In many ways, Tears for Fears were the quintessential ’80s band, its catalog rife with the ubiquitous synth-pop of its time.
But TFF always seemed just far ahead enough of the curve to survive the inescapable hangover in the alt-rock ’90s. Founders Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith wrote songs superficially catchy enough to dominate pop radio, but were really shining examples of intelligent songcraft their Top 40 contemporaries couldn’t hope to match. Perhaps this was because TFF, more than most other bands, criticized the excesses of the 1980s even while they were embracing them in their larger-than-life songs, notably “Shout”. Surely, the group’s greatest hit, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, is more prescient now than upon its 1985 release (“I can’t stand this indecision / Married with a lack of vision”).
They may have survived, but they didn’t flourish: following 1989’s The Seeds of Love, Smith left for solo work, leaving Orzabal to release a string of less successful LPs under the TFF moniker. As far as most people were concerned, Tears for Fears were as good as dead.
But a funny thing happened as the new millennium dawned: ’80s nostalgia reached a fever pitch, thanks in no small part to VH1’s I Love the ’80s, a serial program that we can applaud for its entertainment value and blame entirely for turning the station into the vapid shell it is today. Then the film Donnie Darko achieved cult status, featuring a haunting remake of the TFF song “Mad World”, and refreshed enough memory banks to breathe new life into the band. The time was right for Smith and Orzabal to put aside their differences for a comeback album, the oft-delayed Everybody Loves a Happy Ending.
The group has always worn its Beatles fixation on its sleeve, but this time Orzabal and Smith have set out to create the greatest album the Fab Four never released — a strategy that, while admirably bold, will inevitably suffer from unattainable expectations, as the Electric Light Orchestra have painfully proven.
But Happy Ending acquits itself nicely by offering a compelling blend of gigantic hooks, sugary-sweet melodies, and textured production. Thematically, Orzabal and Smith have listened to “All You Need is Love” a few too many times, adopting flower-power lyrics that begin as endearing (“All your love will shine on everyone”), shift to tolerable (“Throw your arms ’round the world / Make love your destination”), finally landing on the wrong side of gratuitous (the entirety of “Killing With Kindness”).
The leadoff title track is a cleverly arranged update of “A Day in the Life”, which kicks off with an alarm clock, breaks off midway into a separate segment altogether before triumphantly reprising the first part, and ends on a high note — literally — with Orzabal channeling the McCartney within as he sings “oooh”. Can it be a coincidence that the first part of “Who Killed Tangerine?” adopts the same stutter-step beat of “Come Together”? And much like the shimmering 1985 hit “Head Over Heels” ended with a “Hey Jude”-like chorale, “Tangerine” ends similarly, with the repeated and apt refrain “And when you think it’s all over / It’s not over”.
These are grand gestures, but then Happy Ending is an album full of grand gestures and mighty choruses, such as on “Closest Thing to Heaven”, which ranks behind only Todd Rundgren’s “Afterlife” from his sterling album Liars in the category of 2004’s most blissful ballads pertaining to issues of the divine.
The jangly single “Call Me Mellow” boasts the LPs most infectious hook and lyric. After all, it wouldn’t be a comeback album if its authors didn’t address the subject of getting old (“If only I was half my age and she was older / We’d live on ice cream on Coney Island / And though it’s gravity that drags down my balloon / She stays in orbit way after midnight”).
The album’s second half fails to maintain the consistency or momentum of its first, but, if anything, it’s even more ambitious. On “Secret World”, Orzabal pulls out all the stops, employing a full-blown Bacharachian arrangement, replete with a flugelhorn-led bridge, and hired gun extraordinaire Paul Buckmaster conducting a 35-person orchestra. “Last Days on Earth”, the LP’s low-key closer, finds Orzabal turn lounge crooner over the kind of cocktail jazz groove on which Stereolab nearly owns the patent.
If, as the liner notes suggest, Happy Ending is this incarnation of TFF’s swan song, Orzabal and Smith can rest assured that they’ve bowed out with their integrity and legacy fully intact, having retaken their positions on the big chair for the fleeting moments which remain before this wave of ’80s romanticism ends.