Album Review: Tears For Fears - 'The Tipping Point'

28 February 2022 | 6:31 pm | Cyclone Wehner

"It's a blast of fresh air – delivering hope, healing, and just a little daring."

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Tears For Fears (TFF) were always gloomy. The Brits' seminal New Wave fare thematised childhood trauma, mental illness and Arthur Janov's primal therapy – heavy af. Still, they dropped (goth) bops like Mad World. The Tipping Point, TFF' first album in nearly two decades, is conceptually melancholy but uplifting in mood. Roland Orzabal, the duo's main songwriter, explores the nuances of grief after losing his wife, Caroline, as well as the volatile dynamics of his relationship with co-lead singer Curt Smith. Once more, TFF universalise personal tragedy.

Orzabal and Smith bonded as teens in their hometown of Bath – the English city famed for its spas, Roman history and association with Jane Austen. They debuted as TFF in 1983 with The Hurting – dark synth-pop. Amid MTV's growing clout in the US, TFF amped up the guitars for the outward-looking Songs From The Big Chair – home to the enduring '80s Cold War banger Everybody Wants To Rule The World. For their extravagant third outing, Seeds Of Love, TFF revelled in neo-psychedelia. The song Sowing The Seeds Of Love was their arty take on The Beatles for rave's Summer of Love. 

With two frontmen, TFF inevitably encountered creative drama. Post-Seeds Of Love, the musicians parted bitterly. Orzabal continued releasing ignominious LPs as TFF and Smith went solo. TFF experienced a revival when Gary Jules (staidly) covered Mad World for the flick Donnie Darko and, reuniting, they made 2004's super-MOR Everybody Loves A Happy Ending. The late 8 Mile actor Brittany Murphy starred in the video for the minor hit Closest Thing To Heaven. TFF toured Australia with Spandau Ballet in 2010, but resisted expectations they become a heritage act.

In later years TFF – long sampled by hip-hoppers such as Nas – emerged as cult emo faves. Lorde reinterpreted Everybody Wants To Rule The World for a Hunger Games OST. Notably, Kanye West (now Ye) sampled The Hurting deep cut Memories Fade for Coldest Winter off 808s & Heartbreak. The Weeknd's Secrets flipped Pale Shelter.

TFF' seventh album has had a tempestuous odyssey, beginning as early as 2013. The pair were pressured by their then management to work with 'hitmakers'. Smith wasn't feeling it and (briefly) quit. Meanwhile, TFF responded to their surging intergenerational following by formulating 2017's 'Greatest Hits', Rule The World. They added two new songs – one the gorgeous single I Love You But I'm Lost, produced with Bastille's guy Mark Crew. The other track, the acoustic Stay, is reused on The Tipping Point as the closer.

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Eventually, TFF took back control. They largely eschewed trendy hitmakers, instead liaising with Charlton Pettus, Smith's chief solo cohort, but retained the services of Sacha Skarbek – heavily involved as a writer on James Blunt's debut Back To Bedlam. Alas, nothing on The Tipping Point quite rivals I Love You But I'm Lost. Yet the set is certainly more convincing, and compelling, than Everybody Loves A Happy Ending.

The omnidirectional album – nay, "song cycle," according to the pressers – launches with No Small Thing, the initial track TFF penned on (again) reconciling in 2020. It's wildly idiosyncratic Americana even for TFF, their unabashed adoration of Bruce Springsteen's heartland rock first evident on the monumental Songs From The Big Chair. Opening with acoustic guitar, No Small Thing builds into rousing Mumford & Sons-mode folk-rock, before veering off into progdom. As for the "no small thing"? It's "freedom".

In the title-track (and lead single) – classic TFF rhythmic synth-rock – Orzabal ruminates on mortality. The vocalist describes tending his ailing wife, whose alcoholism and dementia he revealed in last year's harrowing Guardian interview. The poignant Please Be Happy, with piano, strings and lonely trumpet, is yet more acute, its lyrics conveying Orzabal's fidelity, anguish and confusion. Indeed, TFF remain pop's psychotherapists, The Tipping Point a record of real-time emotional processing.

But TFF also offer songs addressing macro socio-political topics – End Of Night, allegorising the mistral, a wind in Southern France, extolling change. Break The Man recalls TFF' '80s feminist anthem Woman In Chains, a duet with Oleta Adams. A sincere Smith protests patriarchal power structures and toxic masculinity. The soaringly melodic Master Plan originated as a missive directed at TFF' old management, but is as much about fate versus self-determination, recapturing the duo's foray into neo-psychedelia with Elton John-like piano.

Musically, The Tipping Point is adventurous rather than avant. The best songs evoke TFF' heyday while being contemporary – ironically as did I Love You But I'm Lost. The airy Long, Long, Long Time, ruing stasis in a relationship, combines Balearic atmospherics with a groove and hint of EDM glitch. The six-minute epic Rivers Of Mercy is a tranquil gospel-soul ballad with a choir.

Unfortunately, other numbers have dated, over 'retro', production. The chugging My Demons especially could be an outtake from Depeche Mode's industrial era, albeit with a bit of Muse's paranoia about technology and surveillance.

Nonetheless, The Tipping Point is a triumph because TFF sound rejuvenated, not jaded. Even if the album occasionally falters sonically, it's a blast of fresh air – delivering hope, healing, and just a little daring.