I’d never lived through a summer quite that humid. Even the two summers I’d spent in Fairfax, Virginia, seemed tame compared to that summer in Bloomington, Indiana. I was over at a friend’s house—sans air conditioning—and we were lazily talking as sweat dripped off us. She popped in a new CD, and I was immediately mesmerized by it, forgetting all of those pesky atmospheric woes. I knew the voice immediately, as I’d always been rather obsessed with the singer and the song writer, but I’d had no idea that the band had recorded a new album. The last one had been really good, but I’d not been blown away by it, at least not to the extent that the first two had captivated me. But, after just a minute or so of listening to the new album in the summer of 1993, I grabbed the booklet of ELEMENTAL and pored over the lyrics and the liner notes.
I’d known that Curt Smith had left the band, but I knew nothing about Alan Griffiths or Tim Palmer. Their names were all over the notes, almost as prominent as Roland Orzabal’s.
Regardless, I loved the direction TFF had taken, what I called then and now a form of psychedelic prog electronica. To my mind, it wasn’t equal to SONGS FROM THE BIG CHAIR, but I wasn’t looking for that. SONGS FROM THE BIG CHAIR was a masterpiece that would never be repeated. What I wanted was true progress, innovation toward something beautiful. ELEMENTAL is nothing if not beautiful, even if in a rather melancholic and, at times, bitter fashion.
It was rather clear to me that Orzabal was struggling with the themes of friendship and betrayal in the lyrics, but I was rather taken with the word play. Additionally, I was dealing with my own issues involving family and academic mentorship. That summer was a terrible one as I was making a number of huge life-altering decisions. Even though Orzabal is six years older than I am, I fully understood his mood, no matter against whom it was directed. Indeed, his lyrics in 1983 and 1985 meant fully as much to me as those of 1993, all of them and their influences relative, of course.
ELEMENTAL is a timeless album for me. I’ve listened to it innumerable times over the past 23 years, and it still sounds as fresh to me today as it did that humid summer of 1993. I still think in terms of album sides, and the album breaks down nicely in my mind to two sides. Side one is looser than side two, encompassing the first five songs, “Elemental,” “Cold,” “Break It Down Again,” “Mr. Pessimist,” “Dog’s a Best Friend’s Dog.” The second side was much more coherent and, consequently, much more progressive: “Fish Out of Water,” “Gas Giants,” “Power,” “Brian Wilson Said,” and “Goodnight Song.” Thoughout, Orzabal mixes brilliant word play with fascinating studio antics, a writer’s as well as a audiophile’s dreams. The flow from song to song on side two is especially good, reflecting aa more thoughtful and psychedelic side two of ABBEY ROAD. “Gas Giants” is something straight off of the most progressive album one might imagine, complete with the mysterious lyrics
Giants on Armistice Day
Caught between the rock and the renegade
Which moves gently and necessarily into “Power,” a song worthy of even the best Neil Peart has written. The lyrics of “Power” shaped me as much in graduate school as they do now. It was the kind of song that opened all kinds of books and ideas to me.
It all resolves gorgeously in the obviously PET SOUND’s influenced, “Brian Wilson Said.”
My life, nothing was easy till now
Hope like the morning will paint the dawn
More than ordinary (deep down)
Make it more than merry (deep down)
Take me to the jamboree (deep down)
And shine a light on me
Draw back the curtains and smile
As always, Tear for Fear’s b-sides are as important as the a-sides, including the extraordinary “Schrödinger’s Cat.”
Of course, I’m thrilled that Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal are a team again. Orzabal and Smith is as right as Holmes and Watson, Lewis and Clark, and Gilbert and Hillaire.
Still, that relationship has produced as much in alliance as it has in opposition. Orzabal and Smith are two poles around which much of the modern art world has shifted and revolved. It’s ELEMENTAL.