Creating the first Tears for Fears album of new material in 17 years didn’t initially go too well.
The duo went into the studio with an array of songwriters to try and tease out a modern hit single. But they ended up with a bunch of songs that sounded like they were trying to write a modern hit single.
“We don’t like choosing something for the sake of sounding contemporary. It irritates us,” says Roland Orzabal, half of the duo. Adds his bandmate, Curt Smith: “If it has no depth, it has no meaning to me.”
They took the songs that worked and then went back to basics — just two men and two acoustic guitars, like they’d done when they were teenagers — and eventually emerged ‘The Tipping Point,’ a 10-track set that combines their trademark pop writing with thoughtful lyrics.
“There’s something about Tears for Fears that’s very special,” says Smith, 60. “If it’s not kind of working, then it’s not working. When it does, there’s an absolute joy in that.”
The new songs include ‘Break the Man,’ a celebration of women and a call to end patriarchy, and the rocking ‘My Demons,’ an examination of violent extremism. The title track is a heart-wrenching song about watching a loved one drift into dementia, inspired sadly by the experience of Orzabal’s first wife.
“The thing I like about this thing I’m most proud about is that we’ve managed to really, really plumb the depths of our souls and revealed the suffering,” says Orzabal, also 60. “It’s so emotional that I can’t actually listen to it.”
The duo made its mark among the first wave of electronica that ruled the early 1980s airwaves, with hits including ‘Mad World,’ ‘Pale Shelter,’ ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ and ‘Shout.’
Each album — ‘The Hurting,’ ‘Songs From the Big Chair’ and ‘The Seeds of Love’ — was more ambitious than the last, revealing their influences, including Pink Floyd, Steely Dan and Little Feat. Unlike many of their ‘80s peers, they went to an emotional place, exploring depression, isolation, anxiety and insecurity.
“We also were musically ambitious. A lot of our heroes were exceptional musicians and intelligent people, intelligent artists — Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, David Bowie. We have never felt like we have ever, ever measured up to them but that’s fine because there’s lots of space below — the sub-genius space,’’ says Orzabal, laughing.
“What we’ve combined is great, great pop songs with slightly subversive lyrics,” he adds. “Every generation comes along and discovers ‘The Hurting’ and it means something to them because that’s what they’re going through. And what I love about this album is for me. I think we’ve come full circle.”
For ‘The Tipping Point,’ the duo kept five songs from their aborted songwriting sessions and holed up in Smith’s Los Angeles house to write the rest, with their first track, ‘No Small Thing,’ setting the stage. It starts as a simple folk song that builds and deepens into driving rock song, teetering on madness.
“We kind of understood that this had to have a story, had to have a flow, and then we went around filling in the blanks, basically,” says Smith. He liked the end result, something that surprised even him.
“I just didn’t think there was anything missing. By the end of it, when I got to the end of that 10 songs, I’m like, `I’m happy now. I’m satisfied.’ That’s the best feeling to have when you leave a studio.’’
The album’s last song — a reworking of ‘Stay,’ which first appeared on their 2017 greatest-hits album — is about someone caught in two minds: “Stay, don’t stay/Go, don’t go/It’s all or nothing.”
Smith wrote it at a time when he was contemplating leaving Tears for Fears and it evokes “the sadness that you feel if you’ve got to leave something that’s been a huge part of your life behind,” he said. “I’m painfully aware that the work we do together is way above what we can do individually.”
Orzabal and Smith admit that they’re very similar in temperament — sensitive, a little bit arrogant and somewhat bull-headed. “We are very similar,” says Orzabal. Compromising in the name of music can be hard with such a band makeup.
“You’re trying to find perfection and you’re trying to find where each of your sense of perfection in music meet. And that’s not an easy thing to do. It really isn’t an easy thing to do,” says Smith.
The duo’s path has not always been smooth but time has revealed some working truths they’ve learned — let your ego go and connect with your heart. As for the future, that’s up in the air.
“We’ve definitely unlocked something, whether that something will exist in the future or develop, we really don’t know,” Orzabal says.