84: The Police – “Wrapped Around Your Finger” (1983)
Gordon Sumner has always been a weird guy. Set aside his hilarious turn in David Lynch’s Dune and the fact we’ve all spent decades calling this grown man “Sting” and you’re still left with a musician whose best songs are creepy as hell. Well, maybe not that desert song with the music video that looks like a car commercial, but every other iconic track with his vocals at the forefront is useful shorthand for “unsettling white boy who doesn’t know he’s a stalker.” The Police’s “Wrapped Around Your Finger” isn’t quite as chilling as “Every Breath You Take”, but it’s all the more strange and memorable for its subtle sense of dread.
Beneath oddball literary references, its lyrics paint a straightforward portrait of a semi-toxic young man relishing the abstract notion of turning the tables on a selfish lover. Sting performs an ornate fantasy about switching roles in an unbalanced power dynamic with the same zeal he would later reserve for pitching tantric sex to strangers. Rarely has emotional revenge sounded so sensuous, and for good reason: It turns the love song into a supervillain origin story. Seriously, just try to listen to this song and NOT imagine Sting wearing a billowing cape while his bandmates stand the requisite length away from him so as to not appear complicit in his surly machinations.
Musically, the song works so well because the sonics paint a more dulcet picture. That easy listening, reggae inflected take on New Wave gave The Police a unique identity, and on songs like this the spare arrangement of bassline and synths leaves plenty of space for Sting to chew the scenery. The infectiousness of the tune’s pop structure provides a framework for Sting to verbally work through his personal issues. It’s a shining example of what made The Police such an enduring act, that brooding seems less foreboding when it takes place in a shimmering, ornate living space. If Sting had fronted a gloomier band, he’d look like a sociopath, but Stewart Copeland’s tight drums and Andy Summers’ guitar work hide their leader’s weirdness in plain sight. Maybe it’s why none of his solo material reached these same heights. – Dominic Griffin
83: Squeeze – “Tempted” (1981)
Even in its most heartbreaking songs, Squeeze generally sped along with the spirit of a prankster, all zippy keyboards and peppy choruses. But the band shed its happy signature for “Tempted,” which may be its finest moment. Neither the somber organ nor the cry-along chorus nor even the goofy tom sound can make this emotionally crushing tune buoyant. Even if Squeeze’s entire discography was Thom Yorke level-moping, “Tempted” would have made its mark.
In a rare turn for Squeeze, keyboardist Paul Carrack (whose other notable hit vocal turn was Ace’s “How Long”) took the lead as a narrator trying to engage in retail therapy. He rambles down main street, picks up toothpaste, flannel, pajamas and some new kicks. When he sees his reflection while window-shopping, he suddenly flees. Even darting through town, he can only think of his guilt. “Memories of it still/ Keep calling and calling.”
The music carries his burden. It’s hard to overstate the strange beauty of this song. Squeeze slowed their average BPM by about 20, the results more icy Motown ballad than ‘80s pop fluff. A great deal of that comes from the minimalist arrangement. Bass and guitar are barely present, drums are subdued and light vocal harmonies filter in only during the chorus. The organ and piano are the real stars, and even they’re treated with restraint.
That brilliant turn of musical starkness expertly aids the lyrics expertly. “Tempted” shows a rare amount of maturity when it comes to infidelity. There’s no glory to Carrack’s story, and he bares wide his guilt and shame. But the melodrama is cut to a minimum. Yes, the chorus is big enough to fill an arena, but that’s more a testament to Squeeze’s melody writing chops then a ploy to undercut the narrative. Instead, Carrack aptly explains that life goes on, but it’s now tainted by guilt. Maybe it would be better if the world had ended when the affair was uncovered. But mundane daily life keeps coming, and with every alarm clock, book and whiff of perfume, his mind wonders back to his mistakes. “What is there to do?” he cries near the end. His voice glorious and golden, he’s careful to affect weakness in his delivery. By the end, when the band goes into that sublime chorus, Carrack seems to beg for a punishment that life refuses to mete out. As Carrack realizes, that’s punishment itself. It’s a mature, melancholy statement from a bunch of New Wave clowns. – Nathan Stevens