The Police’s debut album is a bouncy energetic thing, with way better than you’d expect musicianship for their music scene and the kind of performances you would require from that same scene. Much of what initially captivated people about this band, present on this album, would disappear by the end of their career.
The fusion is pretty unique; as Sting has noted in interviews, they leaned into the reggae more than the punk bands, to try to give themselves a distinguishing feature and it works. But what really works is that these guys are fantastic musicians who could play circles around basically any of the punk musicians, most of whom were competent but that’s it and some of whom weren’t even competent. (Of course lack of competence was viewed as an asset by many at the time.)
For me, the reason this record doesn’t stand up with their later records has nothing do with the performances but everything to do with the songs. Sting has written at least three classics here and it’s clear that, even at this early stage, he’s a pretty great songwriter, able to convey pretty complex stories and thoughts in what amount to brief punky pop songs. But the consistently really dips outside of the most famous tracks here and, worse, when they get experimental, it just doesn’t work as well as it would later on. (I am thinking of “Be My Girl – Sally” which pairs an inane Sting song with Andy Summer’s performance art.) There’s not enough here, song wise, for me to think this record is essential, despite how much I like the vibe. (Also, I get a real kick of out of “Born in the 50s” given Andy Summers’ birth date.)
If you really like the Police, you’ll like this. But they got better basically right away, as Sting improved as a songwriter, as did the other two when they were allowed, and they got more interesting musically. It’s still pretty good, and they were doing something unique, but the consistency isn’t there yet.