[6 November 2006]
When it was released, it never got past #3 on the charts in the UK, and didn’t even register in America. Its sound is a bit dated at this point, and its lyrics fairly naïve and even a bit lazy. And yet, “Mad World”, a song that needs two “very"s in front of its title for the sake of filling a beat between its prechorus and chorus, has turned into Tears for Fears’ signature song. Part of the credit goes to Gary Jules’ version of the hit on the Donnie Darko soundtrack, a track that did hit #1 in the UK and caused a fair amount of resurgence in the collective population’s interest in Tears for Fears. Part of the credit must also be ascribed to a world in which the word “terrorism” is as much a part of our lives as to have been rendered essentially impotent, a world in which a dictator brandishing nukes is barely worth a shrug before attention returns to a morass in an oil-rich nation. As it happened, the timing of a re-release of a song called “Mad World” was positively prescient.
So it goes, and “Mad World” both begins and ends Tears for Fears’ most recent singles compilation, the not-all-that-imaginatively titled Gold. While I may have been a bit hard on it above, “Mad World” truly is a catchy song in the “the world’s going to hell” genre, with at least three different hooks that could plant themselves in an unsuspecting listener’s head on a moment’s notice. The second disc of Gold ends with a much more recent live version of the same song, giving us a version that owes far more to Jules’ reverent remake than the band’s own upbeat original, thereby making Jules’ version a now-unnecessary stopgap for the diehard Tears for Fears fan. Hey, nobody ever said they were stupid. And really, that’s always been part of the charm of Tears for Fears: actual, honest to God intelligence. Their lyrics dabbled in therapy, philosophy, and social uprising, even as they wrapped it all in catchy choruses like “Shout, shout, let it all out / These are the things I can do without / Come on”, or “Change! / You can change!” For a band whose synth-pop was sometimes just as likely to be found on easy-listening stations as pop or rock stations, they sure had a lot on their mind, and they weren’t afraid to tell us about it. Gold tells the entire story of the band’s existence in the unimaginative, but still effective way of laying out their singles in more or less chronological order, with the only deviation coming in the form of the live “Mad World” at the end. Everything else is pretty well as you would expect, with offerings from The Hurting, Songs From the Big Chair, and The Seeds of Love comprising the first disc, and Elemental, Raoul and the Kings of Spain (both basically solo discs for lead vocalist Roland Orzabal), and 2004 reunion disc Everybody Loves a Happy Ending making up the second. In fact, the tracklist for the first disc is almost exactly that of 1992’s Tears Roll Down, on which the driving “Laid So Low (Tears Roll Down)” was actually changed from a B-side into a single, with one exception—the lovely, haunting “I Believe” is swapped out for the pop reject that is “The Way You Are”—presumably a switch made to give better representation to the boys’ early days, but still a bit of trading the wheat for the chaff.
Of course, that disc still has the big ones that the folks buying this particular compilation are still going to want: The beefy, industrial “Shout” is here, the fairly cloying but still pleasantly hooky, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” is here, and the deep, twisting journey that is “Sowing the Seeds of Love” is here as well. Of course, none of them quite compare to “Woman in Chains”, a lovely rolling river of a song filled to the brim with guests like Oleta Adams and Phil Collins (more or less unnoticeable on drums), but they’re still perfectly good reasons to buy Gold. The second disc, then, serves as a perfectly good primer for what we’ve been missing in the years most of us forgot about this wonderful little band. Unfortunately, it seems that Orzabal just isn’t quite as effective without Curt Smith, and Tears for Fears’ quick decline after The Seeds of Love had as much to do with a decline in the quality of the songs as the changing tastes of a fickle public. “Elemental”, from the album of the same name, is a pretty decent (if short) single that contains all of the drama we’d come to expect from a Tears for Fears song, along with lots of gated synths, but “Cold” tries too hard to sound contemporary, and ends up coming out sounding dated, while “Break it Down Again” has a very, very retro feel going for it, but its melodies are too simplistic and predictable to be truly memorable. Orzabal remembered with the singles on Raoul and the Kings of Spain that a memorable chorus is integral to a good pop song, but forgot that simply repeating four words over and over again doesn’t necessarily make a memorable chorus, well, good.
Of course, there was a long break between Raoul and 2004’s Everybody Loves a Happy Ending, a long break in which Curt Smith and Orzabal got some solo jaunts out of the way and decided they really did go pretty well together. Everybody Loves a Happy Ending sounds like a band content with its place in history, making lush, lovely music that befits its now advanced age. None of it is nearly as expertly poppy as the band’s best work from the ‘80s, but songs like “Secret World” and the mysterious “Who Killed Tangerine?” are thickly layered and certainly worth a few listens. And yet it is the new track, “Floating Down the River (Once Again)” that gives us hope for the future of Tears for Fears, as it’s a fantastic, quirky little track that shows life and a sense of humor, even as it references the Beatles far more than anything they’ve ever done. It’s a song that sounds like the best possible interpretation of John Lennon in a pool of Jell-O. Trust me on this, it’s energetic, it’s melodic, and it’s unpredictable—it has life, and it’s the kind of life that would do well expanded to album length.
And so, as the two discs end on that slow take on “Mad World”, not only is it an update for a never-more-applicable song, but it’s also a eulogy for the band’s past, a way of letting go as a song like “Floating Down the River” points toward a wonderful (if destined to be sorely underappreciated) future. In wrapping up that past so neatly and concisely, this unimaginatively assembled, yet adequately comprehensive, two disc compilation becomes the best summary of the band’s career yet released. If you’re an old fan, pick up Gold and check out what you’ve been missing. If you’ve never heard of Tears for Fears (and loathe as I am to admit it, I know you exist), Gold is as good a place as any to discover one of the few bands that unequivocally deserved what fleeting success it once found.