IN THE SPACE of five albums, the Police have established themselves as that rare creature, a band whose escalating popularity has been matched step-for-step by artistic growth. Their latest offering, "Synchronicity" (A&M SP-3735), is a stunner. It bristles with vivid irony and subtle contrast, as if each ear were meant to take in a separate channel of information. This is an album about debilitating loss and tentative identity, and if it sometimes overreaches, it does so in fascinating ways.

Nowhere is this more evident than on "Every Breath You Take," the album's rightfully spiraling hit single. The song is artfully deceptive. It suggests, in a softly mesmerizing manner, a keen romantic urgency. Guitarist Andy Summers' muted chord progressions provide a sparse melodic frame, with Stewart Copeland's tensile percussion sharpening the beat like a knife on the wheel. When bassist Sting, who wrote eight of the album's 10 songs, wistfully eases into the lyrics, there is a distinct conjuring of bruised hearts and fractured relations.

But Summers' muffled guitar refuses to relinquish its disturbing edge, and something else starts to creep in. What Sting is singing about, it becomes clear, is less separation anxiety (Sting and Summers both went through divorces as the album was being recorded) than it is an obsessive dominance barely tempered by a sense of loss. When Sting promises that with "Every move you make/ Every vow you break/ Every smile you fake/ Every claim you stake . . . I'll be watching you," his ice-cold malevolence betrays a red-hot anger. It's the perfect example of the uneasy middle ground between darkness and light that has long been central to Sting's songwriting; this time around, there's much less of the romantic quietude of earlier albums, and what there is is melodic, not lyric.

"Synchronicity" is a radical departure from the Police's previous album, "Ghost in the Machine." Although many of the concerns--communication, relationships, apocalypse--were similar, that album's sound was rich and expansive, a reaction to the organic simplicity of early songs like "Roxanne." The thick textural layers built up in "Ghost" are consciously stripped down for visceral immediacy here (the clarity of the production by Hugh Padgham and the group is stunning throughout).

On "Synchronicity," the three players are working with a highly defined palette: fewer colors, but brighter, more intense. Summers, whose dense and harmonically supportive guitar has long shaped the group's distinctive sound, pulls back almost to the point of shyness. Copeland, tantalizingly aggressive, has pared his sound down to impact essentials. Sting's stop-and-start bass is still lean, but he's invested his singing with a warm new timbre. It's a total reductive simplicity that does nothing to diminish the impact of the music, which actually sounds fuller at some points.

Although Sting dominates the album, he doesn't necessarily control it. Marriages weren't the only things to hit the rocks in the two years between "Ghost" and "Synchronicity." The fragile egos of all three members of the Police reportedly drove them apart personally, but like the Beatles, their art has brought them back together, at least for now, and the renewed communion has led to an outstanding album. The Beatles analogy can be stretched a bit further: Sting is a one-man Lennon-McCartney, his songs combining the melodic sophistication of Paul and the acerbic lyric bite of John (he even seems to be echoing Lennon's period of cynical despair while extending McCartney's whimsical melodic fancies).

Like George Harrison and Ringo Starr, Summers and Copeland are essential to the sound: cogs, not ghosts, in the hit-making machinery. Theirs is a group empathy most effective with Sting's vanguard songs: proof is as immediate as the two non-Sting offerings, Summers' "Mother" (a tedious 7/4 primal exercise that may be tongue-in-cheek) and Copeland's "Miss Gradenko," a piece of fluff worthy of Starr. Either cut could have been replaced by another Sting song, the coltish but ominous "Murder By Numbers," available only on the tape version of the album or as the flip side of the "Breath" single.

Police fans may elect to emphasize Side 2 of "Synchronicity" because of Sting's sometimes cryptic Side 1 offerings. The album kicks off with the punchy "Synchronicity 1," a neo-fusion rocker heavy on percussion and obtuse lyrics ("A connecting principle/linked to the invisible/Almost imperceptible/Something inexpressible/Science insusceptible/Logic so inflexible/Causally connectible/Yet nothing is invisible . . ."). It establishes an effusive energy that pulsates without connecting, the opposite of the next song, "Walking in Your Footsteps."

This is the most "message in the vinyl" offering on the album, a seductive wall of Afro-percussion and flute (with Summers' refracted guitar punctuations washing through the song). An innocent melody contrasts with anxious lyrics about how we're walking in the footsteps of the dinosaurs who thought they were pretty hot stuff 50 million years ago ("Lord of all you could see/just a little bit like me"). It does lead to one delightful Shel Silverstein-like couplet ("They live in a museum/it's the only place you'll see um") but the doomsday strut and the concern are as ancient as the metaphor.

"O My God" is vaguely existential but the implied resignation bristles with anger and a general plea for reconciliation between divided parties as small as two individuals and as large as humanity itself. Side 1 ends with "Synchronicity II," which is not a recap but a threatening implication of environmental armageddon. It's a disquieting portrait of heedless industrial insensitivity and its nightmare consequence, represented by a Nessie-type monster rising out of the slime of a lake to wreak vengeance on polluters and consumers alike. The song concludes the group's "universal" concerns, and makes way for the more compelling personal mood of Side 2.

Beginning with the sensual "Every Breath You Take," Side 2 seems like a different album. Sting's vocals, strained and anxious on much of Side 1, drop down a bit, assuming a softer, subtler resonance and a decidedly more compelling edge. "King of Pain" features the dense multitracking effects and familiar neo-reggae syncopation that the Police have pretty much outgrown. With its haunting medieval imagery and suggestion of abandonment, the song is spiritual kin to Bergman's "Seventh Seal." Sting's singing here is particularly emotional.

"Wrapped Around Your Finger" is an Elvis Costello-like discourse on marriage as a not-so-tender trap pitting luxurious harmonies against bitter insights. The album closes with the ethereal "Tea in the Sahara," another stab at apocalyptic irony whose melodic brightness does a good job of covering its lack of direction (it was inspired by John Bowles' novel "The Sheltering Sky"). It concludes a side of music that is intensely introspective, vocal lamentations wrapped in sinuous rhythms.

Since their beginning six years ago the Police have shown a disdain for pop convention. They've done things their way, and to step back from the platinum-producing thickness of "Ghost in the Machine" to the engaging simplicity of "Synchronicity" required a certain amount of courage. Should their music continue to evolve as it has over five albums, it will confirm the Police as one of the most important bands of the '80s, not simply one of the most popular.

The Police will perform at the Capital Centre Aug. 21 and 22.