“Great art, whether it’s music or not, cannot be appreciated without effort. The trick is not to be passive.”
— Roland Orzabal, chief songwriter, singer and multi-instrumentalist, Tears for Fears
“Wake me up when things get started / When everything starts to happen”
— Mothers Talk, Orzabal/Stanley
Their name and most of their first two albums derived from the works of therapist Arthur Janov, whose theory was that (I’m quoting from the liner notes) “direct confrontation with . . . early feelings of loss is vital for emotional catharsis”. What Tears for Fears were about was singing that which could not be said. This was music for and by people who had trouble expressing their emotions, and the history of Tears for Fears is an evolution of that ability, from “Change”, which is about someone trying to break out of a rut, to “Break It Down Again”, which is about deconstructing yourself and making a new start.
It’s not that this was new. “Singing that which cannot be said” is one of the things that separates the artist from the dancing bear. What’s remarkable is that they managed to do this while becoming superstars, considering the twisted nature of some of Tears for Fears greatest hits. Their debut single, “Mad World” contained one of the most disconcerting lyrics ever to go to #3 (in the UK):
“I find it kind of funny
I find it kind of sad
The dreams in which I’m dying
Are the best I’ve ever had”
And what other #1 ever contained lines as chillingly, frighteningly bitter as the bridge to “Shout”?
And when you’ve taken down your guard
If I could change your mind
I’d really love to break your heart.
It’s as though John Lennon had been able to start right in with Plastic Ono Band and Imagine instead of “Love Me Do” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and have number-one hits. What put this over was the music; driven by breezy keyboard lines and agreeable chord changes with heavy synth hits and circular drum patterns, it created a sound-scape that matched the lyrics to a soundtrack that was sometimes cold but never emotionless, thanks both to founders Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith’s deeply felt vocals and the painstaking performances by the band (Besides guitarist Orzabal and bassist Smith, keyboard player Ian Stanley deserves to be singled out).
Smith’s keening voice helped define the Tears for Fears sound on such tracks as “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”. But Orzabal emerged almost immediately as the more prolific songwriter and stepped more to the foreground as a guitarist and vocalist with each of the first three albums. Orzabal and Smith split after the Seeds of Love tour and Orzabal carried on under the brand name with Elemental, which promised to be the start of a new phase and achieved some success. However the follow-up, Raoul and the Kings of Spain, never connected with radio listeners the way that records like “Shout” and “Everybody” had. Smith recorded a solo album which was never released in the US and which he now disowns, but later attracted some critical notice with new band Mayfield. And both men wrote Lennon vs. McCartney-esque songs and answer songs bitching about each other publicly.
In the year 2000, the intriguing news came that the two were writing together again with an eye towards recording a new album, and in late 2001 they were reported to be going into the studio in January. Whether anything which comes of this is as beautiful as the Human League’s recent Secrets or as disappointing as Depeche Mode’s last remains to be seen, but it’s definitely something I await with some anticipation. Why? Because Tears for Fears were a fucking great band. This shows from their earliest, admittedly sometimes painfully sophomoric songs (the lyric to “Watch Me Bleed” has to have been written when Orzabal was in school) to the perfect pop of their second LP to the over-the-top production bells and whistles of Seeds of Love to the cathartic Elemental. They weren’t, as someone once seriously tried to argue to me, more influential than David Bowie, but they were a great band, in almost all of their forms. The sun and the moon, the wind and the rain willing, they will be again — we’ve got to get somebody to knock Nelly Furtado off the charts.
One of three currently available Tears for Fears compilations (and there’s another which appears to be out of print), this one scores above it’s predecessors by including the rare single “The Way You Are”, which bridged their first two albums. A not totally satisfying song but with an interesting vocal arrangement, its worth preserving. The “Soulful Re-recording” version of “I Believe”, rescues the over intellectualized song from the Big Chair sessions with a less self-conscious performance. On the other hand, including alternate tracks and rarities is not always a good idea. The “Mothers Talk” that appears here is billed as the “US Remix”. This version, described in the liner notes as “jazzier, more live” and “preferred” sacrifices much of the urgent drive of the original. I’m from the US, and in 16 years of listening to Tears for Fears, I’ve never heard this mix. Every time I heard “Mothers” on the radio it was the album version, and a good thing too. As for “New Star”, originally issued on a film soundtrack, it should never have been a serious contender for any “Very Best Of”. Though it’s lightweight and inoffensive, it wasn’t a greatest hit — it never charted even in the low numbers, unlike any of the other records collected here.
Like Joe Jackson, the Fixx and the Go-Go’s among other ’80s bands, Tears for Fears are not hurting for greatest hits collections. Fortunately, unlike some of the more recent compilations by those artists, this is the most definitive to date. If only they’d included the original mix of “Mothers” and replaced “New Star” (maybe with the single from Kings of Spain, “God’s Mistake”, which, while it wasn’t a great song as I remember, would at least make the overview more complete) it’d be perfect. As it is, it’s still something to shout about.