Forty years ago, armored with adolescent angst and a talent for songwriting, Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith formed one of pop music’s most influential duos, Tears For Fears. In 1982, they topped the charts with the single “Mad World” and have since created some of the best musical output in pop music history.
Despite the ease in which they appealed to a Top 40 audience all those years ago, Tears For Fears’ songwriting has always remained honest, unapologetic and, now, reflective of a life lived in the band’s latest album, The Tipping Point, released this past February. It's their first album together in 18 years, and the two 60-year-olds have a big tour lined up to prove they’re as relevant today as they were four decades ago.
“When you're a kid, I mean, it's just crazy excitement,” Orzabal says of Tears For Fears’ early days of touring. “You have no idea what's going on. You're working hard, and the experience surrounding us in the early days was very uplifting. … But now [we’re] presenting to an audience a life that's been lived, so you're coming at things with a completely different tone.”
Longtime fans can appreciate that tone.
“Mad World” came from the band’s 1983 debut album The Hurting, which dances around the impending realities of adulthood. It was an album that asked the questions of adolescent wonder, and it’s safe to say that The Tipping Point answers some of those questions through experience and middle-age wisdom. But “Master Plan,” a dig at the band’s former management, and “Break The Man,” a feminist anthem and look at toxic masculinity today, are two examples from the new album that show angst isn’t reserved only for those teenage years.
Much of the inspiration for The Tipping Point came from not just anger and frustration, but from trauma and grief. The title track is Orzabal’s response to watching his first wife, of 35 years, slowly lose her life to mental illness and alcoholism. He spends “Please Be Happy” wishing his late wife to return to a happier time in their lives (“Please be happy/'Cause you know I cannot bear to see you/In this state of melancholy/Curled up in your chair.”) And “The Tipping Point” sees Orzabal waiting for the moment she dies. (“Silver tongue will soon be gone/When the sunlight hits the room/Lay down with them if you want/Watch their breath and feel the cold.”)
“I would say this is my destiny. It was my cross to bear, to feel things deeply. Not to just ignore them." - Roland Orzabal, Tears for Fears
Orzabal, who writes most of the band’s music, says he’s often self-soothed in moments like these with songwriting. “I would say this is my destiny. It was my cross to bear, to feel things deeply. Not to just ignore them,” he says.
Orzabal agrees that the traumatic experiences in his life have played a role in why Tears For Fears’ music is so compelling. His childhood was riddled with domestic abuse, and he says he didn’t really have anyone to talk to about it, so he took to his bedroom with his guitar. “No one really wanted to hear, including my mother. … And I did [create] a relationship with myself,” he says. “My voice, with my feelings, with my imagination. I never stopped doing it. At one point that becomes quite magical.”
Magical indeed, as songs like "Mad World," “Everybody Wants To Rule the World,” “Head Over Heels” and “Shout” are immediately recognizable as ’80s pop classics. Although Tears For Fears sat comfortably on the charts all those years ago, Orzabal says that with his and Smith’s deeper and richer levels of experience today (the “elder statesmen” they are, as he puts it) they aren’t expecting to see that kind of commercial success again. “The market is huge now for vinyl, for streaming. And it's working in our favor, because we're not actually reliant on the machines — the Top 40 machine, which was what we were back in the day,” he says.
In 2019, Orzabal and Smith were working with a large team of writers and producers and management that wanted them to recreate their heyday by cranking out big, shiny hits. Ultimately, the duo disagreed with the direction of the album, fired everyone and started from scratch, eventually creating the new album together at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I realized that [Curt and I], just putting our minds together and reconnecting to that place that we used to occupy so much when we were kids, well I was very, very confident that that was going to yield results. Sometimes all you need is a spark. Quite often, without even knowing it, [Curt] does that,” Orzabal says.
But it’s been no secret that Orzabal and Smith have endured an on-again-off-again relationship over the years. “You might describe our relationship like a helix,” Orzabal says. Smith, who lends main vocals in the band, even wrote “Stay,” the final track off the new album, when he was considering leaving the band again. But Orzabal thinks that perhaps age has made things easier for the two lifelong friends to realize the strength of their partnership: “We're older. When you're young bucks, you sort of lock horns, trying to compete. Nowadays, it's not like that, you know? We realize we need each other.”
Now, during rehearsals for the tour (which sees the duo at Toyota Music Factory on May 24), the success of the new album (which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Album Sales chart in March) and with new management backing them, everything feels right again, like those old days of adolescence and blossoming fame. The real nature of Tears For Fears remains a strong sense of sincerity, and that doesn’t look to change any time soon. “I think our role is to sing from life experience,” Orzabal says. “You can't bypass it, you have to be as honest now, at our tender age, as we were at age 19, when we were writing "Mad World." You still have to maintain the same honesty.”
Tears for Fears performs Tuesday, May 24, at the Pavilion at Toyota Music Factory, 316 West Las Colinas Blvd., Irving. Tickets are available online.