It still seems strange that Tears for Fears, two Janov-loving introverts from Bath, were one of the biggest bands of the ’80s. In a decade defined by excess (Motley Crue, Guns ‘n Roses), sex (Madonna), outrageous fashion (Cyndi Lauper), blue-collar values (Springsteen, Mellencamp) and, conversely, fundamentalism (U2), Tears for Fears were the textbook definition of ‘one of these things is not like the others.’ That mantra applied to their albums as well; with the possible exception of Talk Talk, you’d be hard pressed to find a band that evolved over the course of its first three albums at the rate that Tears for Fears did. It stands to reason that they wouldn’t play gloomy synth pop forever, but no one could have predicted that they would trade it in for Beatle-esque grandeur.
The transition would not come easy, though. It would take three years, four producers (Clive Langer, Alan Whitstanley and Chris Hughes would all come and go before the band decided to produce it themselves, with the help of engineer Dave Bacsombe), and wheelbarrows full of cash. And it would all start with a piano player at a Kansas City hotel bar, of all places.
Touring behind their monster hit Songs from the Big Chair (1985) was taking a toll on Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith. They loved their new songs, of course, but the manner in which they were constructed — barring “I Believe,” the album was programmed and sequenced within an inch of its life — was starting to get to them. They felt paralyzed by their music’s lack of flexibility. One night, after a gig, Orzabal and Smith showered and headed down to the hotel bar to unwind, and promptly had their minds blown by a no-nonsense piano/bass/drums trio fronted by one Oleta Adams. Orzabal and Smith knew what they needed to do next: kick out the style, bring back the jam. (It would be almost 20 years before I realized that Orzabal may have been asking Paul Weller to quit his then-current band in favor of his former one with that line.) Their next album would be more organic, the work of men and not machines. And its lead single would be one of those unforgettable, ‘Holy shit I can’t believe what I’m hearing’ moments that simply doesn’t happen anymore.
I still remember the first time I heard “Sowing the Seeds of Love” on the radio. The big hits during the summer of 1989 were, well, there’s just no other way to say it: they were shit (Michael Damien, Martika, Bette Midler, New Kids, Milli Vanilli, “Batdance”). When “Sowing the Seeds” dropped in late August, it positively exploded out of the speakers, and exposed everything the DJ played before and after it for the pap that it was. From Chris Hughes’ spot-on Ringo impression to the mile-wide and sky-high chorus, “Seeds” wasn’t just Tears for Fears attempting to fix themselves; they were out to change the world. Unfortunately, the latter goal didn’t pan out — 1990 still stands as one of the worst years for pop music, in my mind — but with The Seeds of Love, they more than achieved the former.
The track sequencing to Seeds is quite similar to that of The Big Chair. The album’s first song, the moving “Woman in Chains,” would be its second single. (“Chains” and Big Chair opener “Shout” also share the lyrical theme of getting in touch with your emotions.) They put the experimental song again in the two-hole, the jazzy/bluesy “Badman’s Song.” Adams was brought in to sing on both songs, and when she delivers that left-field, climbing vocal on the line “Lies in disguise in the name of trust / Put your head in the sand and it will turn to duuuuuuuuuuuuuuust / What’s your problem, what’s your curse?”, it serves as a point of no return of sorts for the band, a way of saying, “We’re glad you liked ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World,’ but that’s not who we are now.”
If Tears for Fears laid the groundwork for a massive sea change in the album’s front half — or as it was once called, Side I — it still wasn’t enough to prepare the listener for the astonishing three-song set that closes the album. “Swords and Knives” begins with a vaguely Spanish rhythm (something that would explored in more depth on the Smith-less 1995 album Raoul and the Kings of Spain), a very up-front drum track, some heavily treated guitar work — are they going backwards, or do they just sound like they’re going backwards? — and then, just as Orzabal laments that “it’s sad love’s not enough to make things better,” the song launches into a mesmerizing, two-minute instrumental break before circling around to the original melody. “Year of the Knife,” meanwhile, is the fastest song the band’s ever done, but again, they are in no hurry. After the second chorus, they take another detour, with Smith thumping away at his bass while the drums bounce around him (check out the hard separation on those cymbal crashes) and the strings slowly climb up to create a nifty pre-finale climax. By song’s end, they’re ready to slow things down a notch, and drop both a literal and figurative bomb with “Famous Last Words,” the tale of a couple sharing one last embrace before getting wiped out in a nuclear war. Piano, then strings with chimes, “And we will carry war,” BOOM. “No more.” Orzabal delivers one of his finest vocals in the song’s back half, laying it all out when he stretches out the word ‘pain’ for six beats. And then, the drums are gone, with Orzabal left to finish the song just like it started, with a piano and two steady notes on the keys. It’s both beautiful and exhausting.
The suits at Mercury were probably disappointed that The Seeds of Love sold *only* a million copies, but the truth is that it is always a blessing when an album as ambitious and beautiful as The Seeds of Love is able to sell a million copies. It’s the kind of thing that makes the sun shine a little brighter, and gives people hope in dark times. “I believe in love power,” indeed.