College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #42 and #41

42. The Psychedelic Furs, Forever Now (1982)

“I enjoy surprising,” explained Richard Butler, the frontman of the Psychedelic Furs, while making the rounds to promote the band’s third album, Forever Now. “We have many hardcore fans, fans of the first album, who come to our shows expecting to hear a heavy band, and you should see their mouths hanging out when they see cellos up on stage.”

The surprise-facilitating changes that the Psychedelic Furs underwent in the span from their 1981 sophomore LP, Talk Talk Talk, and Forever Now entailed more than sending concert invites to musicians adept at string instruments. Most significantly, guitarist Roger Morris and saxophone player Duncan Kilburn exited the band, neither on good terms. As the remaining quartet were sorting out how to proceed, they learned that the producer of their first two albums, Steve Lillywhite, was now in high enough demand that he couldn’t spare the time to return for the third. The Psychedelic Furs took that as an opportunity to stretch themselves in new sonic directions, and they found just the replacement behind the boards to help them do that.

Todd Rundgren was a self-professed fan of the band’s output to that point, but he was also not a collaborator inclined to repeat what had come before. When the Psychedelic Furs took a meeting with Rundgren at his Utopia Sound studio in upstate New York, the prospective producer told them that he could make them sound however they wanted to. If they wanted to thwart expectations, he was their man. With everyone in agreement about the possibilities of the new album, the Psychedelic Furs picked Rundgren for the job, agreeing to record in his studio.

The reduction in the band’s roster naturally meant the new songs they worked on were a little leaner and more direct. At the time, Butler insisted that was exactly the point of the personnel shifts. Simultaneously, Rundgren helped them fill any gaps with lush, intricate production, which is arguably most noticeable on the album’s vibrant title cut. Like a lot of bands of their era, the Psychedelic Furs sometimes got by on having a lot of distracting clatter in the songs. Without losing the fullness, Rundgren helped them realize sleeker version of their aesthetic.

Despite the sprucing up, the Psychedelic Furs still lead with brashness on Forever Now. Sure, the fun, horn-spattered “Danger” brings them as close as they could ever come to being a pure party band, even with lyrics that at least hint at gloomier notions (“Make yourself up once again/ Kick out in a style/ Ann don’t let her sadness show/ She paints on a smile”), and “Sleep Comes Down” finds Rundgren adding an Abbey Road layer on the band’s punk-hangover punch. These are luxuriant diversion, though. The prevailing tone is still discontentment with a curmudgeonly snarl.

“I tend to be cynical,” Butler noted at the time. “I’m just like the rest of the disillusioned idealists. If you’re perfectly happy, there’s no point in writing.”

Butler notably aimed his lyrical ire at Ronald Reagan, the doddering, charlatan cowboy leader of the U.S., on “President Gas.” The music is especially sharp, with a touch of glam rock, as Butler barks, “It’s sick the price of medicine/ Stand up, we’ll put you on your feet again/ Open up your eyes just to check that you’re asleep again/ President Gas is President Gas again.” If Butler was never going to reach Bob Dylan’s levels of political cogency in his lyrics, the vitriol is clear enough, and the mild confusion of his imagery means the commentary could be applied with equal accuracy to any imperiously uncaring head of state, which Butler gladly — and suspiciously — claimed was his intent all along with the song.

As is the case with every album in the Psychedelic Furs’ catalog, their affectations can grow a little wearying. Butler’s bratty vocals come across as merely tedious on “Yes I Do,” for instance. They also could conjure up pop magic like few of the peers, as evidenced by the grand, intoxicating “Love My Way,” which is distinguished by plunky marimba playing and soaring melodies. The obvious choice as first single, the song was their first to make the Billboard Hot 100, missing the Top 40 by just a few places. Butler attributed that success to their determined reinvention from their rough and riotous beginnings.

“What’s the use of a buying a Furs album if it’s the same thing?,” he asked.

41. The Police, Synchronicity (1983)

When the Police went into the studio to record their fifth album, Synchronicity, they were riding a long-lasting career crest. Their third album, Zenyatta Mondatta, was a major breakthrough, and its follow-up, Ghost in the Machine, only built on that success. That was particularly true in the U.S., where the album just missed topping the Billboard album chart, crowded out by Foreigner’s blockbuster 4, which was in the midst of a five-week run in that storied position. That album’s single “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” was the Police’s biggest U.S. hit to that point. They were feeling secure enough to momentarily step off the rapidly whirring music biz treadmill. For the first time since the release of their 1978 debut, Outlandos d’Amour, the Police didn’t deliver a new album within a year of its predecessor. Instead, they went off to other projects: guitarist Andy Summers recorded an album with fellow axeman Robert Fripp, drummer Stewart Copeland wrote and performed the music score for director Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish, and Sting had his own new dalliance with the movies, playing Feyd Rautha in David Lynch’s screen adaption of the classic science fiction novel Dune.

If it was the best of times, it was also, as the famed opening line goes, also the worst of times. The trio was never particularly chummy, but the relationship between Copeland, Summers, and Sting had grown so acrimonious that they weren’t on speaking terms. Even the rosiest reports about their collaboration acknowledged that the Police were rarely in the same room together while making Synchronicity. Co-producer Hugh Padgham, returning to that role after collaborating with the band on Ghost in the Machine, tried to downplay those separate working quarters, maintaining that recording simultaneously in different rooms allowed him to get the best possible sound out of each interest. Even so, he allowed that were also “social reasons” driving the physical arrangement.

“Studio work is so much more concentrated, and, therefore, the tensions are more concentrated,” Copeland said during the Police’s subsequent tour, drawing a contrast with what he portrayed as less fraught interpersonal relationships between the trio when on the road. “There are lots of different ways of doing anything and deciding which of them is most interesting, there’s bound to be conflict. There is in every group. It’s just that people make more noise about conflict in the Police because we own up to the fact that it exists.”

The unpleasant process of making Synchronicity didn’t unduly diminish its quality, and it unquestionably caused to harm to its commercial prospects. The Police were already a major act before the release of Synchronicity; the album have them a legitimate claim, however brief, of being the biggest rock band in the world. In the U.S., it was their first album to top the Billboard album chart and spent seventeen nonconsecutive weeks in that position (Michael Jackson’s Thriller muscled past it for one week in the midst of that run) on its way to, by now, over eight million copies sold. A good chunk of that run coincided with the Police holding the same vaunted position on the Billboard singles chart with the album’s lead single, “Every Breath You Take.” By far their most formidable hit, the song logged an astounding eight weeks at #1 in the U.S. It also has the distinction of being one of the most wildly misinterpreted songs to achieve chart dominance.

“It’s about evil,” Sting said of the song at the time. “It’s about surveillance, and evil, and jealousy. And yet, to a lot of people, it’s just a teenage love song. I watched Andy Gibb on television the other night, a girl and Andy Gibb singing ‘Every Breath You Take’ and giving each other the glad eye. I don’t mind him doing that. I write them for me, and I know their integrity.”

“Every Breath You Take” is a tremendous, and it’s arguably that touch of ambiguity that give it extra weight. It does sound like a love ballad, and most of the language is roughly akin to that heard in decades upon decades of pretty pop heartache: “Since you’ve gone, I’ve been lost without a trace/ I dream at night, I can only see your face/ I look around, but it’s you I can’t replace/ I feel so cold, and I long for your embrace.” The menace creeps in slowly, insidiously, the menace often does. From a songwriter who’s too often annoying literal, “Every Breath You Take” is a thrilling feat of stealth emotional sabotage.

One of the most surprising and striking elements of listening to Synchronicity now, well past the point that several of its songs become radio fixtures, is that its strongest material is held back until the second half of the album. The bulk of side two can basically be transferred straight over to a great hits collection: “Every Breath You Take” is followed by “King of Pain” and “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” which both climbed into the Billboard Top 10. Sterling efforts all, they’re also resonant with the misery and anger Sting felt in the wake of a messy divorce and the resultant unwanted tabloid media attention. It almost comes across like Sting can’t quite bear to lead with his rawest, most honest songs. Adding to the sense that the side is packed with tracks that their main creator looked at through a wince is that the seething, vicious “Murder by Numbers” is relegated to a CD and cassette bonus track.

Instead, the first side of the album is something of a grab bag. It’s like the Beatles’ White Album, except they’re using every musical tactic they can think of to eradicate the vestiges of of their early reggae-tinged new wave trappings rather than all the British Invasion yeah yeah yeahs. The side opens and closes with a matching pair that doesn’t really match: “Synchronicity I,” which is like the Who’s “Eminence Front” on amphetamines, and “Synchronicity II,” a sinewy track that renders the workaday life of a middle class toiler in a tone and language suited to a horror movie (“Another working day has ended/ Only the rush hour hell to face/ Packed like lemmings/ Into shiny metal boxes/ Contestants in a suicidal race”). In between are a slew of tracks that almost come across as filler, including “Walking in Your Footsteps” which forecasts the jazz-adjacent noodling Sting would soon put onto his solo records (and has half-assed lyrics such as “Hey, mighty brontosaurus/ Don’t you have a lesson for us/ You thought your rule would always last/ There were no lessons in your past”), and courtesy slots for compositions by Summers (“Mother,” which almost reaches Captain Beefheart levels with its weirdness) and Copeland (the complete throwaway “Miss Gradenko“). If the standard practice for a rock album is to front-load it with the sure winners and let it peter out to near afterthoughts, Synchronicity follows the blueprint in reverse.

After the lengthy tour to support Synchronicity, the Police again went their separate ways to participate in side projects. Most notably, Sting recorded and released his debut solo album, The Dream of the Blue Turtles. Even as that record did bang-up business, Sting, Summers, and Copeland all insisted the Police remained an active band and that they’d record a follow-up to Synchronicity soon enough. That sixth studio album never came to pass, though. They did make an attempt, but it was thwarted by an injury that sidelined Copeland. They ultimately re-recorded a couple songs, but nothing truly new came of the sessions. The band broke up not long after. The Police’s biggest studio album was also their last.

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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