[22 October 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
For someone whose methods have always been on the fringe of science and whose theories have been officially discredited by the American Psychological Association, Arthur Janov looms disproportionately large in rock ‘n’ roll history. Janov posited that buried childhood pain could lead to emotional turmoil in adulthood. Re-living painful childhood experiences through a cathartic method Janov called Primal Therapy could exorcise the demons.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono were Janov’s most famous patients. Lennon’s experiences with Primal Therapy directly informed John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970), a visceral, gutwrenching album on which Lennon literally wailed through and writhed against his unhappy childhood. It is still considered one of the most intensely personal, uncompromising statements ever to be put to vinyl.
But Lennon would not be the last rock ‘n’ roller to take a particular interest in Janov’s work. In 1982, Bobbie Gillespie founded the Scottish post-punk band Primal Scream. But if John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band remains the ultimate musical expression of Janov’s unique psychology, Tears for Fears’ 1983 debut album is not far behind, and only slightly less significant.
If anything, The Hurting is more explicit in its references to Primal Therapy. As songwriter Roland Orzabal has pointed out, several song titles come directly from Janov’s writings, as does Tears for Fears’ very name. In terms of emotional content, then, The Hurting is about as serious as you might expect. Over the course of a ten-song cycle, it chronicles the pains, hurts, and, crucially, the hopes that surround the transition from childhood to adulthood.
It doesn’t pull any punches, either. At times, the unflinching approach works to the album’s detriment, as Orzabal’s songwriting skirts cliché and the obtuse, teenage poetry that some critics seized on at the time of The Hurting‘s release. “Watch me bleed / Bleed forever,” Orzabal sings on “Watch Me Bleed”. It’s a metaphor, sure, but it comes across as more of a dare than a cry for help. But part of the brilliance of Hurting is that such histrionic moments are so seldom. Rather, time after time, as rendered by Orzabal and co-vocalist Curt Smith, the words connect at gut level and in sincere fashion. You won’t find a more brutally honest appraisal of the trials of (single) parenthood than “The pain of birth / What is it worth / When it don’t turn out the way it should?” from “Suffer the Children”. That such cutting and yet sympathetic words come from a 20-something pop singer is remarkable.
The Hurting is consistently wise beyond its creators’ years. “Mad World”, is such an efficient, pointed, yet graceful chronicle of adolescent angst and exasperation that it has been covered by everyone from techno DJs to folk singers to industrial heavy metal outfits. “Pale Shelter” lays out the frustrations and disappointments of youth for a parent, as Smith sings “You don’t give me love…I can’t operate on this failure” before admitting, “All I wanna be is completely in command.” It’s this notion, the struggle between wanting to be completely in command and yet realizing the world makes that impossible, that drives The Hurting. And yet, aside from the truly bizarre, harrowing “The Prisoner”, it’s a struggle that takes place within the context of richly-produced, melodic, downright hummable songs.
This is the other part of The Hurting‘s brilliance. Independent of lyrical or emotional content, this is simply one of the strongest, most fully-realized albums of the early-to-mid-1980s. Augmented by keyboardist Ian Stanley and drummer Manny Elias, Orzabal and Smith find a near-perfect balance between cool, moody electronics and earthy guitars, drums, and percussion. Orzabal and Smith were fans of intelligent synth-poppers like OMD, sure, but they were also fans of Peter Gabriel’s early solo work. The influence makes sense in light of the near-tribal drumming and trancelike keyboard figures of “Start of the Breakdown” or the sweet yet plaintive marimba that makes up “Change”‘s instrumental hook. The deft touch of producers Chris Hughes and Ross Cullum even gets away with a couple unsightly ‘80s staples, saxophone and gated drums. The heady subject matter of “Suffer the Children” or “Mad World” actually works in concert with singalong anthemic choruses that are cathartic indeed. Therefore, it’s not a surprise that both were chart hits in England.
Indeed, you could argue that only in early ‘80s England could an album like The Hurting have been a Number One smash, a feat that not even John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band accomplished. Even with all the hooks and production details, this is a draining experience, one that commands attention start to finish but is nevertheless not for the faint of heart. One time through the running order and you may not have energy left for the extra disc of remixes and alternate versions. That’s okay, because none are superior to the album versions anyway. And, yes, there is a “deluxe” box set version, with BBC sessions and a live DVD, for those with extra time and money on their hands. Most, though, would do well to stick with the two-disc version. The newly-remastered sound is not quite as rich but has an edge and punch that previous versions have been missing.
In 1985, Tears for Fears would further their Janov-inspired quest for understanding and catharsis, but with more of a focus on the outside world, not to mention guitar solos. The result, of course, was the international juggernaut Songs From the Big Chair. But The Hurting has proved to have an even greater legacy. Trent Renzor took Orzabal’s and Smith’s emotionally naked approach to even more visceral depths and commercial highs. The Hurting‘s combination of emotional catharsis and anthemic hooks became a hallmark of emotive bands like Smashing Pumpkins and Sunny Day Real Estate. Present-day acts like Arcade Fire and Smith Westerns come closer to the album’s more nuanced, eclectic musical approach.
The albums that prove to be special, influential, and groundbreaking in their own time, and then in subsequent eras as well, are far and few between. Thirty years on, there is little doubt where The Hurting stands.