Review Summary: Zenyatta Mondatta is The Police’s first and finest album of the 1980’s, and showcases a near-perfect mix of reggae, punk rock, and now synthesizers in the new wave era that made The Police famous.
The Police entered a new decade with the release of their third album Zenyatta Mondatta
in 1980. This album proved to be a pivotal point in the career of The Police, because it represents the shift towards more electronic music from the band and the start of politically charged lyrics from Sting. Zenyatta Mondatta
is the bridge between the light and fun reggae/punk rock style of The Police’s first two albums and the darker moody electronic style of their last two albums. This makes it seem to be the most overlooked album in the catalogue of The Police, but it is in fact a hidden gem that stands just as tall as any of the band’s other records.
starts off with the hit single “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” about a teacher and his illicit affair with one of his students. From the first synthesizer chord at the beginning of the song the listener can tell that this is a Police album different from the previous two. The deep brooding mood is immediately set within the first few seconds until it is lifted by the bright guitar in the chorus. Andy Summers also uses a guitar synthesizer for his ethereal sounding solo on the song that proves that The Police know how to blend the new technology well with their unique style of reggae rock. “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” won the 1981 Grammy for Best Rock Performance and was a smash success for the band, reaching number one on the charts in multiple countries.
“Don’t Stand So Close to Me” is followed by the duo of “Driven To Tears” and “When the World Is Running Down.” “Driven To Tears” is one of Sting’s earliest and best protest songs, painting a picture of a world divided between rich and poor. Sting came up with the song after he was emotionally struck by a TV program showing starving children, and writes about his disgust with the lyrics:
“Hide my face in my hands, shame wells in my throat
My comfortable existence is reduced to a shallow meaningless party
Seems that when some innocent die
All we can offer them is a page in some magazine
Too many cameras and not enough food
‘Cause this is what we’ve seen.”
Sting sings this while playing a driving bass line overtop Stewart Copeland’s impeccable drumming, and Andy Summers accentuates Sting’s lyrics with sharp guitar chords delivered after every second line. “When The World Is Running Down” picks up right where “Driven to Tears” ends, with a sudden change to a heady groove with sparse bass and drums and reverb-heavy guitar. Sting sings about living in a post-apocalyptic world with all his favourite things intact in another jab at the selfish rich folk who care little for anything outside themselves.
does still have some light and fun songs like “Canary In A Coalmine,” “Man In A Suitcase,” and the single “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da.” The latter is actually about people’s attraction to overly simple songs, as Sting himself said: “The lyrics are about banality, about the abuse of words,” but that “the lyrics have an internal logic.” Nevertheless in Sting’s attempt to criticize simplicity in music he wrote a simple song that is extremely catchy and quite successful, also reaching number one on the charts.
True to the form of their previous two albums, The Police recorded Zenyatta Mondatta
in very little time, finishing it the night before they went on a world tour. As a result, Zenyatta Mondatta
has three instrumental tracks, “Voices Inside My Head,” “Behind My Camel,” and “The Other Way of Stopping.” “Voices Inside My Head” is not exactly an instrumental since it includes a two line chant repeated throughout the song, but the focus is entirely on the music. The Police effortlessly create a slick groove combining Stewart Copeland’s tight drumming that includes subtle yet brilliant rhythmic breaks, Sting’s heavy and popping bass line, and Summers’ signature feedback delayed guitar. “Voices Inside My Head” is perhaps the best instrumental The Police ever recorded, but it is overshadowed by the Grammy-winning “Behind My Camel.”
also represents the first signs of tension within the band. Sting flat-out refused to play on Summers’ composition “Behind My Camel,” forcing Summers to play bass on the track. The result is a lethargic and repetitive song void of any feeling and not very pleasing to the ears. It is indeed surprising that “Behind My Camel” actually won the 1981 Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance, especially since it was nominated alongside Rush’s exemplary “YYZ” but that argument is beyond the scope of this review. The last instrumental “The Other Way Of Stopping” is also quite repetitive and not very exciting; it feels like it may have been rushed as a song to get onto the album to meet time requirements.
Overall, these few dissonant songs don’t detract from the entire album, as there are only about three of the eleven songs that aren’t incredible. Zenyatta Mondatta
is full of head bobbing grooves with superb instrumentation and thought-provoking lyrics. Zenyatta Mondatta
is The Police’s first and finest album of the 1980’s, and showcases a near-perfect mix of reggae, punk rock, and now synthesizers in the new wave era that made The Police famous.