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Mention Tears for Fears (TFF) to most people and the songs that immediately come to mind are those from their Eighties heyday. In fact, "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" was the first song I ever saw as a video on MTV and still remains their signature tune. Combine that with the iconic "Mad World", and the staying power of "Shout" and "Head Over Heels" and you can understand why they are indelibly associated with the decade of big hair, shoulder pads and the New Wave.
However, TFF endured well beyond the eighties, albeit in an altered form. Curt Smith, one half of the dynamic duo who shared in the band's international success on "Songs From The Big Chair" left the band in 1991 after falling out with original partner and founder member Roland Orzabal.
Orzabal, who was the lead vocalist, continued the name and the TFF sound with a new line-up through the Nineties and released two studio albums - 1993's "Elemental" (the subject of this review) and a follow-up called "Raoul and the Kings of Spain" in 1995. Incidentally, after patching up their differences in late 2000, the original line-up re-formed, and Smith and Orzabal released the aptly titled "Everybody Loves A Happy Ending" in 2005.
ABOUT THE ALBUM
Despite the fact that Smith had left the band, "Elemental" is considered to be the fourth studio album released by TFF, following their debut "The Hurting" in 1983, "Songs From The Big Chair" in 1985 and "The Seeds of Love" in 1989.
With Smith's departure, Orzabal enlisted the help of long-time collaborator and songwriter Alan Griffiths and producer Tim Palmer to round out the line-up, but many consider "Elemental" to be something of a solo effort that just happens to be under the TFF name.
The album met with moderate chart success (but nothing like the reception afforded the previous albums) with "Break It Down Again", "Cold", and "Goodnight Song" released at various times and in various territories as singles. "Break It Down Again" reached a modest position of 20 on the UK Singles Chart, with the album as a whole faring better with a top 5 showing.
The album is currently available on Amazon for £2.98 on CD, or as an MP3 download for a bit more (£3.48). The CD insert includes the lyrics from the album, some acknowledgements and not much else.
The title track kicks off proceedings in unassuming fashion with the tinkling of bells and a few drum beats before the main instrumentation kicks in to support Orzabal's unmistakeable and instantly recognisable voice. The intricate layering of instruments and production creates a multi-dimensional track with great depth and a real sense of atmosphere. This one - a song about loss and renewal - is a real grower with a subtly epic feel to it and a very positive opening to the album.
"Welcome to the real world. I said welcome to the real world. Are we rushing like the wind, naked out and naked in?"
This is my favourite track on the album - partly because I identify with the lyrics so much. It starts off with catchy guitars, insistent drums and soaring and synths before Orzabal starts telling his story. It turns into a laid back, somewhat reflective number, ruminating on detachment and ambivalence - thus the "Cold" of the title. It builds nicely, before fading out to Orzabal's repetitive insistent refrain of "stone cold".
"Cold, been excommunicated because I'm cold. My temperature's been rated and I'm cold. Bring to me my big old sweater, nothing more will make me better."
> Break it Down Again
The standout track and most successful single on the album, this song harkens back to the earlier days of TFF - especially the album before ("Sowing the Seeds") and is a catchy, toe-tapping number with some excellent - if somewhat ambiguous - lyrics. It's hard not to like. A lot of Elemental is about Orzabal making a personal statement after the exit of his long-time band-mate Smith, and this song has a sense of consolidation and taking stock about it.
"It's in the way you're always hiding from the light. Fast off to heaven just like Moses on a motorbike..."
> Fish Out of Water
Lyrically, this is one of the more obvious songs on the album. It's childish really - Orzabal is clearly taking a swipe at his former colleague as the song is so chock full of obvious references to their time together ("Now in Neptune's kitchen you will be food for killer whales" - Neptune's Kitchen was Orzabal's home recording studio where TFF recorded their successful 80's albums) .
Orzabal was clearly the more successful of the two when the band split (Smith had a solo career that lasted all of one commercially unsuccessful album) so it seems a bit twisted and a bit bitter to engage in such unseemly gloating. So much the better then that it's fairly irrelevant and academic now that they have got back together. Putting aside its sordid background, FOOW is actually quite a good song.
"With all your high class friends you think you've got it made. The only thing you made was that tanned look on your face. With all your cigarettes and fancy cars. You ain't a clue who or what you are..."
> Goodnight Song
On the face of it, this is an upbeat and positive song, but like many of the tracks on the album it is something of a vehicle for Orzabal's hidden agenda. The lyrics suggest that it's about the break-up of a band whose time has come, and who are going through the motions as the inevitable end approaches ("Time may keep alive that old swan song that we've been playing forever... my voice is aching, I'm tongue tied and the sounds we are making are so uninspired"). However, look beyond the personal connection and you will find a catchy little number with a very pleasing melody.
"...nothing ever changes unless there's some pain..."
Elemental was an understated success by the band's standards and suggested that perhaps TFF had seen its best days in the previous decade. The four-year hiatus and the perceived break-up of the band may have had something to do with it, but from a personal perspective, I still remember being excited at the time at the prospect of some new material.
Did it meet my expectations? Sort of. As with most fans at the time, I was disappointed by the acrimonious break up of the band and was rather hoping for a more conciliatory effort by Orzabal as the inheritor of the TFF brand. The sniping and bitterness that is integral to the album detracts from its value as a musical accomplishment.
That's not to say the album is bad - far from it - it works well as a coherent whole and rewards a listen right the way through, even if it flags a bit in the middle. In the final analysis, Elemental is book-ended by some cracking tracks and, if you can ignore Orzabal's obvious personal agenda, the five songs highlighted above in particular are definitely worth a spin.
That said, its probably more one for the fans rather than the public at large, and despite the fact that it has its noteworthy moments, TFF's best work clearly remained in the Eighties.
Recommended with reservations.
FULL TRACK LISTING
1. "Elemental" (5:30)
2. "Cold" (5:04)
3. "Break It Down Again" (4:31)
4. "Mr. Pessimist" (6:16)
5. "Dog's a Best Friend's Dog" (3:38)
6. "Fish out of Water" (5:07)
7. "Gas Giants" (2:40)
8. "Power" (5:50)
9. "Brian Wilson Said" (4:22)
10. "Goodnight Song" (3:53)
© Hishyeness 2009
Disc #1 Tracklisting
3 Break It Down Again
4 Mr. Pessimist
5 Dog's A Best Friend's Dog
6 Fish Out Of Water
7 Gas Giants
9 Brian Wilson Said
10 Goodnight Song