As 2020 dawned, Roland Orzabal of Tears for Fears decided it was time to become a functioning human being again. Some 2½ years previously his beloved wife of nearly four decades, Caroline, had died following a long struggle with depression and alcoholism. Orzabal was devastated. Drinking helped with his pain. Until it inevitably didn’t and he went into rehab. “My life sort of fell apart in 2018,” he says. “As they say in AA, my life spiralled out of control. It took a while to reclaim it.”
But then January 1st came around and Orzabal concluded he needed to lay to rest his demons. And so he flew to LA to sit with his bandmate Curt Smith. Their relationship had often been fractious since they started Tears for Fears in 1981, and for a period they did not speak at all. However, when Orzabal needed someone, Smith was there. They talked, they cried. And they wrote the bones of their extraordinary new LP, The Tipping Point.
As an act of bearing witness to unimaginable trauma, the album is stunning. The title refers to the moment of death – that crossing over from here to somewhere else. The Tipping Point, their first project in 18 years, also encompasses many other subjects: hope, despair, the #MeToo movement and the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests.
"It's raw emotion for me. I find it tough to listen to"
Bereavement, though, is an ever-present spectre as the record moves between acoustic pop and angst-filled electronica, occasionally suggesting Frank Ocean tangling with Nine Inch Nails. A place of heartbreaking catharsis is arrived at on Please Be Happy, which grapples with Caroline’s illness and her death as a result of alcohol-related dementia (during which her husband served as her full-time carer).
“I cannot bear to see you in this state of melancholy, curled up in your chair,” goes the first verse. It leads into a heartbreaking chorus: “It’s like a wave is breaking over you/Dragging you in with the undertow.”
Orzabal wrote the lyrics in 2019 after he and Smith had completed a successful arena tour (they played Killarney and Dublin that January).
But he put them in a drawer. Fresh on the page, he could not bear to show them to his friend, who had known Caroline since the three were teenagers growing up on a sink estate in Bath. On the LP, it is Smith who sings the verses. For Orzabal it’s just too soon. It probably always will be.
“It’s raw emotion for me. I find it tough to listen to,” says Orzabal, who would go on to remarry photographer Emily Rath. “What people don’t realise – because it’s not very well documented – is that back in the day Curt and I used to hang out with Caroline when we were 13, 14, in the Snow Hill flats. Curt has known her for the vast majority of his life. Because he wasn’t living it, it was always a shock to him when he saw her.”
Grand soap opera
Tears for Fears are one of the grand soap operas in British pop. Orzabal and Smith met as teenagers in the late 1970s. Smith’s parents had separated when he was a child. He had grown into a troublesome adolescent, culminating with his arrest for stealing cameras from school. Which was when his friend Orzabal suggested Smith read psychologist Arthur Janov’s book The Primal Scream.
Janov’s big idea was that adult pain flows from the suppression of childhood trauma. And that the best way to manage that pain is to engage with those buried memories. The thesis spoke profoundly to both Smith and Orzabal, who started to write lyrics inspired by Janov, first in the mod-tinged Graduate, then as Tears for Fears.
However unlikely, this pop duo inspired by a clinical psychologist were soon racking up smashes – most enduringly, Everybody Wants to Rule the World, and Shout, from their second record, 1985’s Songs from the Big Chair; and Sowing the Seeds of Love from 1989’s The Seeds of Love.
"Two young, relatively good-looking kids. The record company saw a picture of us, realised we were making electronic music and it was a no-brainer"
These hits were and remain unique in that they managed to be two contradictory things at once. If you didn’t know better, it was possible to dismiss them as superior Smash Hits fodder. Catchy pop, freighted with melancholy, yet living in the same universe as Duran Duran or Spandau Ballet.
But they were also a vehicle Orzabal and Smith’s obsession with Janov’s teachings. They did not try to conceal this aspect of the work. It was there in the chorus of Shout, which communicated Janov’s message that verbalising your problems was the first step on the path to healing. Or, as Tears for Fears put it, “Shout, shout, let it all out”.
“Two young, relatively good-looking kids,” says Orzabal. “The record company saw a picture of us, realised we were making electronic music and it was a no-brainer.”
Melodic alternative pop addressing existential themes marked Tears for Fears out as unique. Or nearly unique. As he surveyed the pop landscape of the 1980s, Orzabal saw one other group potentially coming from the same place – U2, who, in their early years, were powered by their Christian beliefs much as Tears for Fears were by their passion for Janov.
“We were evangelical about it. We wanted to change the world and we believed that was the answer,” says Orzabal. “The only band I can draw a comparison with in that regard is U2.”
“Ours was Janov,” adds Smith. “Theirs was God.”
The difference is obviously that U2 were a quartet sharing the burden of success between them, whereas Tears for Fears were a duo: two songwriters, two lead singers and two strong personalities. It was inevitable they would have a falling-out, as they did in 1991, when Smith left and Orzabal carried on releasing music as Tears for Fears.
"Bob Geldof was pissed off but we kissed and made up. I like Bob a lot. But he is who he is"
“There’s no question that our fates are intertwined,” says Orzabal. “There’s no doubt about it. We are pretty much always drawn to people with whom our fates are intertwined. But they’re not intertwined all the time. And for Curt to be himself and to live his life fully … he can’t live it with me. And me likewise. But it’s important to recognise that, when those fates intertwine, it’s for a bloody good reason. And that was the sense I was getting towards the end of 2019.”
Over Zoom they have the comfortable familiarity of old mates. Yet even when they weren’t getting on, it wasn’t as if they were screaming blue murder, says Smith.
“Sometimes, reading about it, you’d think we were in fist fights or something,” he says.
"We're far too cerebral for that. That's kind of not how it works. We tend to be like 'No, it's my way'; 'No it's my way'. And then we walk off into our own corners. And that's that. But, at the beginning of 2020, we talked openly. And open enough that, if nothing came of it, it would be okay. It's not like if we disagree on something, we're not fine. It's okay to be that way and not want the same thing. At this point in time we both wanted the same thing. We both wanted to complete the album and for the album to be meaningful to us. After the struggles we'd been through, and especially the struggles Roland had been through, it was important to finish it."
The essence of Bob
Whatever about Bono and U2, one Irish man with whom they became entangled in the 1980s was Bob Geldof. Exhausted after months of touring, in 1985 Tears for Fears cried off from Geldof’s Live Aid with just a few weeks’ notice. They had their manager communicate the unhappy news to Geldof, who did not take it terribly well. The odd F-bomb may even have flown.
“Bob was pissed off,” says Smith. “But we kissed and made up when we did Everybody Wants to Run the World [a 1986 charity single for Geldof’s Sport Aid campaign]. I like Bob a lot. But he is who he is.”
Tears for Fears were historically slightly sniffy about their biggest hits. For Orzabal and Smith the work that captured them at their truest and rawest was their 1983 debut album, The Hurting. And in a sense they were proved right. The Hurting has been championed by the hip-hop and R’n’B community, with artists such as Kanye West and The Weeknd sampling its dark, twitchy beats. And, of course, Gary Jules’s 2001 cover of its single Mad World was a transatlantic No 1.
"What's interesting about writing songs is that it puts your thoughts and feelings in some sort of order"
With The Tipping Point there is a sense of turning full circle. They see the project as a companion piece to The Hurting. Where that record found the duo stepping furtively into the world as fresh-faced young men, now, in their 60s, they’re looking back at their lives and trying to make sense of it all.
“What’s interesting about writing songs is that it puts your thoughts and feelings in some sort of order, instead of these things going around in your head and you finding no way out of it,” says Orzabal. “So that it allows you understand things a little more. I find that’s the most therapeutic part of the songwriting process.”
The Tipping Point by Tears for Fears is released on February 25th