Here’s a clip of flaxen-haired 80s hit machines the Police with their 1983 album track “O My God” as taken from their final (to date) studio album Synchronicity . The record was their most successful up until that point, and the tour was one of the biggest of the era. So, they broke up soon after. That’s showbiz!
But, the most interesting thing about the Synchronicity album for me, which is embodied very well in this song, is that writer Sting wasn’t really interested in putting across standard pop songs, despite the enormity of their success at the time. Every track on this album is about doubt, insecurity, and the exploration of the darker side of the human experience. They simply don’t make pop-rock records like this anymore.
Smash hit “King of Pain” is about being spiritually bereft. “Wrapped Around Your Finger” is a classic tale of ruthless ambition and ultimate betrayal. “Tea in the Sahara” is about the dangers of expectation and disappointment. And popular first dance wedding song “Every Breath You Take”? Well, let’s say that couples should take heed before choosing it as an anthem for romance.
“O My God” may be the daddy among all of these for me. Sting was raised as a Catholic while growing up in the North-East of England. It would be a force in his life which he would continue to explore in his solo career. But, no song of his comes close to this, which basically is the voice of a man who is wracked with doubt, yet still yearns to believe that there is a god who is interested in humanity and human suffering. But, ultimately one gets the impression that his plea to “take this space between us/fill it up some way” is one that echoes into the darkness, returning nothing but a reverberation of an unanswered prayer.
I love the arrangement on this too, a sort of funked-up R&B derived groove, which works against what you would expect in terms of how it relates to the lyrical subject matter. I love that, a classic post-punk gambit, this time in the context of a pop song. On the studio version, Sting’s saxophone lines (yes, that’s him playing sax…) bringing off a groove like a low-rent Maceo Parker. It’s clear that he was interested in going beyond the drums-bass-and-guitar sound, starting from the preceding record Ghost in the Machine. Sting would later re-embrace his jazz-rock roots more fully on his first solo record in 1985, The Dream of the Blue Turtles. But here, it’s clear that Sting was interested in wrapping some pretty weighty themes in palatable packaging. And none is more weighty, perhaps, than the problem of evil, a very common dealbreaker in placing faith in an all-powerful, all caring god.
When I was younger, I really thought the song was an anti-authoritarian anthem made to shock. But, later I changed my mind. Much like XTC’s “Dear God”, this is not a song made to make people uncomfortable, even if it seems that way on the surface. It’s a song that is the expression of the writer’s disappointment in what he was promised, more so than his disdain of it. It is the sound of a spiritual ideal of a loving god who cares being challenged in the mind and heart of that writer.
For my money, the best songs about god are never the ones which try to define whether the writer is devoted, or whether one rejects the idea of god. Rather, I think it’s one that acknowledges that a part of the power of god lies in what human beings have placed in god, regardless of which side the writer ends up on. I think this is true because it is the more common connection across human experience. The power of culturally ingrained ideas are impossible to deny, whether they’re flawed or not.