Monday, October 5, 2009

Tears For Fears Reap A New Harvest Of Gold

If eight months seemed an exorbitantly long period of time to record ‘Songs From The Big Chair’, it took a marathon four years for its follow up to finally surface, during which time people could have been forgiven for thinking Tears For Fears had left the building. One factor behind the lengthy wait, was the personal angst experienced by Curt Smith over the breakdown of his marriage to his childhood sweetheart. Both Orzabal and Smith must have also felt an inordinate amount of pressure to produce something at least vaguely comparable in quality to their previous set, but a delay of four years between album releases posed somewhat of a career risk. Curt Smith took more of a backseat in the writing, creative direction, and even performance departments, leaving Orzabal to take up the reins as the creative and stylistic mastermind behind proceedings. Keyboardist Ian Stanley also largely withdrew from the scene after creative differences came to a head, and the initial recording sessions were all but scrapped (he went on to much success as a producer with A-Ha, Howard Jones). That same breakdown in proceedings resulted in the departure of producer Chris Hughes, with Orzabal resolving to take control of the production side of things, in partnership with engineer David Bascombe. Touring keyboardist Nicky Holland had also taken on the role as Orzabal’s principal song writing cohort, and co-wrote five of the album’s eventual eight tracks. Orzabal penned another two tracks by himself, but the album’s lead out single was the only track co-written by Orzabal and Smith (and ironically featured contributions from both Stanley and Hughes).

‘Sowing The Seeds Of Love’ was an unabashed pastiche of psychedelic era Beatles, effectively contemporizing the intricate and quirky arrangements that defined the ‘Sgt. Pepper’, ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ era genius of the Fab Four. The song is nothing if not grandiose in scale, and ambitious in style, hypnotic in its intricate arrangements, twists and turns of melody, and playfully arcane lyrical games. It’s a stand out track, as much for its daring, as for the fact that, stylistically, its positioned at odds with the balance of its source album. No expense was spared on the accompanying promo video, which pushed the boundaries of computer generated effects to their 1989 limits (and won two MTV Music Video Awards). That opening shot of the face carved into a mountain wall always reminds of ‘The Never Ending Story’. ‘Sowing The Seeds Of Love’ reaped a considerable harvest on the charts (US#2/UK#5/ OZ#14), and reminded the world that Tears For Fears were still an artistic force to be reckoned with.

The eagerly awaited album, ‘The Seeds Of Love’, was finally planted in stores during September of ‘89, and took root at #1 on the British charts first week in (US#8/OZ#23). Released on the Fontana label (through Polygram), the record label execs knew there was much riding on the reception for the album, which by then had racked up a reported production debt of over a million quid. No doubt the success of the lead out single, and the high chart debut for the album, alleviated some of the concerns, but longevity of shelf life would also be needed to recoup the staggering costs. Tears For Fears served up just eight tracks on ‘The Seeds Of Love’, but quality will always win out over quantity, and there was supreme quality in abundance throughout the album. Orzabal and co. had elevated pop sophistication to a new high, incorporating an epic scope of styles and influences into the mix. The songs offered expansive and blatantly accessible hooks, but retained an emotive resonance throughout. Elements of late night, city streets jazz-rock simmered below the surface of ‘Standing On The Corner Of The Third World’ (which featured the talents of virtuoso trumpeter Jon Hassell), ‘Swords And Knives’ oscillated between dripping restraint, and funk-edged soul, whilst the epic (8 minute plus) ‘Badman’s Song’ delved deep into jazz and soul streams to feed fountains of funk-laced rock.

In terms of a track with heart and soul, the album’s second single possessed a purity of both. ‘Woman In Chains’ confirmed, if any still doubted, that Tears For Fears had progressed well beyond the boundaries of a mere pop band. Orzabal and Smith kept their promise to invite R&B vocalist Oleta Adams to contribute to the album, and ‘Woman In Chains’ was her moment to shine brightest. The spiritually rich song was drenched in slow burning atmosphere, with a soothing one minute instrumental intro, acting as a precursor to Orzabal and Adams trading impassioned lead vocal lines. The song builds a slow and steady momentum, tinged with soulful, even gospel like vocals, and works to an emotive crescendo as one Phil Collins unleashes on the drums. Oleta Adams’ contribution can’t be understated, and her sultry, poignant vocal style added a welcoming hue to the Tears For Fears pop palette. I know I wax lyrical about certain songs at times, but ‘Woman In Chains’ really is one of those rare examples of a flawless piece of music. Lyrically, Orzabal explained that the theme behind ‘Woman In Chains’ related to issues of feminism, and the complexities of individual and social dynamics between the genders. The accompanying promo video was an especially effective one, focussing on the troubled, but ultimately loving relationship between a man (who is a struggling boxer) and woman (an exotic dancer), and featured much evocative symbolism throughout. Regardless of its inherent splendour, ‘Woman In Chains’ wasn’t able to achieve the freedom it deserved on the charts, and peaked highest in Britain (#26, US#36/OZ#44), late in ‘89.

Meanwhile, in an effort to further redress the haemorrhaging balance sheets, Tears For Fears hit the road for yet another colossal tour, this time sponsored by Philips (ah corporate sponsorship, you gotta love it). The tour was captured in the video release, ‘Going To California’, filmed at the band’s May 1990 gig in Santa Barbara (Oleta Adams also toured with the band). Virgin also released a 64 page book by way of companion to the ‘Seeds Of Love’ tour, with much on offer to dedicated Tears For Fears’ fans. As the band was traversing the globe on their latest revenue raising jaunt, the third single was released from ‘The Seeds Of Love’. ‘Advice For The Young At Heart’, co-written by Orzabal and Holland, was another shimmering ray of soul-infused pop sunshine. It was also the only track from the album on which Curt Smith handled all the lead vocal duties. The song always feels quite caressing to me, almost soothing in its honesty, not just musically, but lyrically. As middle age looms ever closer to me (some might argue it’s already arrived), the notion of time being wasted on youth seems more resonant than ever. “Advice for the young at heart, soon we will be older, when we gonna make it work”, surely must ring true for anyone over thirty. How about dispensing with the stuff that doesn’t matter, and doing something about the stuff that does - or at least that’s the message I take from it. The line “Love is a promise, love is a souvenir, once given, never forgotten, never let it disappear” was a quote borrowed from John Lennon. The fact that such a powerful life memo is delivered in such an exquisite pop morsel, is all the better. It’s worth noting that one Robbie McIntosh (Pretenders, Paul McCartney) dropped by to deliver a stellar performance on lead guitar. The promo video (filmed in Florida) is a sweet, and understated affair, embodying the song’s underlying themes - but not in a preachy way, more a how about giving it a moment’s reflective thought. For all its great qualities, it seemed few were listening to ‘Advice For The Young At Heart’, as it only reached enough of an audience to peak at #36 on the British charts early in 1990 (US#89). The fourth single, ‘Famous Last Words’, proved strangely portentous, but less than lucrative on the charts.

‘The Seeds Of Love’ was positioned a world away from ‘The Hurting’, and though the transformation in Tears For Fears had taken seven years to complete, it was expressed within the space of just eighteen album tracks. But it was apparent that through their reincarnation, Orzabal had evolved down a distinctly different musical path to Smith, and in hindsight Curt Smith’s backseat role to that of Roland Orzabal’s creative driver could only be sustained for so long. By 1991, the pair had reached an irreconcilable point, and parted ways in acrimonious fashion, resorting to taking covert snipes at each other. Orzabal’s reputed perfectionist approach to production, combined with Smith’s desire to slow the pace of things, were both cited as other extenuating factors in the partnership breakdown. Curt Smith relocated to New York and recorded the disastrous 1993 solo album, ‘Soul On Board’, a project he’s been distancing himself from ever since. During the balance of the 90s he continued to pen music with writer/producer Charles Pettus, and for a brief stint recorded and toured under the name Mayfield.

Meanwhile, Roland Orzabal had retained the Tears For Fears band brand, and in March 1992 the compilation ‘Tears Roll Down (Greatest Hits 1981/1992)’ was released (UK#2/OZ#51/ US#53). It had been preceded by the single, and only new track included, ‘Laid So Low (Tears Roll Down)’ (UK#17). I’ve always found the track a bit jarring, and it definitely projected a bit of a manic, edgy feel. With Smith now off the scene, ‘Laid So Low’ represented the first chapter of the new ‘solo’ version of Tears For Fears. Orzabal wasn’t the only one man band of that era - Iva Davies with Icehouse, Roddy Frame of Aztec Camera, and Kevin Rowland of Dexys Midnight Runners come to mind (I know there were additional players recruited, but essentially the creative drive was down to one person). I made a point of purchasing the accompanying video collection (and later DVD) for the ‘Tears Roll Down’ compilation.

Orzabal had also found time to refine his production skills, helming Oleta Adams’ debut album, ‘Circle Of One’, which took her to a richly deserved #1 on the British charts. By 1993, Orzabal had prepared an album of new material to be released under the Tears For Fears moniker. The lead out single, ‘Break It Down Again’, penned by Orzabal and new song writing partner Alan Griffiths, was a funky little up-tempo pop-rock piece that proved appealing enough to crack #20 on the British charts, and #25 Stateside (#1 ‘modern rock hit’), and featured songstress Gail Ann Dorsey on backing vocals. Shortly after, the album ‘Elemental’ hit stores, and almost immediately hit #5 in Britain (though arguably on an initial wave of anticipation, given yet another four year pause between full studio albums). The U.S. proved more circumspect in their reception (#45), reserving judgement until a major hit single emerged - which sadly - didn’t. Orzabal took a back to roots approach across many of the tracks, and dispensed with some of the elaborate arrangements that had characterised ‘The Seeds Of Love’. The title track packed a funky, dance inducing punch to open the set, whilst the atmospheric and soulful ‘Cold’ allayed any fears that Orzabal had forgotten how to write and record quality material. But once more, when released as the follow up single, ‘Cold’ (UK#72) was frozen out of any significant chart action.

Long time, and ever patient, fans of Tears For Fears only had to endure a two year wait for the next album, 1995’s ‘Raoul And The Kings Of Spain’ (UK#41/US#79), with Orzabal retaining the song writing and production team of Alan Griffiths and Tim Palmer (though shifting to the Epic/Sony label, which delayed the album release almost a year). The album was dedicated to Orzabal’s father, and more widely to his Spanish heritage. There was a strongly introspective aspect to the songs, which in and of itself wasn’t unusual for the Tears For Fears songbook, and Orzabal infused the album in parts with Latin music influences. I haven’t heard the album in full, but Tom Demalon at All Music Guide referred to the album as “treading water” and “lacking new ideas”, but on the upside it contained some “genuinely pretty music”. One of the few tracks I’ve heard in full is the beautifully crafted ballad ‘Secrets’, which sadly is something the album and associated singles remained to the public at large (Oleta Adams also reunited with Orzabal on the track ‘Me And My Big Ideas’). The very Simple Minds’ sounding title track achieved a respectable #31 on the British charts, but the rather bland guitar-pop of ‘God’s Mistake’ (UK#61) represented Tears For Fears’ last foray into the singles charts for almost a decade. During late ‘95/early ‘96, Orzabal had taken Tears For Fears on the road in support of the ‘Raoul’ album, with Latin America a key focus, though curiously the U.K. only witnessed one show.

The next few years were mostly sans tears and fears, at least in the band sense. Orzabal (and producer Chris Hughes) gave their seal of approval to the 1996 release ‘Saturnine, Martial & Lunatic’, a collection of B-sides and rarities from the band’s Mercury years. In 1999, Hughes oversaw the remastering of Tears For Fears’ first three albums, adding new lustre to some already glistening gems of 80s pop-rock. Orzabal kept himself occupied with production work for Icelandic singer/songwriter Emiliana Torrini, and took time to release his first official ‘solo’ album, ‘Tomcats Screaming Outside’, in April of 2001. A year previous, Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith took the first tentative steps in reconciling their badly fractured friendship. Over the next couple of years, the pair began writing together (along with Smith’s song writing partner Charles Pettus). Following yet another delay due to record label politics, the album ‘Everybody Loves A Happy Ending’ hit stores in the U.S. in late 2004 (#46), with Orzabal and Smith hitting the road in support, once more under the united Tears For Fears banner. Oleta Adams made a guest appearance on stage at the band’s Kansas City show, performing ‘Woman In Chains’. The album received a U.K. release a few months later (#45), and the associated single, ‘Closest Thing To Heaven’, elevated Tears For Fears into the top forty for the first time in a decade. The uplifting track borrowed heavily from the band’s former hit ‘Sowing The Seeds Of Love’, but if anyone was qualified to pull off an impressive imitation, Tears For Fears were. The accompanying promo video was nothing short of breathtaking, and featured actress Brittany Murphy riding in a hot air balloon. If Tears For Fears had dipped into the Beatles paintbox for inspiration on their previous work, they smothered the stylistic canvas liberally with colourful, Beatlesque influences on the album ‘Everybody Loves A Happy Ending’, no more so than with the opening title track, which positively bursts at the seams with catchy hooks, and clever, quirky detours into pop-rock fantasy. On the band’s official website, Roland Orzabal stated that ‘Everybody Loves A Happy Ending’ should have been the album that followed ‘The Seeds Of Love’, but better late than never, and eventually fans of the band got the happy ending they desired, with the bonus of a promising new beginning to boot.

Almost 25 years on from their first expression of deep, affecting individuality through song, Tears For Fears remain unapologetically on their own trajectory of musical expression. Enigmatic in their paradoxical balancing of the simple and complex, their music continues to be woven intricately into a tapestry of sheer pop wizardry.

1 comment:

Barely Awake In Frog Pajamas said...

I couldn't agree more with you on "Woman In Chains." Twent years of hearing it and it still gets my full attention every time.