Ok, so it’s not a perfect album, but it’s about as good as pop gets.
As I finished my junior year of high school, Tears for Fears released its second album, the first to make it huge in the U.S., Songs from the Big Chair.
The first album, The Hurting, proved the sheer brilliance of Orzabal and Smith, but it also felt very, very, very, very (ok, I’ll stop–but, really, very) constricting. As Orzabal and Smith released their primal screams and healed their own hurts, the listener entered into a sort of padded but rhythmic asylum for 41 minutes and 39 seconds.
Possibly the breath would simply disappear if that album went on 21 more seconds. Imagine Andy Summers shouting “mother!” or Phil Collins begging for his “mama” but with serious prog sensibilities. Well, you get The Hurting. Enough.
In contrast, Songs from the Big Chair, though still thematically dealing with emotional and mental trauma, sends the listener into realms of openness and euphoria. The entire album is full of possibilities, full of what might have beens–all of them good, a cornucopia of aural pleasures. For the listener, Songs from the Big Chair is one huge intake of morning air in the Rocky Mountains. This is pop at its purest, achieved, really, only by the Beatles and XTC. Rarified.
Side one (yes, I’m old enough to remember sides). Frankly, the two American hits, “Shout” and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, are the weakest tracks on the entire album. But, that said, they’re still brilliant. “Shout” is righteous pop, filled with a soaring guitar that might fit nicely on a Big Country album. “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” is a clever dig at oppression and imperialism, dressed in a sunny tune.
Both of these songs played so often on radio and MTV in the mid 1980s in the United States that it’s impossible for me to avoid thinking about Apple Computer, Ronald Reagan, the Icelandic summit, or John Hughes when hearing even a few notes of either.
“The Working Hour,” track two, rings with jazz flourishes and an urgency lyrically and musically. It begins with pure taste, as brass and keyboards gently dance around one another. Though only one second shorter than “Shout”, the song has much more depth to it. It’s Orzabal’s guitar work, however, that makes the song so beautiful. That, and his voice–the depth and anguish of it all. It all ends up being a song that never ages, never becomes tiresome.
Track four on side one, “Mother’s Talk,” has the percussive feel of much of The Hurting but without the claustrophobia. Indeed, it feels far more Latin American and than it does European. Or, perhaps, it has a bit of Peter Gabriel in it. Whatever it is, it works wonderfully, a perfect way to end side one. As with The Hurting, the lyrics are gut-wrenching and desperate, dealing with the fears of conformity and the inability to resist what is clearly dangerous in a community. In the end, the weak person destroys not only his own soul but the very integrity of society as well.
Side Two, a dramatic tale from beginning to end. Starting with ominous notes from a grand piano, Orzabal picks up lyrically from the previous album. “I believe,” he cries in his best croon, an affirmation that the therapy expressed in The Hurting has accomplished something. Well, at least that’s his hope. By the end of the song, however, Orzabal expresses nothing but doubt. Who are you to think that you can shape a life? No, too late.
The song slides perfectly into “Broken”–less than three-minutes long, but full of 80s production–with big and angry guitar, a relentlessly driving bass, and intricate keyboards. “Between the searching and the need to work it out,” Orzabal laments, he deceived himself by believing all would be well. Impossible. “Broken. We are broken.”
Then, the haunting line: a moment only between being a child and being a man, seeing one’s life in continuity, all that is good and all that is wrong. Tempus fugit. A moment.
Back to full-blown, over the top, crooning pop: “Head over Heels.” Sheesh, Orzabal explains, I just wanted to talk, to enjoy your company. I didn’t realize this was going to get so deep, so quickly. He then explains that his family desired so much of him and for him. He. Well, he just wanted some freedom to find his own path and his own creativity. So hard to do. “I’m on the line, one open mind.”
As the song fades out with a chorus of “la-la-la-la (repeat x20),” Orzabal’s voice twists and the album returns to “Broken,” ending, strangely, with a live audience cheering wildly. As the audience’s applause dies down, swirling, psychedelic keyboard and hypnotic voices emerge. Again, with the tasteful guitar of side one. The final six minutes of the album seems like something that might have appeared on a pre-pop Simple Minds or a Tangerine Dream album. Electronica not for dance, but for centering and psychic probing.
The lyrics to the final song, “Listen,” conclude nothing but add a certain mystery to the whole album. Only a few lines repeat: Russia attempts to heal, while the pilgrims head to America. Meanwhile, Orzabal chants his desire to soothe feelings and bring mercy. Spanish voices cry in bewilderment.
The final noise of the album: percussion that sounds as though an ocean wave has overcome all.
For me, the album is the sound track to my senior year of high school. My debate colleague and one of my life-long friends, Ron Strayer, and I listened to the album over and over again, adding the b-side “Pharaohs.”
Frankly, I think the overwhelming popularity of Tears for Fears in the 1980s and some of the pretentiousness of their lyrics has relegated them merely to 80’s status, locked in that decade as though a museum piece. They deserve more applause and attention from those of us who love music. I never particularly liked The Seeds of Love (1989), but I think Elemental (1993) and Raoul and the Kings of Spain (1995) are some of the most creatively crafted rock/pop albums ever made.
Though, the final Tears for Fears album, Everybody Loves a Happy Ending, could be an XTC-style Dukes of Stratosphere paean to the Beatles, it works. It has some of the best pop written. . . well, since Abbey Road. “Who Killed Tangerine?” especially has to be one of the most interesting pop songs of all time.
But, these are topics for other posts. For now, enjoy a rediscovery of Songs from the Big Chair.