolation and self-pity ("Can't Stand Losing You" is hilariously sad) to the exotic but fairly transparent metaphors of Synchronicity. "Message in a Bottle" is particularly elegant, in that it tells the story simply and unpretentiously, with plenty of palpable emotion. At the same time, it rocks, satisfying that other major aspect of my musical interest. This song is brilliant, this band was excellent. My sister was right about some things.

More of NT's greatest hits: "Emily Kane," "Born to Run," "Shake Some Action," "Chips Ahoy!," "Radio, Radio," "Could You Be the One?," "Summer in the City," "Teenage Kicks," "Strawberry Fields Forever, " "Tunnel of Love," "I Get Around," "Local Girls," "Don't Let's Start," "Suffragette City," "See-Saw," "My Name Is Jonas," "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Reelin' in the Years," "Objects of My Affection" and "Crimson and Clover," "OK Apartment" and "Just What I Needed"


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