orzabal

Two With Roland: Tears For Fears’ Elemental and Raoul And The Kings Of Spain

To understand Elemental and Raoul and the Kings of Spain, one needs to step back to the previous Tears For Fears album, The Seeds of Love. That album managed to spin off three decent tracks as hit songs; “Sowing The Seeds of Love,” “Woman In Chains” introducing Oleta Adams to the world, and “Advice For The Young At Heart.” It was also a very good record, but a departure from the big, pop/rock, slightly anthemic tracks from Songs from the Big Chair. Tears For Fears had always flirted with soul and jazz in their work, but this album pushed the elements front-and-center.

I can imagine it was received as a sort of bait and switch though. After all, the lead single, its accompanying video and the album cover all leaned toward a psychedelic pop that was not evidenced anywhere else on the record. Also, while it is a personal favorite track for me, “Advice for the Young At Heart” sounds less like TFF than its contemporaries of the day, the U.K. lite-jazz/pop of Breathe or Johnny Hates Jazz. Those who bought the record expecting More Songs from the Big Chair, or the bashing, Shout moment, were prone to be disappointed.

By the fourth record, Elemental, Curt Smith was gone from the duo and Roland Orzabal continued on under the band name. I understand why but cannot fully agree with the rationale. As a TFF album, it had immediate marketability, but as a solo it could have stood on its own, without the restraints of expectations. Elemental scored a couple hits of its own, being “Break It Down Again” and “Goodnight Song,” but didn’t catch fire as thoroughly as the prior two releases. While some might say that they never understood Smith’s contributions to the duo, that he played as much or as little a role as Andrew Ridgeley did in Wham!, others felt this was an incomplete construction, that Orzabal should have simply titled it as they assumed it should be: a Roland Orzabal solo record.

Only that’s not entirely accurate. If you listen to the b-sides for Songs from the Big Chair, you will hear the sound of Elemental popping up again and again, willfully obtuse and not entirely enthralled with the hit-making process. The opening title track begins with a disconnected, chiming synth pattern that throws the listener a curve. It eventually turns into something more conventional, but the small elements of “Elemental” court an unfriendliness that is endemic of the entire recording. The brief instrumental “Gas Giants,” with its pulsing and burbling keyboards sounds more like latter-day Eno ambience than the latest Tears For Fears, and yet the whole is entirely consistent with the initial sound of the band; the overt pop flourishes were integrated more consciously later on.

Elemental is a breakup album after all; perhaps not a love relationship breakup but a breakup nonetheless. That is more than implied in the title “Break It Down Again,” and in lyrics like “Fish Out Of Water” — “We used to sit and talk about primal scream,” an allusion to “Shout,” and “On the crucifix his mother made lies one more martyr to the hit parade – you’re dreaming your life away…” It cannot be denied by “Goodnight song, played so wrong, blame the crowd, they screamed so loud, so long.” The buried subtext acts as admission. I don’t believe Orzabal has ever codified this or any other of his lyrics, but TFF never was one to write touchy, feely sorts of tunes, opting more for the motto, “I think, therefore I feel.”

At this point, Orzabal’s TFF jumps from Universal (Mercury/Fontana) to Epic Records, or was pushed. This was the beginning of a very unfriendly period for established acts, specifically rock-based acts, and that trend has continued to this day. Most of these sorts of bands are on fourth-tier labels or have gone independent as a means for survival.

That neediness, if that is the right word and I’m not convinced it is, did the band some good, as Raoul and the Kings of Spain is a consistent, and consistently rewarding release. It was as if, having exorcised the angst found on Elemental and needing to make good on a new opportunity, Orzabal was freed to lean heavily on hooks and melody. He does, allowing Raoul to be one of those few albums that sound best when played from beginning to end. While never mentioned as a concept record, it plays out as such and comes across as an entirely different sort of breakup collection, this time from love and, to an extent, from faith.

From the track “Secrets”: “It seems we caused a forest fire with just a flicker of a flame, And now I set alight to everything – Now all I do is cause you pain…” and, “I used to think the time would come when man would rise above the beast. I gave up thinking that way long ago in conversation with a priest.” There is also the chorus of another song, “Oh, love is God’s mistake.” Finally, we have what I consider Orzabal’s finest moment as a songwriter musically, if not lyrically, “Me and My Big Ideas,” pairing him once more with Oleta Adams. Critics throw the terms “haunting” around liberally; so much so that anything with a lingering synth line and a heavily reverbed vocal gets tagged as haunting, but in this case there is no other description that suits.

I mentioned that I have issues with the lyrics, and it is not that they’re bad (they aren’t), but because they’re cold. Orzabal is once again thinking, thereby feeling, but not just feeling and that might be the crux of the song. His love is turning away from him because he cannot resist the analysis and just be a partner. He sings, “Me and my big ideas won’t wash away your tears” as a nod to the hurt he has caused and his inability to correct it. He then counters it with a line that smacks of the arrogance of anyone in a fight, especially a fight concerning matters of the heart: “Go get a volunteer. We’ll pay him well, my dear. He will see inside your mind, because he is that kind.” In other words, we’ll go to the therapist, but he has to work on you, my love, because I’m not the one to blame.

I don’t think it is an accident that it was framed this way, and if you apply due diligence, you find this is actually a very conversational lyric. Adams sings later on, “So many strings to your bow…Why not let one go?” as if to ask why her partner, in this case in song, can’t relinquish just once his claim to being right, but falls to the obvious in the next line. “In a way this dream is over. Blown away our four leaf clover.” Since Orzabal wrote the whole thing, and subsequently assigned these pieces between himself and Adams, one is left to believe this was not by accident. Few things in the Orzabal/TFF world are.

Epic released singles from Raoul, but I can’t recall a major push from the label and so the thing floundered. It is unfortunate because I think it is one of Orzabal’s best and fits snugly between Songs from the Big Chair and The Seeds of Love. It’s simply that people weren’t gravitating to these sorts of albums and artists in the mid-‘90s. Rock meant alternative rock. Adult contemporary meant Celine Dion and Michael Bolton, and hip-hop was achieving a newfound dominance in the pop culture realm. A band with songs that bent heavily toward the cerebral, and melodies that were sometimes mellow, hooky and memorable, seemed out of touch in the most visceral landscape popular music had experienced in a long time.

Years later, Smith rejoined Orzabal on Tears For Fears’ Everybody Loves a Happy Ending, an album that appears aptly titled as it came out in 2004 and the band hasn’t released new material since. It’s a good album in its own right, though I prefer Raoul more. That title though remains the key to Tears For Fears, that they would reunite for what would obviously render itself as a coda to their band’s existence. If this is the case, that I haven’t missed something in the intervening seven years, or TFF actually wants to exist but cannot due to market forces and I’m overlooking that desire somehow, then at least Orzabal and Smith left behind a clutch of music that appealed to the mind as much as the ear.

That having been said, don’t neglect Orzabal’s sort-of, somewhat solo efforts as Tears For Fears because you’ll find worthwhile material there as well.

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  • http://everybodysdummy.blogspot.com wardo

    What I remember most about “Raoul” (and indeed, why I still own a copy today) is that it sounded good. And still does. Even on Big Chair, Roland is the dominant voice; Curt was just the prettier bass player. I still don’t know what Raoul or any kings of Spain have to do with anything, but those melodies stick like glue, and that’s a good thing.

  • Andre

    Very intersting piece. It is really nice to see someone trying to analyze two intriguing TFF albums that most of the non-fans (and even some of the fans) have completely forgot about; I still vividly remember being in awe after listening to Me and My Big Ideas for the very first time. I saw TFF in Sao Paulo a couple of weeks ago, and they were in excellent shape; a few deep tracks (such as Memories Fade and Badman’s Song) even made to the set list.

  • http://www.herald7.wordpress.com Herald7

    Interesting analysis, particularly of Raoul and the Kings of Spain, which is very underrated. The raw emotion in “Secrets” is quite startling.

    I made brief mention of Tears for Fears’ song “Listen” on my recent Blog, another underrated song, hehe:

    http://herald7.wordpress.com/2011/10/16/my-top-7-soothing-songs-for-writers-block/

  • Ed

    There was also a Roland Orzabal solo album before he reunited with Curt Smith (and Curt has also made several solo albums of course). The last thing I heard from them was a live album with a new studio track ‘Secret World’ from 2006. It may have been a French-only release (for reasons unapparent).

  • Anonymous

    These are definitely a couple of overlooked gems that deserve more attention. “Raoul…” feels like the more thought out, more thematically coherent of the two. That said, it’s not like there’s a definitive Tears for Fears album, Curt Smith or no.

  • http://www.bullz-eye.com Anonymous

    I still play “Me and My Big Ideas” at least two or three times a month. Just a gorgeous track.

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  • Briktetrabrik

    Excellent article!  No offense to Curt Smith, but I am very familiar with TFF’s entire discography and I believe that their top three albums are 1. Seeds of Love (with which Curt had only minimal involvement), 2. Raoul, and 3. Elemental.  As others have said, “Me and My Big Ideas” is astonishingly good.

  • Tony

    Love TFF’s and wish they were more widely acknowledged as the talents they are.  Would love to have expanded, deluxe reissue SEEDS OF LOVE, ELEMENTAL and RAOUL…  Would also like to have some new music from these guys.  I saw them in Atlantic City, NJ about a year ago and they sounded great. 

  • Stephen Dixon

    Raoul and the Kings of Spain is not necessarily their best album but it has aged the best. There is less reliance on of-the-minute production tricks and more emphasis on hi-quality songwriting. Plus, it was never v. popular so there was no danger of overexposure. Roland delivered a keeper!

  • barbyj

    No matter how you dissect or interpret this song you just come out with tears, sadness, and yet moved beyond respect and awe of Rolands talent..And yes they still can belt out the songs…I love satisfied feeling aai end up with every time!

  • Fernando

    Completely agree with the post.Me and my big ideas is possibly my favorite Tears For Fears ( and i do think it is distinctly TFF) ever.