One of the 1980s’ most astonishing debuts, The Hurting introduced Tears for Fears — Roland Orzabal (vocals, guitar, keyboards) and Curt Smith (bass, vocals, keyboards) — and their intensely dour, introspective worldview. Grounded in Janovian primal scream theory and other aspects of modern psychology, Orzabal’s songs address somber topics of deep pain and sorrow. Like their titles (“The Hurting,” “Mad World,” “Start of the Breakdown,” “Watch Me Bleed”), the lyrics are more often depressed than angry. Odd fare for hit records with teenybop appeal to be sure (in a way, the early warning signs of mope rock), but occasionally anxious vocals and the eclectic, often remarkable music belie the dark thoughts being conveyed. It’s disconcerting to find yourself humming along with such misery, but The Hurting is an excellent, mature record.
Over two years in the making, Songs From the Big Chair found Tears for Fears less miserable, more capable of expressing anger and well on their way to stardom. (The LP ultimately sold nine million copies worldwide.) “Head Over Heels” (grand pop), “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” (haunting pop) and “Shout” (measured, gruff rock) — all co-written by Orzabal — are the best three out of eight. The music is more ambitious and sophisticated, allowing a few numbers to go on too long without generating much impact, but the strong entrants are top-notch.
Emboldened by success and growing fanatical in his perfectionism, Orzabal (emerging as the group’s creative heavyweight) saw The Seeds of Love through a ten- month false start, two changes of producers (TFF ended up doing it themselves with engineer Dave Bascombe) and painstaking byte-by-byte computer manipulation of the music. Rivaling Tom Scholz for the Guinness studio slowpoke record, he and Smith spent a fortune fussing over eight tracks in earnest for 17 months. Eventually, they completed an album, a suite-like assortment of songs that — with the exception of the immediately delightful Beatles tribute, “Sowing the Seeds of Love” — are almost impenetrable in their delicate complexity and maddening density. Although she appears only on “Woman in Chains” and “Badman’s Song,” American vocalist/pianist Oleta Adams steals the show by injecting some soul into these absurdly overintellectualized exercises.
With Tears Roll Down, the haughty and dour English pop pointillist closed the door on his youth, his group and his first decade of meticulous stardom. Besides compiling the essentials (and then some) from the first albums — the precocious and dismally uplifting The Hurting (“Mad World,” “Pale Shelter”), the grandly realized Songs From the Big Chair (“Shout,” “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” “Head Over Heels”) and the imposing dense delicacy of The Seeds of Love (“Sowing the Seeds of Love,” “Woman in Chains”) — the collection includes the previously unreleased “Laid So Low (Tears Roll Down)” as confirmation of Orzabal’s intention to proceed without his evidently superfluous partner, Curt Smith, who was finally relieved of his duties in 1991. (The singer/bassist subsequently made Soul on Board, an uneventful and low-key solo album of handsomely appointed designer soul-pop that leans as much toward Paul Young as to his former group’s sound. Though he adopts a chin-up stance in “Calling Out,” Smith can’t hide his bitterness, and he unloads his hurt in “Words.”)
Retaining the group name, Elemental opens the second stage of Orzabal’s career without major innovation — a few surprises, maybe, but no wholesale reconsiderations in the pompous sensitivity of his boundless creative ambition. The fanaticism of Orzabal’s artistic imperatives and the signature sound of his echoed, textured throatiness overshadow any stylistic tinkering he and his new studio collaborators (co-writer/co- producer/guitarist/keyboardist Alan Griffiths and co- producer Tim Palmer) might have contrived. Elemental is substantially more involved than the first two albums but much less fussy than the absurdly overproduced third. Significantly, a Beach Boys tribute, “Brian Wilson Said,” isn’t nearly as involuted as the Beatles invocation of “Sowing the Seeds of Love” (although both equally indicate the distance between Orzabal’s labored constructions and his idols’ sheer ingenuity). The album essentially upholds Orzabal’s dedication to create remarkable textures and settings for essentially ordinary pop songs sprung from his bristly, remote and self-critical personality. “Cold” acknowledges his impassiveness (“My temperature’s been rated and I’m cold…Been excommunicated ‘cos I’m cold”), while “Goodnight Song” addresses the fatigue, inadequacy and boredom of performing (“the sounds we are making are so uninspired…played so wrong/Blame the crowd, they scream so loud, so long”). But the animosity of “Mr. Pessimist” is directed outward, as is the dismayingly cruel “Fish Out of Water.” Taking a tuneless, needless and vindictively harsh dump on Smith, Orzabal fairly gushes condescension: “The only thing you made was that tanned look on your face…With all your cigarettes and fancy cars/You ain’t a clue who or what you are.” Making reference to the home studio where Elemental was recorded, Orzabal gloats over the kicking he’s crafting and heaps on the humiliation. “Now in Neptune’s kitchen you will be food for killer whales/And on the crucifix his mother made/Hangs one more martyr to the hit parade.” Charmed, I’m sure.
At least Raoul and the Kings of Spain (announced for release on one label in early ’95 and then scrubbed, altered and issued by another five months later) contains no disgraceful vendettas. The topic here is family heritage; while Roland (born Raoul) seems to harbor strong, inflated opinions about his ancestors (“father was an island…mother was the sea…all mothers come from heaven…all fathers come from hell”), he brings a more cultured artistry — and unprecedented restraint — to bear on the great issues. Though it segues into a fervid flamenco episode, “Sketches of Pain” begins with one acoustic guitar; “Secrets” reaches the point of ’80s Elton John, but goes no further; “Humdrum and Humble” switches weirdly between suave Bowiesque calm and a snakey Bo Diddley raveup; “`I Choose You” and “Me and My Big Ideas” (with guest vocals by Oleta Adams) are simple, lush ballads; “Falling Down” was reportedly produced without overdubs. (Sure.) While again writing and producing with Griffiths and Palmer, Orzabal sensibly assembled a lively band (including Griffiths, bassist Gail Ann Dorsey and drummer Brian MacLeod), which gives the diverse album more breathing room than any in TefoFe’s past, varying the emotional temperature and the ambience all over the place. His singing is revealed to have new facets here; the rancor- free writing is more plainspoken and imaginative — as if the need to prove himself was no longer a driving force. Lines like “These are the days of a different paradigm” are indicative of a pseud who still can’t come down off his lofty plane, but the infusion of real people and the unveiling of a new Roland make Raoul and the Kings of Spain the most (actually the first) ingratiating album of his career.
After plucking her out of a Midwest hotel lounge to feature her voice on The Seeds of Love, Orzabal co-produced and played on Oleta Adams’ Circle of One, fitting her mature songs (mainstream pop-soul originals with a theatrical bent and stirring lyrics of womanly self-determination) into tasteful arrangements that highlight the rich warmth of her voice. The album made Adams a star in her own right, and she took it from there, establishing a solid place in the adult-contemporary field, followed by a dedication to gospel, without further assistance from her young mentor.