College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #122 to #120

122. Sting, The Dream of the Blue Turtles (1985)

“There’s no way I was going to allow just free jazz,” Sting said of his debut solo album, The Dream of the Blue Turtles. “There’s a discipline to pop music that is quite severe. I didn’t want big, rambling solos, but I did want jazz’s sense of freedom and lightness within this disciplined form.”

To help him tap into that sense of freedom and lightness, Sting assembled a pack of ringers from the world of jazz: Kenny Kirkland on keyboards, Branford Marsalis on saxophone, Darryl Jones on bass, and Omar Hakim on drums. And there are clearly instances on the album when he really leans in to the form, whether the cool inflections on “Shadows in the Rain,” the hard groove of“Consider Me Gone,” or the instrumental title cut. The latter could have been plopped onto any contemporary jazz release of the same year and not raised an eyebrow. Of course, it might not have raised a pulse either. Presumably feeling a sense of liberation away from the increasingly contentious collaboration with his bandmates in the Police, Sting nonetheless feels oddly confined on these tracks. It’s tempting to ascribe a tourist’s inability to totally fit into their unfamiliar surroundings. A maybe more accurate guess is that Sting hasn’t yet decided what he wants to say and who he wants to be when doing his own thing free of pushback, so he tries a little bit of everything without landing on a real purpose. He might tinker with neo-soul, on lead single “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free,” or a kiddie-song version of reggae, on “Love Is the Seventh Wave,” but it all comes across as diversion more than commitment. Sometimes it’s entertaining diversion, but it’s mere diversion nonetheless.

The wispiness of the material is really only a problem because Sting is so clearly striving for profundity. His prominence raised be the preceding Police record, the smash Synchronicity, Sting fancied himself a pop-star statesman weighing in on world events. No matter how laudable his intentions, he comes across as a shallow thinker whose lyrics land with leaden obviousness. “Russians” is probably the worst offender (“How can I save my little boy from Oppenheimer’s deadly toy?/ There is no monopoly on common sense/ On either side of the political fence”), if only because Sting still thinks it has real weight and relevance. Sting’s statement of solidarity with striking U.K. coal miners, “We Work the Black Seam,” is just as mortifyingly middle school–level in the quality of its commentary: “Our blood has stained the coal/ We tunneled deep inside the nation’s soul/ We matter more than pounds and pence/ Your economic theory makes no sense.” Sting does far better when he applies this directness to a warlike metaphor for relationships on the potent“Fortress Around Your Heart.” In that context, the lines “While the armies are all sleeping/ Beneath the tattered flag we’d made/ I had to stop my tracks for fear/ Of walking on the mines I’d laid” play as reluctant truth-telling and hard-earned wisdom.

Officially, the Police were still a going concern when Sting released Dream of the Blue Turtles. That wasn’t true for much longer, though. When the trio got together to record the following years, the sessions seemed doomed from the start, beginning with news that drummer Stewart Copeland broke hi collarbone after falling off a horse. Guitarist Andy Summers was quickly convinced that Sting wasn’t interested in writing songs for the group anyway. Dream of the Blue Turtles had been a major success, climbing to the runner’s up spot on the Billboard album chart and delivering four Top 40 singles. A proven success without his old mates, Sting had little incentive to return to being one-third of a band. The Police formally disbanded in 1986, and Sting kept going with his solo career.

121. Lime Spiders, The Cave Comes Alive! (1987)

Australian band Lime Spiders had a long, bumpy trip to their debut album, The Cave Comes Alive! Formed in 1979, the group was constantly going through the tumult of lineup changes, even as victory in a 1982 battle of the bands earned them studio time and subsequent release of their first single, the punk puncher “25th Hour.” More singles followed, but so did more squabbles and personnel shifts. Even as they couldn’t quite pull things together, Lime Spiders endured, playing to sweaty, happy crowds. Finally, their assemblage of blistering tunes and devoted fan base down under caught the attention of Virgin Records. After years of toil, they were ready to present them on two long-playing sides.

The Cave Comes Alive! is a raw, raucous rock record, downright sublime in its assurance that playing simple songs with high-volume fervor is a noble endeavor. They arguably present this worldview through the choice of covers that pepper the album, including a muscly take on the Jack Bruce–penned Cream song “N.S.U.” and a blistering rampage through “Action Woman,” originally recorded by obscure nineteen-sixties garage rock band the Litter. It’s less a rock star audition than putting themselves forward for a theoretical future Nuggets compilation of lost greats from the nineteen-eighties.

Start to finish, the album is sturdy as a four-by-four. “My Favourite Room” is tuneful and tight, and “Ignormy” blasts right through the speakers. They rip through riotous rock on “Blood from a Stone” and unleash beautiful sludgy guitars on “Space Cadet.” If there’s not a lot of variance on the record, The Caves Comes Alive! tacitly makes the argument that ranging widely is overrated. Maybe more accurately, it’s unnecessary if a band has its core sonic principles down. Luckily for the music fans shrewd enough to find them, Lime Spiders wouldn’t wait long at all before proving that yet again.

120. The Psychedelic Furs, Mirror Moves (1984)

For their fourth studio album, Mirror Moves, the Psychedelic Furs wanted a producer who could help deliver a slick pop sound. For their previous outing, Forever Now, they had worked with Todd Rundgren, who helped incorporate synthesizers into their sound, and the Psychedelic Furs wanted to keep going in more of less the same creative direction. Tempting the further ire of fans who were already skeptical about a drift away from the punkier edge of their first two albums, the Psychedelic Furs hired Keith Forsey, who’d been instrumental in Billy Idol’s hits and had recently shared an Academy Award win for co-writing “Flashdance… What a Feeling.”

Also in the lead-up to Mirror Moves, the band fired drummer Vince Ely, bringing them down to a trio: Richard Butler on lead vocals, his brother Tim Butler on bass, and John Ashton on guitar. For the album, Forsey handled most of the percussion, and there are times when his deferral to drum machines is almost overwhelming. In particular, “Highwire Days” sound likes a sedated “Rockit,” its robotic qualities further hindered by Butler performing at his most detached. That sort of frontman disengagement was always at play on Psychedelic Furs albums. At the most problematic, his lyrics are almost laughably disinterested in coherence and heft. When “Here Come Cowboys” opens with the lines “There are colors flashing/ People wearing stars and stuff,” it’s a challenge to take it seriously in any way from there The music often aligns with that soft commitment: “Like a Stranger” is the softest, gooiest version of the band, and “Alice’s House” is dippy and plinky,

If the Psychedelic Furs often demonstrated a flagging attention across a full album, they sure could cobble together fantastic singles. Mirror Moves boasts two of their very best, prime examples of their knack for luxuriant pop drama. “The Ghost in You” is rapturously lovely in its romanticized heartache, so much so that the occasional nonsense of the lyrics (“A man in my shoes runs a light/ And all the papers lied tonight/ But falling over you/ Is the news of the day”) somehow comes across poetic truth. “Heaven” might be even better, essentially finding the Psychedelic Furs beating Echo & the Bunnymen at their own game.

Another routine occurrence in the Psychedelic Furs story is their perpetual dissatisfaction with their own output, at least in retrospect. Not long after touting Mirror Moves as exactly the album they wanted to make, they started dismissing it as too glossy, too poppy. It took a while for them to release a successor, but when they did, they insisted they had regained an edge they’d lost on Mirror Moves.

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs.

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