Welcome to the first edition of what I hope will become a regular feature on Optimism Vaccine: "Academy for the Underrated." Each post will act as part media review and part historical examination of a certain media text that yours truly feels has been ostracized from popular culture. Reasons for these texts being mostly ignored by the masses, and even by those on the fringes, vary from questions of taste to just generally bad timing. Whatever the case, my hope is that this feature will turn you on to things that you either never knew existed or ignored out of spite. The first entry in this series will discuss the legacy of Tears For Fears and their 2004 "reunion" album, Everybody Loves a Happy Ending. I hope you enjoy it. Or hate it. Just have a reaction, please?
The above video is from September 18th, 2004. Four days earlier, Tears For Fears released Everybody Loves a Happy Ending, which saw the return of co-founder and co-frontman Curt Smith. Smith left the group in 1990 following the release and promotion of 1989’s Seeds of Love, leaving Roland Orzabal as the sole TFF'er throughout the 1990s. Here they were, finally reunited and headlining the main stage at LA radio station KROQ’s Inland Invasion music festival. It had all the markings of a triumphant return for TFF, as it was their first appearance in the Los Angeles-area in nearly 15 years. As seen in the above video, a third of the way through their set, sound from the festival’s smaller side stage begins to creep in over the PA. Regardless of the fact that Orzabal appears to take the interruption in stride as he introduces the title track off of their new album, it is clearly a nuisance. Perhaps more damning is the fact that the band performing on the other stage is A Flock of Seagulls.
This moment acts as a metaphor for the legacy of Tears For Fears: they have always been far more impressive than their “peers,” but every time they progress forward, the ghosts of the 1980s come back to haunt them. When talk of TFF surfaces, it inevitably ignores the present and snorts of derision over “how horrible the ‘80s were” ensue. TFF seem incapable of escaping the shadow of the most dubious collective of other 80s artists. Worst of all, it’s not TFF’s fault.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why TFF are not often given their due, but much can be owed to the fact that Orzabal and Smith were never starving for fame. Orzabal has always been somewhat of a recluse and a rather elusive figure, despite his gregarious stage presence and penchant for witty banter. Smith is much more social as he is a frequent Tweeter, occasional actor (most notably appearing on USA Network’s Psych), and TED lecturer, but he is also known for relishing his privacy and shunning the limelight (he famously left TFF in 1990 to move to New York and “disappear”). That, coupled with TFF’s fussiness in the studio, which kept them from being more prolific in their high profile period, perhaps best explains why TFF has never been viewed as being as big or important as, say, U2.
Thus, while Everybody Loves a Happy Ending (ELAHE) may be the best album TFF has ever made, it was lost in the shuffle of the mid-2000s’ cravings for '80's nostalgia. An 11th hour record label switch from Arista- where LA Reid had championed the returning duo only to be fired from his CEO position weeks before ELAHE’s originally scheduled release- to Universal didn’t help, as the release was delayed for over 6 months. The longer it took for the album to come out, the more critics would decree that TFF had simply reunited to cash in on the success of Michael Andrews and Gary Jules’ version of “Mad World.” While the massive success of that single generated renewed interest in TFF in 2003-04, Orzabal and Smith had been working on ELAHE since 2001, months before the release of the film Donnie Darko (which prominently features the cover of "Mad World," along with TFF's own version of "Head Over Heels") and two years before the Andrews/Jules’ version of “Mad World” would top the charts in Britain.
ELAHE demonstrates a minor obsession TFF has with the past. It is important to note, however, that TFF are not obsessed with their own past, but rather with a time in popular music that existed in their adolescence. Comparisons to XTC, ELO, and Badfinger are probably inevitable, but ELAHE sounds more like TFF than many may realize. Initial backlash to the album sparks discussion on how it doesn't sound '80's enough, as if the band's sound needs to be tied to a specific decade. But if one were to go back and carefully listen to TFF's most "synthy" works- their 1983 debut The Hurting and 1985's major breakthrough Songs From the Big Chair - they would notice that TFF has always been very careful in their songcraft. In other words, they have always been a guitar and piano based act, while it was their production style that lent to robust, but not overwhelming, decoration with both synth-sounds and sampling.
TFF have never been known to hold back on production and ELAHE certainly is big and bright, yet dark and twisted in all of the right places. The title track uses McCartney-esque missiles to explode the expectations of ‘80’s-nostalgia-munchers and comes crashing through the gate with the purest pop rock that has been released since, well, before McCartney slipped into self-parody with Wings (Yeah, it needed to be said). The majestic “Closest Thing To Heaven” and the jangly “Call Me Mellow” would fit snuggly into a master’s thesis on power pop. As singles, they deserve as much consideration as TFF’s best known hits from the ‘80’s.
While the production is big and maybe even a bit bombastic, the songs have the ability to hold their own even if you remove all of the window dressing. The two biggest examples of this come in the form of “Who Killed Tangerine?” which could be fun. if fun. were capable of creating melody, and “Secret World,” which may easily be one of the most beautiful pop songs of the last decade that hasn’t been heard by the right people (yet). Both songs, particularly the latter, are bursting with lush orchestral arraignments that emphasize their soaring qualities. But it’s the simple guitar-based melodies beneath them provide an almost obnoxiously strong foundation. Oh yeah, the lyrics are good, too.
The dark, teen-angst TFF has been known for in the past still manages to creep in, though through the scope of two 40-year-old men. This is particularly true of the (literally) haunting “The Devil” and the progressive pop rock ditty “Quiet Ones,” which is probably the closest TFF come to sounding like an ‘80’s band on the entire album. “Killing With Kindness” revisits the political anxiety the guys have exhibited in the past with songs like “Shout,” “Mothers Talk,” and “Sowing The Seeds of Love.” This time, however, they put in it in the form of what could be confused with a long-lost James Bond theme song. The album closes with “Last Days On Earth,” an R&B number that celebrates the diversity and flexibility of TFF’s sound and would also be appropriate to pork to.
Upon its eventual arrival in 2004, ELAHE was for the most part ignored by critics and audiences alike. It debuted and peaked at #46 on the Billboard charts, fading into obscurity shortly thereafter. Though successful tours of the U.S. and Europe would follow the album’s release, little interest was paid to what TFF were doing “now.” With the exception of a 2006 song called “Floating Down The River,“ which seriously, you need to download RIGHT NOW, ELAHE the last thing they’ve done. TFF remains active, however, with a semi-regular touring schedule every summer, particularly on the U.S. West Coast. Also, they have recently seen a massive resurgence of popularity in the Philippines and South America. Regardless, TFF’s legacy remains a prisoner to the ‘80s.
It is important to note that their legacy is certainly not lacking merit. Songs like “Shout,” “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and “Head Over Heels” are huge hits that have aged considerably well and helped to define the sound of the 1980s. “Mad World” is arguably one of the most important re-discovered “classic singles” of the last decade. 1989’s “Sowing the Seeds of Love” was a major influence on ushering in the era of Brit-pop, paving the way for the early- to mid-‘90s third wave “British Invasion” with groups like Blur and Oasis. However, the marginalization of TFF’s accomplishments will seemingly prevail in popular music history, and these are the things we can (should) do without.
Perceived status of TFF’s cultural cachet aside, they have always made music worth paying attention to. This is especially true of their oft-ignored later period. I urge you, dear reader, to seek out ELAHE and listen to what far too many have missed out on. Rumor has it that Orzabal and Smith will be working on new TFF material in 2013. Regardless of the legitimacy of the rumor, and indeed that would be wonderful if it is true, ELAHE is an inspirational example of how to end a remarkably diverse and exciting recording career. Your ears need this.