Counterbalance: Tears for Fears – Songs from the Big Chair

I wanted to be with you alone and talk about the 1430th most acclaimed album of all time. But traditions I can trace against the child in your face won't escape my attention. A 1985 synthpop hit is this week's Counterbalance.

Tears for Fears
Songs from the Big Chair

Mendelsohn: Like most people, I tend to romanticize the music of my youth a little. There are groups from the 1980s that loom large in the back of psyche because they managed to enter my brain and then stick there for a couple of decades before surfacing like some unwelcome repressed memory. I never really got to live through the cultural impact of some of these groups. I was far too young to understand the zeitgeist. My music consumption as a kid was pretty much limited to whatever my parents were listening to at the time, which wasn’t all bad, but they weren’t always following the trends. Inevitably, though, some of the current music seeped in and stuck around.

One of those bands was Tears for Fears, most notably their 1985 career-making effort, Songs from the Big Chair. Most people are familiar with the hits from this record; “Shout”, “Everyone Wants to Rule the World”, and “Head Over Heels”. I adore the last two, there is something about the off kilter New Wave pop that I find irresistible. “Head Over Heels” was even the first song played at my wedding reception — but only because it would have been inappropriate to lead with “The Humpty Dance”.

So this week we got to know Tears for Fear a little bit better than either of us would probably prefer. For the first couple of days I thought I had made a mistake, a terrible, terrible mistake. After a while I wasn’t sure anymore, and now I’ve just accepted the fact that this album is a beautiful piece of sophisticated pop. I’m sorry, Klinger.

Klinger: No you’re not. But far be it from me to stand in the way of a man and his nostalgia. I certainly recall the hits from this album being all over MTV and the radio, and I remember actually liking “Head Over Heels” and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”. Quality pop tunes, both of them. And yes, they’ve stood the test of time, the latter even receiving one of the ultimate musical merit badges, the Patti Smith cover version. I’ll admit, when you chose this record I ran through a range of emotions, from incredulity at having chosen such an odd bit of Big ’80s ephemera to curious anticipation. I also circled through anger, bargaining, hunger and sleepiness a couple times in the process. But overall I was looking forward to digging in. Then I actually went ahead and listened to the album.

I hate to say this, but those two hits are really the only tent posts on what I’m hearing as a curiously flat experience. There’s a surprising amount of meandering about here with songs that waft off into the atmosphere (looking at you right now, “Listen”). And I never thought I’d say this, but that saxophone isn’t doing anyone any favors. (Come to think of it, there were a lot of superfluous saxes in the ’80s. I don’t want to blame Roxy Music for that, but I can’t help thinking there were a lot of poofy-haired English guys aiming for Andy Mackay and hitting whoever played on “Careless Whisper.”) Anyway, I feel bad about piling on here, but I’ve been through a whirlpool of emotions. I’m sorry, Mendelsohn.

Mendelsohn: No you’re not. But I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t cringe and reflexively reach for the needle every time “The Working Hour” came on over the stereo this week. After a little exercise in self-control (and after the saxophone dropped out a bit) I found “The Working Hour,” turned into an extended jam piece that took a lot of cues from their contemporaries, most notably the Talking Heads and Roxy Music. Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith, the men behind the moniker, were trying to take the synth pop of the early 1980s and make it into something bigger. Synth pop started where the electro groups of the 1970s intersected with the punk movement looking for a new outlet. Many of the early New Wave groups came out of the punk scene and found that they could make music with minimal talent thanks to the growing availability of low cost synthesizers. As the genre matured over a couple of years, the more talented bands started incorporating elements of pop music while lessening the punk influence, resulting in chart success and critical acclaim.

Tear for Fears was a little late to the party. By the time the band started releasing music in 1983, the New Wave had already crested and was rolling back. Thankfully, Orzabal and Smith were trying to make music that was a tad bit more sophisticated than the likes of Kajagoogoo. By expanding their palette and taking cues from their more successful (and respected) contemporaries, Tears for Fears was able to distance themselves from a dying movement — or extend it unnecessarily. Your choice.

If anything, Songs from the Big Chair fails by being overly ambitious. The album does meander in places and the flatness comes from being unable to find a coherent theme — too much theatrics and not enough substance. But when the band finds the balance between self seriousness and whimsy, the album works incredibly well. The key is not to extend themselves too far and practice an economy of sound, something they fail at repeatedly with songs reaching beyond the six minute mark. It’s the successes of this album, though, the songs you aptly refer to as tent posts, that drive this record. Tellingly, both “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and “Head Over Heels” are four minutes long. The full version of “Shout” clocks in at well over six minutes, but the band uses that time to slowly build an extravagant ode to synth pop.

Klinger: And that ambition you speak of translates into the lyrical realm as well. As I recall, there are a number of references to Arthur Janov’s Primal Scream therapy, made popular in the early 1970s by John Lennon on the Plastic Ono Band LP. And the album’s title is a callback to the movie Sybil, in which Sally Field feels at home in the big chair in her shrink’s office. I remember both of these things from when the album first came out because a) I was a huge Beatles obsessive and b) I had to watch Sybil in my high school psych class and we thought it was hilarious (kids can be so cruel). Combine these self-helpy efforts with the cleverly ironic anthem style of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and you’ve got a record of considerable reach, even if it doesn’t necessarily match its grasp.

Have we covered an album that’s more eighties than Songs from the Big Chair? Between the synths and saxes, plus those heavily chorused guitars that chime in like Andy Summers throughout, this is an album that really couldn’t be too much more of its time (technically it might be missing those colossal gated snares, and that’s a mercy anyhow). At least the artsier side of the ’80s mainstream—we’re not talking Huey Lewis and the News here. Nevertheless, time and the critical industrial complex haven’t been especially kind to that era. Still Songs from the Big Chair is currently settled in at No. 1430 on the Great List and the 23rd most acclaimed album of 1985, which means it’s doing OK against some pretty heavy hitters from that era. As someone who was still wearing footie jammies around this time, you might have a different outsider opinion, though.

Mendelsohn: I was vaguely aware of those context pieces coming into this week, but I think a lot of those things tend to fall away— its all far too topical to withstand the onslaught of time passing. What we are left with is a mismatched album that I either view as outstanding, sophisticated pop or derivative New Wave think pieces depending on how many times I’ve had to listen to this record in the span of 24 hours. In the end, Tears for Fears managed to write some good music that is highly evocative of their era but they also wrote a handful of really great songs that, despite the critical taboo of said era, have stood as a testament to timeless song craft. Fifty years from now, it will be “Everyone Wants to Rule the World,” and “Head Over Heels”, that will bring new listeners to this record. Whatever else they find in between the tent posts and what emotions those songs might evoke, well, that’s anyone’s guess.