- Curt Smith (left) and Roland Orzabal, improved and gratified.
During the 1980s, Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith of Tears for Fears weren't afraid to intellectualize pop music. The Bath, U.K. duo debuted in 1983 with The Hurting, grayscale synthpop with a Ph.D. in cerebral gloom, highlighted by the lyrical daymare "Mad World" ("I find it kind of funny, I find it kind of sad/That dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had").
In the U.S., No. 1 hits like "Shout" and "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" -- taken from 1985's soul-sleek Songs From the Big Chair -- were just as synapse-tickling in their ambition to reach cathartic heights. And even the albums Orzabal made himself under the Tears for Fears moniker (such as 1995's sorely underrated song cycle Raoul & the Kings of Spain) had a literary bent that veered toward the grandiose tomes of Great Books 101.
"The only misconception that I've come across over the years -- and I think we pretty much [disprove] that one when anyone talks to us -- is that we have no sense of humor," Smith says. "The only reason why I say [this] is because there's songs that we write that have a lot of depth. They're lyrically relatively deep, so you become known as a thinking man's or women's band. [But] it's just one facet of you -- that's how we treat songwriting."
Everybody Loves a Happy Ending, the first TFF album featuring both men since 1989's Beatlesque The Seeds of Love, won't change the band's reputation as serious musicians who elevate the IQ of the radio waves. Which, of course, means that it's especially difficult for the group to wiggle its way into the mainstream today. In fact, the album was originally due out in April, but ended up being released by Universal in September after a record-label shakeup.
"L.A. Reid signed us to Arista and then he left, and it became very apparent that the new regime really wasn't our kind of people," Smith says, a sarcastic edge to his voice. "We really weren't up to the par of Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard, so it seemed obvious that we needed to leave that label.
"It would be soul-destroying to go in, make a record, and go, 'It's not really as good as the things we've done before.' That would be just a waste of time. We went and tried to make something that was musically of more depth than anything we had done before."
Ending does seem like a logical -- albeit denser -- sequel to Seeds of Love. Orzabal's stentorian vocal booms and the pair's meltaway harmonies drive rock songs steeped in everything from sunny 1960s psychedelia to strident Britpop and folksy electronica. It's certainly TFF's most mature work yet -- and their most emotionally rewarding. As a result, it's unsurprising that the two vastly prefer these new compositions to their past work.
"Oh, without any doubt," Smith says immediately. "There's no competition, basically. We're loving playing the new stuff -- and having a problem playing the old stuff. But that's OK. We're just finding new ways to do the old material; that makes it feel more relevant to us now.
"It's an emotional thing. Lyrically, there are certain emotions that still resonate and ones that don't. The emotions you feel in your doting middle age are very different than the ones you feel in your early 20s. Sometimes you have a hard time translating those emotions. Songs like 'Mad World' still stand up, but sometimes we have a problem with songs like 'Shout' and things that are . . . a little more basic, shall I say."
Indeed, if The Hurting felt like a ball of teenage confusion, Big Chair's hit singles sound very much like the work of two twentysomethings on the cusp of stardom -- booming with brazen optimism, and melodramatic in hindsight.
But the burgeoning urgency of these songs mirrored the ever-increasing personal profile of TFF -- which contributed to Smith's decision to walk away from the group in 1990. After moving to New York City, he took time away from music. Still, by the mid-1990s, the cooperative nature of the city's music scene and a fortuitous meeting with songwriter Charlton Pettus -- who collaborated on Ending -- helped rekindle his passion.
"He convinced me to start writing again and to go play in clubs in New York just for the hell of it," Smith says. "That's when I really started to appreciate music again."
"I put together this little band called Mayfield, and I used to walk to local clubs and play and then walk home," he laughs. "It was just great. I didn't have to leave home, hardly. 'Okay, we're playing in 15 minutes, better leave.'"
"It was just the most enjoyable time musically I probably ever had. It makes you realize that the whole becoming a big band and all the rest of it is just bullshit in the end. Unless you're enjoying the music, it doesn't really mean anything. You can get caught up in stardom. Luckily, one of the main reasons I left the band was I was very uncomfortable being any form of pop star. That side never held much attraction to me."
Smith also notes that any residual animosity between himself and Orzabal has dissipated. In fact, looking back on his career, he notes that he's most proud of his two children, both of whom enjoy watching him play live, despite his five-year-old's adoration of Hilary Duff. That's the ultimate beauty of Tears for Fears, however -- stubbornly lost in their own brainiac heads, but somehow always triumphing over the mallpop queens.
"It's always enjoyable when you realize you've got better. I see some of the old gigs that we did together, and I cringe at some of the singing and playing. And now, I think, we're actually far more accomplished than we used to be. So if you're improving all the time, it's gratifying."