by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
They only recorded three albums together during their original run from 1983 to 1989, but the duo of Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal, better known by the name Tears for Fears, has lived on as one of the most fondly-remembered acts of the ‘80s. Their early single “Mad World” has been a popular cover song in recent years (even making it into the Top 40 for the first time via a cover by Adam Lambert), while the most famous of the duo’s own recordings, especially “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and “Shout,” are enduring radio staples. The duo parted ways at the end of the decade, Orzabal going on to release two more studio albums under the Tears for Fears name (while both a hits disc and an odds-and-ends package compiling B-sides and rarities from the group’s ‘80s heyday, would both be released in the ‘90s as well.) The estranged duo would unexpectedly reunite in 2003 to release a new studio album and do an extensive round of television appearances and live performances to promote it. While the duo has yet to release a proper follow-up, they still continue to delight audiences by performing together on the road, the two men sounding just as good as they ever have and clearly having a lot of fun making music together again. You may or may not already have the big-selling Songs from the Big Chair in your collection, but what about their other discs? What other great songs might you be missing out on? Just read on as we break down and rate each of the duo’s proper discs of studio material for you. You might just discover a few new gems you’ve never heard for yourself before!
The Hurting (1983, Mercury)
The first album from the duo of Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith is also arguably its darkest. Much like John Lennon’s first proper solo album away from the Beatles (John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band), this album was deeply influenced by the writings of psychiatrist Arthur Janov, so it’s not exactly a happy album, lyrically speaking. Yet, from a musical standpoint, it’s actually more commercial than Lennon’s similarly Janov-inspired outing was, so it’s noticeably easier to listen to for that reason, and there are some fairly strong melodies here, particularly on “Pale Shelter,” “Change,” “Suffer the Children,” and the album’s true masterpiece, “Mad World,” later covered to great success by Michael Andrews and Gary Jules for the soundtrack to Donnie Darko and by Adam Lambert, who took the song into the Top 40. The album wasn’t a huge commercial success in the U.S., but it remains one of the quintessential albums from the duo and hints at their even greater potential to come.
Songs from the Big Chair (1985, Mercury)
The band’s most commercially successful album, their sophomore outing yielded two timeless Number One hits in the cavernous epic “Shout” and the slinky guitar pop of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” easily one of the greatest mainstream-pop singles to come out of the ‘80s and a record sporting not just one, but two, truly unforgettable guitar solos. There are also two more notable Top 40 hits included here, the propulsive and very underrated “Mothers Talk” and the emotionally charged “Head Over Heels,” which would’ve been great even without the drum solo and subsequent gospel-flavored vamp-out that just adds to the dramatic force of the piece. The non-hits here may lack any obvious hooks, but they also leave a strong dramatic impression, especially the jazzy ballad “I Believe” and “The Working Hour.”
The Seeds of Love (1989, Fontana)
It wasn’t nearly as commercially successful as its predecessor, but from a sheer artistic standpoint, the band very nearly tops themselves here, and this album, despite lacking any hits or recognizable songs on its still-excellent second side, truly needs to be listened to in its entirely at least once. It’s just a stunningly ambitious album that also boasts a production that’s elaborate enough to hold your attention even as the hooks start to subside. (The gorgeous, album-closing “Famous Last Words” will surely give you chills.) One of the critical ingredients to the album’s success is the duo’s discovery of R&B singer Oleta Adams (later to score a major Top Ten hit on her own with her jaw-droppingly powerful and jazzy rendition of the Brenda Russell ballad “Get Here”), who they employ to stunning effect on the album-opening ballad “Woman in Chains,” which also wisely employs the services of Phil Collins behind the drumkit. It’s not the most obviously commercial of songs, but it remains one of the group’s most impressive singles, if just for its sheer emotional impact. The album’s biggest hit is the epic Beatles homage “Sowing the Seeds of Love,” which plays like “All You Need Is Love,” “Hey Jude,” “Penny Lane,” “I Am the Walrus,” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” all rolled into one, and it’s deliriously fun to spot all the musical nods to the Fab Four. The most underrated song here may be the incredibly sophisticated jazz-pop of “Advice for the Young at Heart,” which sounds very little like anything else in the duo’s catalog (it’s more reminiscent of, say, Prefab Sprout’s “Appetite” or “When Love Breaks Down”) and takes them into much more adult-contemporary-oriented territory than usual, but it’s also a truly impressive demonstration of the duo’s versatility and their compositional ability. It may not be as hook-heavy a disc as Big Chair, but this might very well be the band’s artistic masterpiece.
Elemental (1993, Mercury)
Essentially a Roland Orzabal solo album in everything but name, this is the first Tears for Fears album following an acrimonious falling-out that led to Curt Smith quitting the duo. Naturally, his presence is missed (he, after all, sang lead on some of the duo’s greatest songs, most prominently “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”), but this album surprisingly actually ends up being pretty decent considering his absence, and the disc even yielded a modest Top 40 hit in the anthemic march of “Break It Down Again,” one of the most underrated Tears for Fears singles and one that truly needs to be heard if you’re not familiar with it. The album is definitely more spotty than the albums that preceded it and comes off a little mean-spirited in the bitter tone of its lyrics, but there’s also more to this album than just the hit single, and there are a handful of really solid album cuts here, namely “Brian Wilson Said,” “Fish Out of Water,” and the truly gorgeous “Goodnight Song.”
Raoul and the Kings of Spain (1995, Epic)
Easily the most alienating of all the Tears for Fears albums, this is simply an experimental outing that just doesn’t work. It wants to be as artistic as The Seeds of Love – even to the point of bringing Oleta Adams back for a cameo on “Me and My Big Ideas” – but it lacks both the radio-friendly hooks and the ambitious and intricate soundscapes of The Seeds of Love to grab your attention in the first place, and the album consequently comes off as more pretentious than illuminating (especially on the strange title cut and “Los Reyes Catolicos”), and though there are some lyrical themes and motifs that recur throughout the album, the album never really seems to come together from a musical standpoint and seems somewhat disjointed. That might not matter so much if the songs were at least catchy, but the most memorable cut here is the single “God’s Mistake,” which isn’t bad but it’s also a shockingly mediocre single by Tears for Fears standards, and you can’t help but wish there were some cuts here as strong as “Break It Down Again” from the album before it.
Saturnine Martial & Lunatic (1996, Mercury)
Not actually an album of new material, this disc actually rounds up most, though not all, of the studio-recorded B-sides and rarities from 1983 to 1993 that were previously unavailable on LP. It’s a testament to just how good the band was in its first ten years that even a collection largely comprised of B-sides from that period ends up being a surprisingly decent album. Highlights include a top-notch cover of David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes,” the 1983 non-LP single “The Way You Are,” the Threesome soundtrack contribution “New Star,” and the Robert Wyatt cover (and “Mothers Talk” B-side) “Sea Song.”
Everybody Loves a Happy Ending (2003, New Door)
Easily the most fun Tears for Fears album since The Seeds of Love, this album also marks the on-disc reunion of Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith for the first time in over a decade, and it’s a much-welcome one. The duo picks up right where it left off, even creating a sequel of sorts to “Sowing the Seeds of Love” in the equally Beatles-flavored “Closest Thing to Heaven.” The album is overflowing with fun and appealing moments, including the title cut, “Who Killed Tangerine?,” and the gorgeous McCartney-esque epic “Secret World,” which brilliantly incorporates, of all things, a trumpet solo that you never see coming but ends up fitting in absolutely perfectly. Best of all is the incredibly playful and sunny “Call Me Mellow,” one of the most immediately catchy and effervescent singles the duo has ever crafted. You can’t help but notice throughout the album just how creatively refreshed both men are and just how much joy the two men audibly seem to be having together in the studio again after so many years apart. The duo sadly has yet to create a follow-up to this album (though they’ve played together live quite a bit in the intervening years), but if they never make another full-length, this is surely a fine way for the duo to go out on record. If only more estranged bands could put their differences aside and put together a reunion album as good as this one is! This one is definitely not to be missed.