At first, the cards were stacked against a Tears For Fears album materializing. Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith, the British duo who already made their mark decades earlier with iconic ’80s hits like “Sowing the Seeds of Love,” “Mad World,” and “Shout,” had a completed album by 2016 then found themselves bent by an ongoing war between what the music they had created, the demands of a misdirected management, and without a label. All the while, both were tilted by their own personal turmoils over a seven-year stretch, and Orzabal and Smith found themselves where they started in Bath, England in 1981, on their own. Cutting the loose ends, the duo convened again in 2020 following a short tour to refine and ready their seventh album, and first in 17 years, The Tipping Point.
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“We sort of found our way back together, spiritually if you like,” says Orzabal of uniting with Smith following their 2004 release Everybody Loves a Happy Ending. “We started the album about seven years ago, if not more, and we came up with a hell of a lot of songs—about three albums worth. Along the way, certain songs have refused to go away.”
Working through several years worth of songs along with longtime co-writer Charlton Pettus and producers Sacha Skarbek and Florian Reutter, Orzabal and Smith kept five tracks from their previous session. “Those were the five we felt would fit in with the sort of direction we were going in,” says Smith. “So, basically from 2020 to the end of 2021, we started with five songs, and we ended with the album.”
The Tipping Point marks personal plights, societal and political imbalances, while questioning humanity. Opening on the starker “No Small Thing” and title track, the symphonic pop of “Break the Man” is inspired by the notion of “Make America Great Again”—This is nothing like they said it would be / This has gone too far.
“It’s hoping for the destruction of the patriarchy at some point when women have more power,” shares Smith. “If we go back in time to something we’ve done before, it can be likened to ‘Women in Chains’ [The Seeds of Love, 1989] but that song was more about hoping that the abuse of women stops. This is more about empowering women and hoping that more women get to positions of power because I think it would probably do us a lot of good.”
Waves of personal tension and the trials around making the album are also palpable throughout The Tipping Point. Originally with Warner for their 2016 release, their now ex-management moved the pair to offer it to Universal, who removed two songs to repackage into a “Greatest Hits” release in 2017. Then, following a management-lawyer tangle, the duo found themselves without a record label and 10 songs, all while, Orzabal was caring for his wife Caroline of 35 years before her death in 2017.
On tour in 2019, Smith and Orzabal decided to remove their last loose end, their management, who previously suggested they pull in a collection of co-writers for the initial grouping of songs and adapt to being a “heritage act” that tours and plays their hits. The pair was also told their new album needed a narrative.
“To say, we needed a narrative is a bit crazy because you’ve got two songs on the album that deal with my late wife, her depression and descent into alcoholism and the accompanying mental issues,” says Orzabal. “Once the spotlight was put back on those tracks, Curt especially felt that it was not good enough,” says Orzabal, who, following the loss of his wife, felt there was more to add to their narrative.
“I believe that’s one of the reasons why the powers that be didn’t want us to do it,” adds Orzabal. “They wanted us to go through another phase, not just of suffering, but of coming out of that suffering and finding closure, finding openness, finding reconnecting to your heart. When you are with someone who’s slowly killing themselves, your heart tends to squeeze together and becomes not very forgiving.”
Coming out of that experience for Orzabal, and the going from the tempered “My Demons” through “Rivers of Mercy,” is a point where everything tips in another direction on the album, he says. “That’s when you are absolutely, 100 percent softened up,” says Orzabal. “All the clever electronic rage of ‘My Demons’ subsides and we go through the sounds of rage with the sounds of rioting into this desire to escape, to redeem oneself, and forgive oneself. That’s the curve of the album.”
Smith adds, “‘Rivers of Mercy’ is far more powerful coming out of ‘My Demons,’” moving from the seething opening of I am the demolition man of the latter track.
Initially set to write another modern hit in the earlier stages of getting together with a collective of co-writers, Smith insists that was never the intention with any past albums or The Tipping Point.
“We’re not really a singles band,” says Smith. “We’ve had hit singles come off of albums but we have never gone in to write a hit single We’ve gone in to make an album. That’s what we do, and to tell whatever story we have at that point in time. Once we realized that it was an album that needed a certain flow, that needed to tell a story and that they needed ebbs and flows to it, putting them together became a lot easier.”
“No Small Thing” opens the journey through The Tipping Point, see-sawing between misconceptions about freedom and other imbalances in its unsettled state—Reason gonna bind you / Cripple and confine you / Listen as your poor heart breaks / Take a trip to America / Let the wind blow right through your hair / We’ll buy beer and some hope to share, accompanied by a black and white video of imagery inspired by the 1982 experimental, non-narrative film Koyaanisqatsi (also the Hopi word for “life out of balance”), directed by Godfrey Reggio, which examined the separation between humanity and nature.
“I think with ‘No Small Thing,’ the song itself is a journey,” says Smith, who says the track came together by acoustic guitar and vocals. “It gives you a sense of what the album is going to be,” he adds. “And your initial feelings are ‘what is this. This is not Tears For Fears. In that, it’s already making you pay attention, so then you’re already paying attention to the record. I think if you came in with something that was so familiar, and so clearly Tears for Fears, it wouldn’t invite you in as well. That was always my premise.”
Reflecting on their nearly 40 years together, Orzabal says there was a time and place for the songs from their 1983 debut The Hurting, and everything that would follow and was always in tandem with their lives.
“When we started, we were adolescents in the sense,” says Orzabal. “We weren’t even adults, so the things we were writing about were mainly the resulting mental states of not having a particularly enjoyable childhood and both of us feel that we didn’t particularly come from a loving environment. There was too much shit going down, so you keep building up your defenses.”
Now closing the circle, Orzabal and Smith started working on The Tipping Point as parents, which shifted the dynamic. “We are no longer blaming our own parents,” he says. “We are no longer particularly absorbed in what happened in our childhoods because we’ve grown up and through that. We’ve taken responsibility and found ways of dealing with all that stuff.” He adds, “We realized that bad things can happen in any stage of your life, and they happen when you’re a child and vulnerable, so they leave a long-lasting impression. But when anything happens, which is beyond your control and it’s pretty ugly and nasty, it also leaves a terrible, terrible stain on your heart.”
This constant cycle of life is what Orzabal says led Tears For Fears to The Tipping Point.
“If you’re talking about cycles, we went in a circle making this, starting with Charlton [Pettus], going around the world, we separated and we came back, and ending up with Charlton to finish it off together,” says Orzabal. “‘The Hurting’ was the start of the cycle.”
He adds, “I think that cycle is completed with ‘The Tipping Point.’”
Photos: Frank Ockenfels