Monday, June 21, 2010

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 63 - Tears for Fears

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

As members of Generation Y reached adulthood, a new market for 1980s nostalgia was born. Personified best by the perennial I Love the Eighties specials on VH1, the decade is now remembered as an era of gloriously kitschy synth music and cheesy sitcoms. Visit any karaoke bar in the country, and I guarantee you that you will hear "Don't Stop Believin'" within the hour.

And while there was a myriad of different musical and artistic movements throughout the decade, the eighties are remembered in Hollywood (and on VH1) as the decade of synthpop. Tacky synthpop. Easily disposable stuff. If a movie's soundtrack features a snippet of a song from Duran Duran or Aha, that movie has immediately conveyed its setting as being in the early 1980s.

As such, I always sort of viewed synthpop as a passing fad, even as I sort of enjoyed it in a not-quite-ironic sense. It's good stuff to play at your 80s-themed dance party, but did people really listen to it as music? Good music? Sincerely?

Turns out they did. Going back and reading some of the articles written by rock critics in the 1980s, it was strange to see how seriously they all took Tears for Fears, a band that I suppose I had unfairly already relegated to kitschy nostalgia status. Many critics, like those in Rolling Stone, really liked the group, and even those who didn't, like Robert Christgau, still took them seriously as a new artistic movement.

It's difficult, having been raised to treat this kind of music as mere karaoke fodder or dated products of the pre-hip hop dance clubs, to go back and listen to it as music in the best sense - music that extends an emotional effect on people, music that says something new about ourselves. I'm not sure if I succeeded. By it's interesting (and sobering) to find that such a major group can be demoted to nostalgic kitsch within a single generation. What bands exist now that will only be remembered as footnotes on VH1's "I Love the New Millenium"?


ARTIST OF THE WEEK: Tears for Fears

MY LISTENING: I put on Songs from the Big Chair (1985) every day this week, and I listened to The Hurting (1983) three times.

WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: There was a time when I had an Aha-themed Pandora station, and "Shout" and "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" would come on frequently. But these seem to be the two Tears for Fears songs that everyone knows.


Songs from the Big Chair is considered Tears for Fears' greatest achievement, and it's certainly a fun album to listen to. "Shout" and "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" are both rightfully famous singles, and "Head Over Heels" is another remarkably catchy synthpop song. The album reminds me a lot of modern indie music, in that there's a lot of sonic layers packed atop one another. The vocals on this album aren't really used as melodies so much as another layer of sound blended in with all the rest. Really, the vocals are hardly important - "Broken" is a rocking song that is almost entirely instrumental.

But while this layering works well for some songs on The Big Chair, there are others that didn't completely work for me. And though I appreciate Tears for Fears' attempts to meld synthpop with pianos and saxophones, their first album, The Hurting, I feel is a much bigger success. Here, instead of reaching for some sort of emotional maturity, The Hurting is much more classic synthpop - catchy, danceable, not necessarily taking itself too seriously, without the gaudy instrumentation of its successor.

Though The Hurting is nominally a concept album about pain and suffering, but despite the uncomfortable subject matter it's a lot more fun than Songs from the Big Chair. The vocals play more of a role - there are actually melodies in these songs. And, for some strange reason, I prefer the synthesized brass on songs like "The Hurting" than the real thing on their next album.

Overall, I think The Hurting is a good synthpop album that doesn't go beyond it's limitations the way Songs from the Big Chair does. Listen to the catchy beat and chorus of "Suffer the Children", or memorable harmonies of "Mad World." "Pale Shelter" even has the sonic layering that the duo would utilize in their next album.

Tears for Fears, if you're going to be a New Wave synthpop act, don't disguise yourself. Go all the way. The Hurting is your greatest album.


As indicated above, Songs from the Big Chair was a bit problematic for me. Though the famous singles are very good, there's a lot of filler on the album that is too much of an attempt to be "high" art, when in reality it's still just a synthpop album.

Example: the saxophone on tracks like "Working Hour", or the jazz instrumentation of "I Believe." There's still that ambient sonic layering, but the instrumentation makes the songs less fun, and I don't think the melodies or lyrics have enough meat to carry the songs on their own without those catchy synthesizers.

The closer on Big Chair is "Listen," a six-minute track that feels like ambient music, with no lyrics besides a few nonsense syllables. Artsy? Ahead of its time? Perhaps. But that doesn't make it fun to listen to. As I said, I had some issues with treating Tears for Fears as legitimate musicians at all, but I found it easier to do when they stuck with straight synthpop. Anything further seemed more interesting in concept than it did in practice - as much as I like synthpop, there are some places that it should not go.

It doesn't help that a lot of the tracks on Songs from the Big Chair sound whiny, like they were tailor-made for the middle school social misfit who gets picked on in gym class. "Fear is such a vicious thing / And it wraps me in chains" is one line in "Working Hour", sung melodramatically over a wailing saxophone. I'll pass on this sort of thing, thank you.


I still need to listen to the final album during Tears for Fears' "classic" era - 1989's The Seeds of Love. After that, Roland Orzabel has some solo releases under the Tears for Fears name, and then there's the 2004 reunion album Everybody Loves a Happy Ending, which is supposedly not terrible.

A good example of that sonic layering without a real melody...that's somehow still catchy.


NEXT WEEK'S ARTIST: Tom Petty (and the Heartbreakers)