Tears for Fears – Songs from the Big Chair
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
In 1984, Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal were among the biggest stars in UK new wave, their debut effort The Hurting having topped the album charts and spawned three top five hits. Their US success, however, had been limited mostly to club play and a few minor pop hits, leaving the world’s largest pop market still to be conquered. So when Tears for Fears started planning their sophomore effort, they had one main goal in mind. “With this album, we sat down and agreed that we were going to try to sell a lot of records,” Orzabal bluntly stated in a Los Angeles Herald Examiner interview. “The album is more commercially oriented, but I think it’s benefited from that approach.”
Needless to say, these ambitions quickly came to fruition. Their second album, Songs from the Big Chair, became a runaway success upon its US release in 1985, topping the album charts and matching the UK success of The Hurting with three top five hits of its own, with two of those even reaching #1. SFTBC would eventually go on to sell over five million copies, and essentially remains the US legacy of Tears for Fears.
All this commercial recognition, however, did not amount to critical success; the coup Tears for Fears managed with their “sell-out” album has never been given the acknowledgement it deserves. It failed to place in year-end lists on both sides of the Atlantic, and has been conspicuously absent from most all-time lists since. Today, the most generous critical party line on Tears for Fears is that they were something of a Steely Dan for the 80s—sophisticated and slightly subversive but ultimately era-bound pop that rich people could use to sound out their new speakers. And while this isn’t necessarily a false classification, it sells short the musical and emotional wallop that Songs for the Big Chair provides—some of the most inspirational and emotionally powerful, not to mention immaculately produced, music of the 80s.
It also sells short what a singular group Tears for Fears were in the 80s pop market. Roland and Curt weren’t singing simple songs of love and loss or blathering about “The reflex-flex-flex-flex-flex,” they were writing songs about fear, insecurity and crises of faith. The Hurting was aptly titled, an album almost entirely about pain, with song titles like “Mad World” and “Watch Me Bleed.” Tears for Fears, like John Lennon a decade earlier, were followers of Arthur Janov’s school of Primal Therapy, which encouraged patients to scream and cry to unearth and express repressed emotions. The title Songs From the Big Chair was a continuation of this catharsis, named after the movie Sybil, in which a character with many different personalities sits in her analyst’s big chair—her only place of true comfort—when she regresses to one of her past personas. Unlike John Lennon’s often (somewhat purposefully) unlistenable Janovian effort Plastic Ono Band, however, TFF channeled this energy into largely accessible pop songs, never letting their self-indulgence distract from their songcraft.
Immediately, opener “Shout” blows the doors open on Songs from the Big Chair. A six-and-a-half minute long behemoth of guttural synth-bass, percussion cacophony and some of the most intense, soul-wrenching lyrics in pop history, “Shout” remains even today a total stunner, with lines like “I’d really love to BREAK YOUR HEART!” piercing right to the core. Along with “Head Over Heels,” Tears for Fears would spend four months perfecting the song, and it shows—the production is nothing less than a tour de force, each bass growl, guitar note and synth-snare landing with the force of a tidal wave. “Shout” would be few peoples’ normal idea of a “commercially designed” record, yet its power could not be denied—the song would go on to be Tears for Fears’ biggest US hit, sticking at #1 for three weeks in August of ’85. As SftBC’s opener, it instantly lays The Hurting to rest and confounds any possible expectations for the rest of the album.
The unenviable task of following “Shout” is given to “The Working Hour.” After a regrettable smooth jazz intro, “The Working Hour” does an admirable job of proving that “Shout” was no fluke, with pounding piano laying the foundation for a fantastic harmonized guitar riff and lyrics following in “Shout”’s theme of affirmation and self-realization: “this is the working hour / We are paid by those / Who learn by our mistakes.” But the main purpose served by “The Working Hour” is to clean the album’s slate before the lead US single, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” Easily the album’s centerpiece, the song instantly hooks with its coruscating guitar intro and the unforgettable opening lyric “welcome to your life / There’s no turning back.” By Orazabal’s own admission, TfF’s lyrics were “mostly naff,” but they knew how to convey a feeling, and even if “EWtRtW”’s lyrics don’t add up to much, they’re performed with unblinking conviction, and over the song’s pulsating beat (designed specifically as driving music), they sound utterly brilliant.
Closing out the first side of the album is unfortunately forgotten “Mothers Talk,” a surprisingly block-rocking single that further disproves TfF’s reputation as wimpy pop sophisticates. The production is decidedly of its time, but still comes off as impressively powerful, at times even approaching Jam / Lewis territory. “Mothers Talk” continues in the healing spirit of the album, with the repeated line “we can, we can work it out!” providing the perfect side one finish. Side two opener “I Believe” provides the album with one of its only missteps, an unfortunately simpering ballad that unlike the rest of the album, never really manages to eclipse its dated production.
However, memories of “I Believe” are quickly erased by the bombastic “Mothers Talk”-like funk of “Broken,” the SftBC song closest in spirit to The Hurting. If the focus of the album is healing and self-actualization, then “Broken” is the album’s slip into doubt and insecurity, even alluding to the affirmations of “Mothers Talk” with the opening line “Between the searching and the need to work it out / I stopped believing everything will be alright.” The song’s aggressive guitar riffing and chaotic instrumental breakdown do a steady, if somewhat over-obvious job of complementing the lyrical turmoil. Once again, though, the most important task the song accomplishes is to set the stage for SftBC’s climactic track, even foreshadowing the song’s opening hook during the bridge.
That hook belongs to the classic third single “Head Over Heels,” perhaps the most recognizable TfF song to contemporary audiences due to its use in the introductory high school montage from Donnie Darko. The cascading piano intro is as immediately recognizable and thrilling as Johnny Marr’s tremolo’d guitar intro to “How Soon is Now?” or Stephen Morris’s opening drum program beat to “Blue Monday,” and the rest of the song somehow manages to not crumble under its weight, providing SftBC with its most soaring, positive number—Orzabal even promises “this is my four leaf clover!,” seemingly having regained the faith lost in “Broken.” Following “Shout” and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” “Head Over Heels” completes the album’s trifecta of brilliant, seemingly unfollowable singles, and luckily TFF doesn’t even try to top “Heels,” following it only with a brief reprise of “Broken” and a forgettable, afterthought of a closer with “Listen.”
Despite the titanic stature of the three hit singles, Songs from the Big Chair still works impressively well as a full-length. Album tracks like “The Working Hour” and “Broken” weave the singles together with perfect pacing, while forwarding the album and remaining highly listenable themselves. Together, the eight songs form a much more powerful and cohesive statement than that of The Hurting, even approaching concept album territory at points without ever letting the notion bog the album down for too long. Even today, when all rock musicians seem to be able to do is be emotional and honest, the brutality and power of Songs from the Big Chair’s catharsis is still quite shocking. “But I don’t really think we’re trying to do much more with our music than sell a few records,” Orzabal still insisted at the time in a San Antionio Light interview. “Certainly many of our songs have a message. But ultimately people don’t listen.”