Orzabal has never embraced the term “progressive,” identifying it with Pink Floyd, but he is certainly the most experimental pop musician alive—rivaled only by Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney, Robert Smith, Andy Partridge, and Peter Gabriel. From my perspective, Orzabal is the greatest living pop musician, but I think this would be open to debate. And, of course, the debate would demand a proper definition of pop.
A good friend of mine (a fellow music lover and a fellow Kansan), Derek, properly challenged this assertion of mine while also admitting how much he loves Orzabal.
I did my best to defend my claim. Here’s the conversation:
Derek: “From my perspective, Orzabal is the greatest living pop musician…” Wow! I’m still trying to wrap my head around that statement. Not disagreeing necessarily, but wow. I love Orzabal’s work but also equally love Neil Finn’s work, especially with Crowded House (and double especially on the album “Temple of Low Men”). Oleta Adams with Orzabal on “Me and My Big Ideas” is just sublime. I had forgotten how much she brought to the TFF sound. Hiring her was a stroke of genius on the part of Orzabal and Smith.
Me: Derek–it’s debatable, for sure. But, I think about Orzabal’s willingness to experiment–and his slow but excellent body of work over 30+ years. I’m excluding straight rock and prog musicians in the comment. I must admit, I don’t know Neil Finn’s work beyond a few wonderful songs he wrote in the 80s. But, for example, Michael Stipe is good, but his music sounds dated to me in a way that Orzabal’s doesn’t.
Derek: All compelling points, Bradley. The point about Orzabal’s “slow but excellent body of work over 30+ years” is well taken. If you can, give Crowded House’s “Temple of Low Men” a spin. It is downright criminal that that album wasn’t a smash. The song “When You Come” should have been just as big of a hit as “Don’t Dream It’s Over” or “Something So Strong.” Finn is hands down one of my favorite pop music lyricists, bar none. An example from the aforementioned “When You Come.”
When you come across the sea
Me like a beacon guiding you to safety
The sooner the better now
And when you come the hills
Will breathe like a baby
Pulled up heaving from the bottom of the ocean
The sooner the better now
When you come to cover me with your kisses
Fresh like a daisy chained up in a lion’s den
The sooner the better now
I’ll know you by the thunderclap
Pouring like a rain of blood to my emotions
And that is why
I stumble to my knees
And I haven’t even mentioned the other amazing songs from Temple of Low Men like “I Feel Possessed,” “Into Temptation,” “Sister Madly,” and “Better Be Home Soon.”
Me: The first master was Brian Wilson, in my opinion, but his career, for obvious reasons, faded quickly.
Derek: Agreed 100%.
Me: Andy Partridge is brilliant, but he’s so dark and cynical. It’s hard to take some of his music, especially when he’s not tempered by Dave Gregory. Then, Paul McCartney, but, again, a career that was stunning but relatively short–though some of his best work was with early Wings.
Let me try to defend my claim that Orzabal is the greatest with a bit more gusto and in a larger space. A few caveats, however. Yes, I’m an American. Yes, I’m prone to hyperbole. Yes, I’m an American prone to hyperbole! The kind of hyperbole that makes non-Americans uneasy. Neil Peart is the greatest drummer who ever lived. George Washington is the greatest American ever. SPIRIT OF EDEN is the greatest prog album ever written. KIND OF BLUE is the greatest jazz ever made. The Aeneid is the greatest story ever written. Etc. Etc. Etc. I plead guilty to hyperbole.
I also plead guilty to wielding strong loyalties.
So let me try to explain what I mean about Roland Orzabal.
First, he is experimental, and he’s more than willing to take chances, wherever those chances lead him. He’s willing to embrace high pop (Sgt. Peppers), art rock, soul, gospel, rock, power pop, prog, minimalism, electronica, and dance. His very output and his very life seems to transcend labels in the best way possible, just writing what needs to be written, when and where it needs to be written. And, this is just within his individual songs.
His albums, each taken as a whole, are equally diverse:
- THE HURTING: Minimalist New Wave
- SONGS FROM THE BIG CHAIR: Progressive Pop (Art Rock)
- SEEDS OF LOVE: Jazz, theatric soul and pop
- ELEMENTAL: Atmospheric and moody pop
- RAOUL: Autobiographical earnest pop
- TOMCATS: Electronica
- EVERYBODY LOVES A HAPPY ENDING: High Art Rock/pop; progressive pop
- Orzabal’s B-sides: every thing and every genre imaginable.
Second, think about his competition, as I mentioned in the above discussion with my friend, Derek. Brian Wilson was brilliant, but, for sad and obvious reasons, he has not been able to sustain his career. Sir Paul McCartney had an amazing run with the Beatles and with early Wings, but, he too, wasn’t able to sustain it. His pop became more and more bland as the mid 70s became the late 70s. Robert Smith is a master as well, but, frankly, he’s so much better when he’s writing gothic rock than when he writes pop. DISINTEGRATION is The Cure’s best album because it’s not pop in any way. There’s no “Friday, I’m in Love,” to bring the album down. Peter Gabriel is Orzabal’s greatest rival, but even his music has a sameness (relatively speaking), at least over time, that Orzabal has avoided. At this point, Gabriel is simply offering (brilliant, of course) reworked versions of his music from the 70s and 80s. And, as great as Andy Partridge is (my gosh, think about the gorgeousness of a song such as Bungalow), he’s so unremittingly dark and bitter. He desperately needed a Dave Gregory to temper him. Other candidates are out there. Sarah McLachlan? She made three great albums, then descended into blandness. Sixpence None the Richer? Again, wonderful, but lost it after three albums. Michael Stipe? So great at one point, but his music seems dated now.
Third, Orzabal’s lyrics. Whether telling a story, railing against a politician, writing about depression, or simply stringing works together for the love of the words themselves, Orzabals lyrics are always very clever, and so very able to mixed note and/with meaning so perfectly. I don’t always agree with his politics or religious views (I’m probably as libertarian and conservative as he is liberal; and I’m also a practicing (if poor) Roman Catholic, while I understand he is not only a lapsed Catholic but an atheist), but I always take him and his ideas seriously. And, whether he’s writing about love, loss, redemption, physics, or anything else that matters, he’s very, very good! His lyrics mix intelligence with whimsy, but they’re also just so beautifully constructed.
Fourth, his voice. Granted, you always know when Orzabal is singing. But, he can vary it in so many ways, and he can make the strangest, weirdest voices, when the music demands it. For the longest time (well, for thirty years), I thought this was all just studio trickery. I was wrong. After seeing him live, I realize just how capable of goodness and weirdness(!) he is.
Fifth, he’s utterly sincere—whether its in his music, his lyrics, his views, his moods, or his first novel. Whatever it is, it has meaning to him. One of my greatest pet peeves is when an artist tries to mock his own success or mock those who adore him and his art. It’s one thing to be humorous and self-deprecating (both of which are wonderful and necessary in this rather insane world). It’s a completely different thing to mock one’s fans. There’s nothing cynical about Orzabal’s art. What you see is what you get, though, of course, always layered and nuanced.
One major admission. I could not have written this piece a week ago. As I mentioned in my concert review of TFF the other day, I had assumed for thirty years that TFF was at their best in the studio. I’d dismissed their live performances as uninspired. Granted, I did so out of complete ignorance, having never seen them play life until six days ago.
Seeing them perform in Denver last Sunday night made me realize just how wrong I was. A year or so ago, I wrote about SONGS FROM THE BIG CHAIR as the best pop album ever written. Now that I’ve seen TFF live, I can state with conviction and evidence that Orzabal is our greatly living pop artist.
And, I’ll make this prediction. The forthcoming TFF album will be an unexpected and satisfying work of art that will take the pop and rock world by storm. Orzabal and Smith aren’t living on or in the past. They are at the absolute height of their game right now. And, of course, they’ve earned every single accolade they will receive.