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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Message in a Bottle": togetherness... in loneliness?

As weird as that sounds, that's exactly how Sting positions his lyrics in one of the Police's many timeless hits.

Today's selection definitely represent a mood shift from yesterday. I'm still paranoid about the events in Ukraine, but after having a day to really think about it and talk about it with people, I'm less rattled than I was before. Whether that remains the case, I'll have to wait and see, but I'm capturing how I'm feeling today with the help of a band I've been waiting to discuss for a while now.

More than four decades after their formation, the Police remain one of the most fascinating trios to grace the popular music scene. Lead vocalist / bassist Sting (who for some reason is on the new Swedish House Mafia release, making this selection even more fitting), guitarist Andy Summers, and percussionist Stewart Copeland each brought such different influences and styles to the band, but they meticulously combined their array of influences to create some of the most enduring songs of the late 70s and early 80s. One of those songs, "Message in a Bottle," embodies how I felt lost for the better part of two days before having the courage to reach out and see many others were going through something similar themselves.

Lyrically and harmonically, "Message in a Bottle" portrays an inability to truly find and/or feel at home. Sting's vocal melody in the verses is rooted in the note E, but there is no E chord in those sections. Instead, the four-chord loop begins on C-sharp minor, the relative minor of E Major. With C-sharp minor and E Major sharing all their notes, it feels like the chord fits the melody somewhat well, but the tonal incongruence remains — it isn't all that restful in the end, an emotion that is narratively ideal for presenting "a castaway / An island lost at sea."

The loneliness is hammered home by the chorus lyrics — "I'll send an S.O.S. to the world" — but the chords behave a bit differently, gaining greater direction before the title statement. Perhaps this comes from the narrator's resolve to finally act and send out that S.O.S., or maybe it comes from an illusion that their message will be received. Regardless of from where it arises narratively, the more straightforward chord progression has something going against it in terms of feeling at home, at rest: the key has changed, from C-sharp minor to A Major. This key change means that, even though the song feels at home in the moment, it really isn't overall. Heck, we get our long-awaited E chord, an E Major, but it leads back to A Major rather than being the home the narrator seeks. It's a fascinating bit of harmonic storytelling and misdirection, which only becomes more impressive when the title line at the end of the chorus returns to C-sharp minor.

So, no, the Police's narrator here never gets home... but at least they know they aren't alone in their predicament. As a "hundred billion bottles washed up on the shore," Sting sings that he isn't "alone at being alone." Boy, what better lyrics to describe these past couple years? Even now as restrictions are being eased, there's a hesitancy and a difficulty in returning to life practices we once deemed normal. We take solace in knowing that the whole world is going through this transitionary state like we are in some way or another. As it relates to even more recent and current events, we know that others are watching on as anxiously as we are ourselves.

"Message in a Bottle" is one of the simpler songs in the Police's catalog, which brings its lyrical arc into even greater focus. Its unique perspective on loneliness has always stuck with me, and it speaks to me even more right now, as I'm sure it also does to some of you.


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