Montag, 2. Mai 2022

Tears for Fears - The Tipping Point (Album): Review

(Apologies for the formatting issues; I copied the text from one program into the next and kept adding things, I hope I can sort this out at some point.)

It's really been a long, long, long time.

Seventeen years, in fact. Maybe even eighteen depending on where you live. So much has changed in the interim. All the while, fans were waiting (with increasing desperation) for a new album by Tears for Fears. Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith had already declared "We'll never be prolific, because we're fussy" at the beginning of their career, and the long gestation period of The Seeds of Love had certainly proved this characteristic. But this pause easily dwarfed that between Songs from the Big Chair and its stunning successor.

2004's Everybody Loves a Happy Ending was not a welcome return. Despite the piano and guitar driven album not sounding anything like the band's 80s albums, Tears for Fears were still seen as an obsolete relic of a forgettable time period. The band's decision to play almost the entire album live wasn't received particularly well in their original home, the UK. It's actually a shame because many of the songs were good live numbers. But if you've been around a while, nostalgia becomes an important factor.

When Curt Smith said, in 2010, that no major record label was interested in new Tears for Fears music, it reflected the general disinterest. But things slowly changed. An entire new generation of fans has appeared in the meantime. Acts like The Weeknd made 80s sounds fashionable again. The announcement that a new Tears for Fears album was being worked on came hot on the heels of the successful 2013 deluxe reissue of the group's debut The Hurting.

What happened afterwards could fill an entire book. Anyone who is interested should check out the many bits of reporting on The Tipping PointNewsweek and The Guardian will have you covered.

I'm going to run through the songs as succinctly as possible and serve up my general thoughts at the end.

No Small Thing

The second single caught a lot of fans by surprise. Starting with a simple strummed acoustic guitar, surely Tears for Fears weren’t going to go country? The usage of accordion and organ reminded me of The Band, and Roland is singing in an unusually low register. "I've just one more song to sing" seems like an introductory statement of intent. It doesn't stay in that initial mode though, as layers get added, and the song first hits a great pre-chorus and finally goes all out on the chorus.

The way the song builds up with its two crescendos is reminiscent of The Beatles - specifically the chaos of “A Day in the Life”, but also (when you consider the repetitive, hypnotic guitar motif, the use of white noise and the sudden ending) “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”.

The song evokes a sense of euphoria. It gives me a rush. It's like progressive rock - it gets better with each listen, because you start to understand it and start to anticipate its twists and turns.

About the only criticism I have is the static drumbeat (once again sampled from Led Zeppelin's "When the Leavee Breaks" - already used for "Shout" decades ago) that only gets augmented by real human drumming near the end.

A certain group of people immediately latched onto the chorus line about freedom (arguably one of the most abused words of all time) but they overlooked an important side of the lyric, namely that it is also about how life always entails giving up parts of one's freedom. (In this case, for the love to another person - which probably relates to Roland having found a partner again after the death of his first wife.)

But however you take it, it is a remarkable piece of art.

10/10

The Tipping Point

I already examined this song in depth here.

Starting with a gentle sound collage that may well become the intro on the upcoming tour, the title track builds into a big anthem that nicks elements of three songs from TFF’s blockbuster album Songs from the Big Chair but still does its own thing.

Being the first single, I forced myself to like the song but never really loved it. It wasn't until I heard the band performing it at Good Morning America that - freed of the horrible compression - it finally clicked for me. A similarly good sounding version, this time of the complete song, was performed at Sirius XM's Artist Confidential:

Now I like paying attention to Curt’s bass after “Conversation is over and done” or the few flashes of guitars here and there.

The song does have some of its features in common with the failed 2017 comeback single “I Love You But I’m Lost” (due to the same collaborators), but this is better. The lyrics especially highlight the band’s willingness to talk about personal troubles.

8/10

Long, Long, Long Time

Curt Smith has not really written much of anything for Tears for Fears until the reunion. This is a sticking point; he contributed to the writing of “Head over Heels”, “Sowing the Seeds of Love” and a few b-sides, but that’s about it. He also disavows his first solo album Soul on Board despite co-writing almost every song. That album isn’t as bad as he thinks it is (the b-side “How Does It Feel” is very nice too), but it wasn’t until he met multi-instrumentalist Charlton Pettus and released the album Mayfield that he found his own voice. And reuniting with Roland Orzabal meant that the Pettus/Smith team was now influencing the writing, which permanently altered the TFF sound. Pettus has been the band’s second guitarist live, ever since.

That doesn’t mean the work Curt and Charlton have done is “bad”, but it doesn’t have the qualities that attracted me to the band in the first place, which are very much down to Roland’s writing. (Despite him getting a credit on this song, it seems that Curt and Charlton were the main writers of it.) From Mayfield onwards, Curt has shown a tendency to pick really complicated melodies that don't go in the ear at all smoothly. I find his way of singing lines like “and CROSSING THE LINES” annoying, ditto for the weird pause between words on “We haven’t been playing with fire… OR RAIN”. The 7/4 time signature doesn't help in this case either. Awkward song.

The chorus tries to be all big and important, but it falls flat for me. Carina Round is a good singer but she doesn’t have the vocal distinctness of Oleta Adams or Ninet Tayeb, Steven Wilson’s preferred duet partner. Compare with “Pariah”:


It doesn’t help that Carina’s vocals are helplessly drowning in the stereo mix, at least Wilson’s surround version makes her lyrics discernible.

On the whole, this song is just slightly above average for me. There is some lead guitar buried under the repetitiveness of the chorus near the end of the song, and if this had been fleshed out, it could've helped to make things more interesting.

7/10

Break the Man

And the second Smith/Pettus track, this time without Orzabal as a co-writer, follows right afterwards. Despite the ambient intro, there was no attempt to segue the two songs, which seems like a missed opportunity.

From the moment the first guitar chord comes crashing in, the track evokes classic 80s TFF songs, especially two Curt-sung hits and staples of their live shows, “Pale Shelter” and “Advice for the Young at Heart”. The opening chord is the same and the arrangement really sounds like it comes right from that era, with a strident drum beat joined by busy, danceable bass lines and wobbling synths that go right back to the era of The Hurting.

Although those are all pleasant sounds, there is one aspect where the 80s revival went too far - the electronic drum fills grind my gears. They sound so cheap and tacky.

You’ll notice I’ve gone on without talking about the actual song. Unfortunately, I still struggle saying anything about the composition. It seems the band invested a lot of care into the arrangement and production, which makes all the difference compared to Curt’s solo records, but the vocal melody is just “there”. It’s not as much over the place as “Long, Long, Long Time” but it also does little for me. The chorus uncannily reminds me of the UEFA song “We are the People” by Martin Garrix featuring Bono and The Edge. Since “Break the Man” is older (Curt already shared a work-in-progress excerpt in 2018, when it was still called “Kill the Man”), that simply means they are both written around a rather unimaginative, often used pentatonic movement.


There is an interesting instrumental section in the middle. Unfortunately, Curt’s voice sounds awfully raspy on the word “fallout”, I wonder if they couldn’t redo that line?

A few words on the lyrics too: While I applaud the message behind them and sympathize with what inspired Curt to write them, they are really not as clear as I think they should be. If you look at the verses with their “no more rain”, what do they actually tell about strong women? It’s only the chorus that gets through the vagueness.

All in all, a song I still can’t really get involved in.

6/10

My Demons

An electronic, aggressive shuffle starts womping. (Shut up, spellcheck!) And then Roland starts singing foreboding lyrics about surveillance. We haven’t heard him go crazy like this since his one and only solo album Tomcats Screaming Outside. Apparently it was written with half a mind towards giving it to Depeche Mode, and there definitely is a similarity to their mixture of blues and electronica on tracks like “Personal Jesus” or “Soothe My Soul”.


Curt has another counterpoint line in the breakdown. (Noticed something? When Roland does lead, Curt usually shows up for a bit or harmonies, but when Curt sings lead, Roland’s voice doesn’t appear.)

A rip-roaring guitar solo would’ve fit well to this song. In lieu of that, varying the chorus lyrics at the end could've worked well. Due to these little complaints, the track doesn’t quite reach perfection for me, but it’s impressive nonetheless.

9/10

Rivers of Mercy

Starting with sirens, explosions and traffic sounds, Roland again graces us with his low voice. The piano/vocal combination has shades of “On Every Street” by Dire Straits, but then they go all Peter Gabriel on us: Curt’s bass lick that leads into the “main” part is reminiscent of “Don’t Give Up”, and the song’s transcendent atmosphere also brings “Mercy Street” to mind. Many fans immediately picked up on these references. But I also get vibes of "Moments in Love" by The Art of Noise.

This is a song that evokes something like musical grandeur and aspirations in line with the band’s past. As a fan, I always preferred the side of Tears for Fears that gravitated towards longer tracks and following fearless bands like Pink Floyd or Genesis, not the one hellbent on writing hit singles.

Of course, the band winks at a track of their own, as the drum rhythm and guitar arpeggios aren't too far removed from "Woman in Chains". The lush production also reinforces this feeling.

But this comparison also highlights "Rivers of Mercy"'s flaw. Both Chris Hughes and Ian Stanley talk about how "Woman in Chains" missed a middle part for a long time - you can hear it on the Townhouse jam session. There is a sort of middle eight here but it barely deviates from the chord sequence that runs through the entire song. And there is no big Phil Collins fill and no key change to add some power, punch and variety. There really should have been some pause to highlight that middle eight instead of reverting straight back into the chorus. The sudden ending also adds to me being slightly underwhelmed. Why does it cut off like that?

It's a good song, even sublime, but it doesn't fully deliver the payoffs that it intimates.

8/10

Please Be Happy

This song was known by fans of the band, although for a long time its status was somehow up in the air. Roland uploaded it as a demo in 2017 and at that point it seemed to be a solo track. Even then, it raised more interest in what the band was able to come up with than the two new songs on Rule the World.

Opening with a snatch of backwards piano, it’s a mournful ballad. Being a song written not long before Caroline’s passing, it is a very personal and honest song.

Comparing the demo with the album version, they are musically almost identical. The officially released version has a better mix (including that trumpet solo that was apparently played by Roland, but not on a real trumpet - sampling has really come a long way), but the more drastic difference is that in order to accommodate for Curt’s higher range, the song was pitched a full tone higher. This changed the atmosphere quite a bit and makes it sound less doomy (Roland’s demo is really dark) and more hopeful.

I think the demo captured Roland’s feelings better and it is therefore the more “honest” version, but this version is still outstanding.

9/10

Master Plan

While it starts with a electronic loop, this is one song that could’ve easily appeared on the previous album. Orzabal is doing his best John Lennon impression. For some reason, I just love how Roland sings “The Beatles and The Stones”, and “like some superman”.

The lyrics are a dig at the former management. It's funny how the narrative shifts though. A few years ago, the band said that the initial ideas sounded too much like ELAHE part 2 - hence trying out new collaborators - now they're blaming the speed dating approach on their manager!

The chorus is full of mellotron clouds, the mellotron being far from the only stylistic element that this song has in common with the preceding album. The muffled echo that starts appearing in the second chorus and in the middle part is another stylistic connection to Everybody Loves a Happy Ending.

Fans quickly picked up on a more oblique connection: At the end, a voice can be heard saying "Last train to Norwich". This exact same sample was already used on the (similarly Beatlesque) 1993 b-side "Schrödinger's Cat". According to Curt (who wasn't in the band in 1993), it is funny because it sounds like "Last train to knowledge".

-

It's not the first time Roland has referred to the song either: Tears for Fears' cover of "Ashes to Ashes" (released in 1992, months before the "Break It Down Again" single) includes the spoken line "Schrödinger's cat is dead to the world".

Unfortunately "Master Plan" also shares a weakness of Happy Ending, namely the overdubbing of drums onto a programmed backing track. The drums end up sounding stilted and weak, although not quite as much as on “Closest Thing to Heaven”. I expect this song to sound considerably more energetic live.

Nevertheless it’s a song that fulfills and exceeds my expectations. Ever since I heard a bit of it on a promo radio show, I knew this was something special.

10/10

End of Night

The synth opening this is a really surprising lapse of taste - it physically hurts my ears. Unfortunately it continues dominating the song, alongside other ear-piercing bleeping sounds that really should’ve ended up in the dustbin.

I think we can look at this track as a good case study why so much synthpop after the 1980s has sounded harsh and overbearing. In the early 80s, those sounds would either still come from analog machines - which have a certain ‘warmth’ to them - or be softened by the use of analog tape. Now, we’re left with this incredibly aggressive sawtooth wave sound that isn’t tamed at all. But it would certainly be possible to emulate that in a DAW, and I’m sure Steven Wilson (whose most recent, very synthy solo album The Future Bites does sound much warmer) is capable of doing so.

Wilson probably agreed with my impression of the song, since his 5.1 mix actually omits several of the most intrusive sonic elements. (I think he should definitely produce the next Tears for Fears record - he has the sensibility that a lot of older fans of the band expect.)

That said, even his mix doesn't undo all I find annoying about the production. The lead synth still sounds incredibly harsh and that droning programming in the bass register is hard on my nerves too. Maybe this was intentional? The lyric does contain the line “Through the wall of noise” - eeek!

As for the song itself, it has some interesting things going for it. Roland’s voice sounds great (as the song is the oldest, it’s probably also the oldest vocal recording, before the “lost year” that also left its imprint on his vocal cords), and he really unleashes his operatic singing style near the end. But with the shuffle beat, it’s another retread of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, and at this point it becomes a bit desperate. The song is constructed around some very unusual chord sequences, but the main thing (1-3 movements) already appeared in the chorus of “Master Plan”, which means that the sequencing works against the song.

The lyric refers to the mistral, a wind that blows mainly in the south of France.

To illustrate the damage done by the mastering (more on that in the summary), let’s look at the waveform of the track:

https://imgbb.com/kJTpckS


The ears really have to strain and work overtime to still pick out music out of a block of sound like this, “wall of noise” indeed. The drums are “pumped up” to an absurd amount in order to still cut through. Due to the relentless sonic assault, a song that should be uplifting and positive instead sounds headache-inducing and so aggressive it makes me aggressive too. Curt describes the song as bright and breezy but to me it feels claustrophobic and oppressive. Maybe I'm just weird.

All in all, easily the worst of Roland’s tracks on here, and quite a disappointment for me.

6/10

Stay

The calm after the storm, although having said that, I find the comparisons to "Listen" rather overstated. The only things the two have in common is that they're rather quiet, a little above single length and sung by Curt. But "Stay" doesn't have the sonic variety of "Listen" - I hear no really powerful build to a finale, no gut-wrenching lead guitar, no particularly interesting músique concrête type of sound effect. There is a better comparison as far as overall feel goes, and that is "Los Reyes Católicos (Reprise)". Like the 1996 closer of Orzabal's second Curt-less album Raoul and the Kings of Spain, "Stay" starts with subdued acoustic guitar and grows into a more electronically dominated, repetitive track.

Yes, the song works better in context than on the Rule the World compilation, and the new mix thankfully removed a lot of the annoying electronic elements (I might make a comparison video between the two versions at some point) as well as the unnatural effects on Curt’s voice. But it is still a second rate, cluttered song and a disappointing closer. It might have worked better as a buffer between "Master Plan" and "End of Night", but that would still leave the question of a proper closer. (I'd nominate "Let It All Evolve" - more on that below.)

In a few years, some reviewers will likely look back and wonder how they could ever call an album that has this song on it the best Tears for Fears record ever.

Steven’s 5.1 mix made me notice a piano playing chords in the second verse. If this had been more of an unplugged acoustic guitar and piano affair, I’d probably like it a LOT more. After all, bits of the composition (mainly the beginning chord sequence, once Curt sings “Stay for the open hand” I think “this isn’t the way that song should continue”) do have potential.

5/10

Additional tracks

Bonus tracks can sometimes spoil a rather good album. Much as I like “Pullin’ a Cloud” and “Out of Control”, they aren’t as satisfying a way of ending Happy Ending as the sublime “Last Days on Earth”. Is that the case with The Tipping Point? Let’s see.

Secret Location

Starting out with some nice atmospheric sound effects, distorted vocals in a distance and a gently ticking beat. Roland comes in and sounds conversational. Curt joins in on the chorus, which also boasts a remarkable ascending bass line. This is a really good song, even sounding like a single to me. With a more traditional arrangement, it would’ve fit right into “Elemental” or “Everybody Loves a Happy Ending”. If anything, it once again lacks a middle eight like “Break It Down Again” had. But other than that, it’s a song that would’ve not hurt the main album at all.

As a special finishing touch, I love that little glockenspiel melody wrapping things up. Cute!

8/10

Let It All Evolve

Quiet percussion opens this track. As soon as the strummed acoustic guitar patterns starts and the background gets all atmospheric, it’s clear that this is a special track. Roland’s voice comes in again and sounds simply astonishing. All the theatrics that used to be typical of his singing from the mid-80s onwards are back.

Drums and bass enter and the song starts gaining momentum. The suspenseful verse gives way to a more floating chorus.

Just when you think it can’t get any better, a frenzied instrumental section takes things to a climax. The organ is reminiscent of “Dog’s a Best Friend’s Dog”, “War of Attrition” and other songs from the 90s. There are no credits for a drummer; if there really isn’t one on this song, it’s by far the best programmed part on the entire CD. It actually rocks.

This song is a wonderful reminiscence to the Orzabal solo years as well as a bit of a spiritual successor to “Quiet Ones”, but it would’ve been a highlight on ANY Tears for Fears album. It’s astonishingly good.

Addendum: Why does this song affect me more than a lot of the ones that made the regular CD? I think it comes down to a couple of things:

  • It's not based on the idea of an outside writer

  • It doesn't have an explicit blueprint in the band's catalogue

Both of these things are, of course, related. Instead of purposely coming up with something 'in the vein of…', the band actually (groan) let it all evolve. It shares that characteristic with "No Small Thing".

10/10

Shame (Cry Heaven)

Probably the weakest bonus track, but it still beats some of the songs that made the album. For one, it takes its time with a long piano intro, where I sometimes feel that the album tracks are a bit rushed and could do with longer developments.

Curt is back on vocals but he’s singing a melody that makes sense and doesn’t just jump all over the place - it sounds more like something Roland would write. Indeed, elements of the backing track again evoke bits of Roland’s 90s albums without Curt.

I’m not a big fan of the ultra-bombastic beat on the chorus. To me, drums should not sound like constantly exploding cannons… and despite its length, the song doesn’t really evolve beyond said chorus. Middle eight, where art thou?

Curious: To me it sounds like there are clearly female backing vocals on the track (“pray for me”), but nobody is credited for them.

Finally, the lyrics are better than those of all three Curt songs on the main album.

6/10

Summary

To Curt especially, it was important that TFF release an album, not just a collection of possible singles. So did they come up with an album?

At this point it’s necessary to explain that there are two different types of Tears for Fears albums, as far as overall structure is concerned. The Hurting was a pretty consistent affair, with a limited sonic palette. Songs from the Big Chair blew the mold wide open and indeed, one of the reasons the band chose that album title was because to them, it was just disparate songs that weren’t really conceived as a whole. There were still unifying elements like the rhythm that runs through “Mothers Talk” and both halves of “Broken”. The Seeds of Love was an even more diverse piece of music that still manages to somehow hang together: “Sowing the Seeds of Love” is the more Beatlified sequel to “Shout”, “Badman’s Song” a surprising venture into blues/soul, and the rest of the album basically explores the psychedelic and progressive worlds of sound further that “The Working Hour”, “I Believe” and “Listen” had first introduced to the band’s palette.

With Curt Smith’s departure, TFF albums became more streamlined again. Elemental has some diversity, but not too much; Raoul and the Kings of Spain is a very consistent album that veers back and forth between driving rock and sensual ballads; the 60s-like reunion Everybody Loves a Happy Ending also has a pretty recognizable sound of its own.

So after such a long time, it’s definitely a change of course to see The Tipping Point having its legs in so many styles at once, and therefore being much more comparable to Big Chair and Seeds of Love. However, as I mentioned before, those two albums still had musical and lyrical threads running through them.

To me, unfortunately, The Tipping Point still sounds a bit like a bunch of singles. The lack of segues/transitions and reprises does nothing to alleviate this impression. Only four tracks are clear album tracks. Even those aren't particularly experimental or progressive. Guitar solos are almost entirely absent, which I find lamentable.

Somebody said that The Tipping Point is like a best-of with new songs. This description isn't too far off, but a best-of generally wouldn't contain "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" three times. (You could - by including the "Run the World" variation and a live or extended version - but you get what I mean.)

Now for fairness’ sake, if I was a fan who saw the band live in late 1983 and bought the two pre-release singles, there would only have been three songs on Songs from the Big Chair I hadn’t heard yet. The fact that I already knew five songs from The Tipping Point makes it hard for me to now recontextualize these songs as part of an album, and I slightly envy those coming at the record with totally fresh ears.

The release strategy of spreading three pre-album singles out over five months worked from a commercial standpoint (the longer Everybody Loves a Happy Ending only had one single released ahead of the album, and the ones that followed got zero buzz), but I think it slightly runs counter to the band’s intentions and an album’s musical integrity. “No Small Thing” was an important statement and really increased my confidence that the album could be good, but it’s really less of a single and more of an album track. Then again, Coldplay (who probably wouldn't exist without TFF) have sometimes released as uncommercial tracks as "Midnight" or "Coloratura" as pre-release singles.

And one could also say The Seeds of Love has a similar issue as The Tipping Point inasmuch as there were different “teams” working on the album and the songs come from different writing and recording sessions. Yet, I somehow doubt that this new album is going to gel for me like the 1989 masterpiece (still one of my all time favourite records).

When I think about it, it’s almost like three separate albums that were somehow smashed together. There’s the Roland-led remnants of the speed dating era, all with shuffle beats: “The Tipping Point”, “My Demons” and “End of Night”.

Then, there’s the tracks dominated by Curt’s vision: “Long, Long, Long Time”, “Break the Man” and “Stay”. Interestingly these all come from different contexts but all have in common that they sound like they’re from a Curt solo album.

And finally there are the deeper Roland songs: “No Small Thing”, “Rivers of Mercy”, “Please Be Happy” and “Master Plan”. Of those, “Please Be Happy” is the oldest (and co-written with Sacha Skarbek) but it doesn’t gel with the “club TFF” idea. “No Small Thing” and “Rivers of Mercy” are tied together by the usage of Roland’s lower register and the accordion. Frankly, those songs are the ones I find by far the most interesting, and I wish we had gotten a whole album like that. That way, it would have seemed like a logical development from Raoul and the Kings of Spain and Everybody Loves a Happy Ending - while the album now is pulled in very different directions, the title track, “End of Night” and “Break the Man” especially sounding like attempts to remake the 80s sound.

Where does it sit in the context of all Tears for Fears albums? It doesn't bore me like the second half of Elemental, and it takes more chances sonically than Everybody Loves a Happy Ending. So, I would say it ranges ahead of those two albums, but can't displace The HurtingSongs from the Big ChairThe Seeds of Love or Raoul and the Kings of Spain. Certainly not the last two, which will always be favourite albums of mine period, not just of this group.

Certainly, one positive is that all of the songs are catchy once you’ve heard them a couple of times. It still remains a bit too derivative of earlier TFF songs in places - interestingly enough none of the bonus tracks have this issue. But either way, The Tipping Point does stand out in the musical landscape of the 2020s. Even a 'middling' Tears for Fears album is, after all, excellent compared to the majority of pop releases.



As good as the album is, two aspects of it were absolutely and totally botched.

One is the mastering.

Production-wise The Tipping Point is prime Tears for Fears, which means a lot of attention paid to every detail. This is reflected by a very good mix. But it gets undone - not entirely, but notably - by the final process - mastering. Once done to make music sound better, nowadays it often has the opposite effect, and sometimes disastrously and destructively so.

According to other fans, neither the hi-res download nor the vinyl LP offer any better sound quality than the CD, which is a huge disappointment. (Although there are mixed opinions about the vinyl, some suggesting it may be less limited than the CD.)

Comparing “My Demons” on the stereo mix and a downmix made from the Atmos mix (more on that below) exhibits a stark difference:

https://ibb.co/JvxdGds



And this difference is definitely audible: The 5.1 mix has a physical punch to the drums that's just not there on the stereo. (In this graphic, the stereo mix is lowered in volume to match the Atmos downmix, just like any listener would adapt the volume to their preferred listening levels - making the whole "our record needs to be louder" mindset self-defeating, as you can't restore what has been shaved off to make things louder.)

Another comparison here, with files you can listen to: https://archimago.blogspot.com/2022/04/demo-tears-for-fears-no-small-thing-low.html

It’s frustrating for me personally because after Everybody Loves a Happy Ending made me aware of the whole loudness war mess in the first place, I had been campaigning for a better sounding mastering job on the next album for years. I had hoped that the association with Steven Wilson would rub off on the band.

What’s curious is that the bonus tracks have less heavy-handed mastering than the ten main album tracks. I wish Justin Shturtz had done the entire record. Ted Jensen, on the other hand, should really ask himself what in the world he's doing. "End of Night" is now the least dynamic Tears for Fears song ever, beating even the European edition of Happy Ending. (More on that here.) 

(Also, although it's more of a minor point to me, I wonder why the album was apparently recorded at no higher sampling rate than CD. You can see this in the comparisons here; even the Blu-Ray has no content above 22 kHz. I thought that it had long become standard to record at higher resolutions… Neil Young won't be happy 😀)

The other issue is Concord's release strategy.

Dividing the bonus tracks up between the European/British and American (Target)/Japanese marketing is a cruel joke for any fan. Paul Sinclair's CD bringing all three together on a limited edition (2000 units) was a nice idea on paper. The realization of it meant that a lot of fans outside the UK didn't have their albums on release date and had to pay extra money on top of what SDE asked for the CD and shopping. If they were even able to order it.

[Screenshot of a tweet] I was fast enough but the SDE doesn't ship to my country... now if I want it i need to pay 8 time the original price to get it :|

The news that Steven Wilson made a surround mix was welcome especially since the singles had already exhibited very poor mastering. And yet, Concord were not interested in releasing this on a physical disc. Paul Sinclair, again, made himself the saviour man in this context, by offering 2000 Pure Audio blu-ray discs featuring not only the Dolby Atmos mix that's also available for streaming but also a DTS 5.1 mix that otherwise would've remained unreleased.

Repeating my previous comment, this led to a lot of hassle - having to order quickly before it sold out (some copies were bought with the sole intention of reselling, adding another annoyance), and then the waiting & VAT + handling fees game.

It didn't have to be like this. Many record labels have courted fans by offering limited, but generally available box sets / special editions. A smart box set for this album could've contained all three bonus tracks on the CD and the blu-ray, perhaps alongside a signed lithograph like the one that's being offered with the many different vinyl editions.

A counterpoint would be that the surround mix was completed rather late. But I'm sure any serious fan would've ordered such a set even if they'd already preordered a simpler version. And it could've been far cheaper than the amount of money that I ended up paying for just one CD and one Blu-Ray, which is roughly the same as the two box set reissues of the first two albums cost me (including seven CDs and three DVDs). If SDE participated in the IOSS system, I could have saved 12€. And that's not talking about the scalpers...

[Screenshot of a tweet] The exactly, the inflated eBay prices. it's ridiculous and somewhat hilarious. Unfortunately, I skipped the new album of tears for fears. I don't support such bs.

At least SDE and Concord rectified the demand issue by offering a second print run of the blu-ray, this time not limited to a number fixed beforehand but to a preorder period. The option to preorder is open until May 4. It'll be interesting to see how many units will be pressed.

https://superdeluxeedition.com/news/sde-announces-a-second-pressing-of-tears-for-fears-the-tipping-point-on-blu-ray-audio/

(UPDATE: The amount pressed for the second run is 2500 - more than the first one!)

Now given that this happened two months after the album’s release, it makes the initial blu-ray seem unnecessarily rushed, and I wonder why it couldn’t have been delayed a bit so that Wilson would’ve had time to also mix the three bonus tracks in surround…


Getting back to positive thoughts: With the world still dealing with a pandemic, political division and now also a war in Europe (wait, didn't I just say "positive thoughts"?), The Tipping Point arrived at a particularly fitting time. Tears for Fears' music has always been about identifying problems and relieving things. The idea of healing and redemption permeates this album, linking it with the band's debut (but also the entirety of their work). There are times I wish the kind of biting commentary that Curt offers on Twitter would be expressed even more clearly (Songs from the Big Chair and The Seeds of Love were more explicit when it came to tackling such issues), but at least we didn't end up with something entirely unpolitical as the scrapped album was described by Roland. Likewise, I may not particularly like the dominance of electronics on many tracks (after all, TFF have a competent live band), but the released album is obviously more organic than what they had originally intended to release in 2016. And while I may never fully love Curt as a writer (which isn't to say he can't come up with gold every once in a while - "What Are We Fighting For" is a masterpiece), clearly his judgment helped to make the album more balanced musically. Without his intervention, we probably wouldn't have gotten "No Small Thing", "Rivers of Mercy" or "Master Plan", and those three songs alone already justify the existence of this album. Although, as a fan, I can't hide my curiosity to hear the "scrapped" tracks too...


Futher links:

fan forum

Video commentary / now also on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLFT2U25Xu77X3RySbY29rjwxYePy8KAcq

Sonntag, 28. November 2021

Tears for Fears - The Tipping Point (Single): A Review

Has it really been seventeen years? Yes and no. To the greater public, Tears for Fears have been awfully quiet for a long period of time. After Curt Smith left the group in the early 1990s, Roland Orzabal soldiered on with guitarist Alan Griffiths and released two rather overlooked albums, Elemental in 1993 and the brilliant Raoul and the Kings of Spain in 1995. After the 1996 tour, Orzabal retired the name, having grown disillusioned by audiences who were only there for the early material and didn't care as much for his more mature work. In 2001, he released his one and (to date) only solo album, Tomcats Screaming Outside. By this point, he and Curt Smith (who was now living in the USA) had already reconnected and started making music with Smith's new writing partner, guitarist Charlton Pettus. In 2004 (2005 in some countries), the reunion album Everybody Loves a Happy Ending was released. Plagued with a fractured release strategy and a bad mastering job on the European edition, the album didn't achieve the expected success (although it has continued to sell well). A somewhat unsatisfying live album (due to its shortened festival setlist and the band not playing their best gig), Secret World - Live in Paris, was released in 2006, including a new studio recording, the exuberant "Floating Down the River". This song was also included on the Universal double CD compilation Gold, which had originally been planned as a career-spanning box set.



The band played a handful of gigs in the following years but otherwise seemed semi-retired. Curt Smith remained more active, releasing two solo albums - Halfway, Pleased and Deceptively Heavy - plus collaborating with lesser known artists on various projects. All of these were released with zero fanfare, many of them download-only or on small labels. In 2010, Smith complained that labels weren't interested in new Tears for Fears music. Despite this, 2010 was one of their most active years regarding live shows, as the band played the US, Australia and Southeast Asia. The gig in the Philippines in particular will stick in the band's memories for the crowd's sheer enthusiasm.



Things picked up in 2013, when Universal decided to give the band's debut, 1983's The Hurting, the deluxe edition and box set treatment. The release was curated by reissue specialist Steve Hammonds (who also put a lot of work into the Status Quo reissues mentioned elsewhere on this blog) and blogger/journalist Paul Sinclair, who first wrote about his involvement here and later published an exclusive interview here, parts of which were used for his liner notes in the set. During the promotion for the reissue, the band unveiled their first new recording since 2006, a cover of Arcade Fire's "Ready to Start"; it was swiftly followed by "And I Was a Boy from School" by Hot Chip and Animal Collective's "My Girls". All three songs were later compiled on a 12" vinyl EP for Record Store Day called Ready Boy & Girls? (but never released on CD). As this round of publicity ended, Tears for Fears announced they were starting to write material for a new album. The sound of the three cover versions hinted at a more electronic direction as opposed to the timeless piano- and guitar-based power pop of Everybody Loves a Happy Ending.



2014 saw the next reissue, among other versions an exhaustive 6-disc box set, centered around Songs from The Big Chair, and The Seeds of Love was expected for 2015. The band still played great live shows, including the Spotify Landmark session, but spanners started appearing in the works. Several self-imposed deadlines for finishing the new album were missed and it felt like neither the new album nor the Seeds reissue would see the light of day.

2017 was the most active year for TFF since their reunion: A big double headliner tour with Hall & Oates took them all over North America, and they also appeared on the BBC in London to promote their new compilation Rule the World, which featured two new songs, the single "I Love You But I'm Lost" and "Stay". However, with hindsight it was a dark time for Orzabal, as first his old writing partner Alan Griffiths died at only 57, and then (unbeknownst to the public), his wife Caroline died after a long struggle with depression, alcoholism and ensuing health issues. The only thing fans knew was that the last dates of the US tour were postponed because of a "family emergency", and later, the European tour scheduled for 2018 was cancelled "on doctor's orders" and moved to 2019. (The upshot of this was that they added more dates in Germany and I finally got to see them!) Earlier that year, Roland had uploaded a sad ballad to his soundcloud account called "Please Be Happy", which also hinted at the emotional turmoil in his family. Here's a fan video (which looks like it was an inspiration for the new official video!):


When the band resurfaced in 2019, Orzabal's hair had turned grey and he was starting to grow a beard. Though stopping to dye his hair increased the contrast, it was pretty clear to anybody that he had aged a lot since 2015/2016. His voice also seemed less powerful, especially on the first couple of gigs, but got stronger as the tour progressed. In the meantime, he found a new partner and according to his own account, that immensely helped to get him back on track after "losing a year".

In 2020, Roland suggested the band would release a handful of singles instead of an album, and "The Tipping Point" was slated for an April release, but that date came and went. No tour dates had been set for the year so none were sunk by the pandemic, but it seemed like the new record was indefinitely shelved. Roland later explained that they had an album but weren't happy with it, and went back to work on new material to use alongside some of the originally planned songs. All in all, more waiting.

2020 did finally see the reprint of the first two box sets, a Classic Albums documentary dealing with Songs from the Big Chair and later, the long-awaited box set centered around The Seeds of Love, something that had been put on the backburner for several times because it shouldn't collide with the new album. The hints that something was finally happening in TFF-land appeared in mid-2021: Curt Smith liked a tweet by his friend, music journalist David Wild, which enigmatically hinted at a band having made their "best album yet". Wild denied most of the suspicions except TFF, and later confirmed that he had interviewed Roland and Curt.

The new single - which turned out to be, indeed, the title track - premiered on October 7; BBC Radio 2 were first to play it, while Radio Bath followed a few minutes later. Both stations played a radio edit, while the official video and streaming services had the full cut shortly afterwards.

After living with the song for a few weeks, here is my current verdict.


The intro may actually be the best part of the song. It's subtle, it's suspenseful, and it conjures up a sonic world all of its own. There's a kinship with Roland's experiments on the
Tomcats Screaming Outside album but also 1993's Elemental, and interestingly enough Pink Floyd's 1994 album The Division Bell (the little bits of e-bow guitar aren't unlike the clip that was woven into "Take It Back" and "Keep Talking).

The beat slowly builds up over a couple of interesting movements and what follows is basically - as Roland Orzabal attested - Charlton Pettus' attempt to match the many young hit producers who thought the thing to do with TFF was to remake their classics. Pettus took the shuffle beat from "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" and inserted a piano motif reminiscent of "Head over Heels" to build the basis of the song, ending up with something that sounded like neither but still like Tears for Fears. The similarity to "Rule the World" was obviously picked up by most listeners but it would be wrong to call the new single a remake, as the vocal melody is totally different.

The melody - which I assume is mostly Roland's work - is indeed strong, and the way that Curt and Roland duet on the song is an element that immediately stood out. For all the strengths of having two frontmen, it's something they didn't really make much use of. Only "The Hurting", "Mothers Talk", "Sowing the Seeds of Love" and "Closest Thing to Heaven" spring to mind. Live it's a different story, as more recent performances of "Memories Fade" prove.

There are negatives, though. Some people pointed out that the song sounds a bit Depeche Mode. A lot of classic Mode songs are entirely built on the minor pentatonic, and the melody of "The Tipping Point" mostly stays within these limits too. Unfortunately, the backing is even more simplistic. I tried playing along on the piano and got bored very quickly as the main part of the song is just three chords (the same ones as in "Shout") over and over. They are also pretty much the same chords as in David Gilmour's 2016 song "Rattle That Lock", but that may well be a coincidence. Though this isn't the only touching point between the two songs: The way the radio version of "The Tipping Point" opens with Curt singing "Who's that ghost" reminds me of the echoing "Rattle That Lock" in Gilmour's song.

So what's left is the arrangement.

As I said, I have nothing but love for the intro. But the comparisons to "The Working Hour" seem more than a little over the top; nothing that follows the intro is as musically adventurous as that 1985 song was, which seamlessly fused together very different musical ideas.

The long version of "The Tipping Point" at least contains, in addition to the spherical intro, an instrumental breakdown that helps to add some variety, although the beat isn't varied at all and there is never a new chord to be found.

I like a lot of the sonic tricks, which are very typical for Roland's production work. The exception is the white noise added at times, something I really wish hadn't become fashionable. Sadly, the very compressed mastering makes it hard to focus on any of these details because (psychoacoustically) the brain shuts off when it's hit with a barrage of sound.

Lyrically, Roland is pretty open about the inspiration. It's a very personal song about the experience of watching his wife fade away - becoming a ghost while still alive.

The lyrics get a full 10/10 from me. They are haunting and on point, and entirely worth of the TFF name. I also like how the phrases get swapped at the end, it makes for a nice variation (instead of ending predictably with the title).

There is also the typical self-reference in the lyrics, in the line "What's that shape", which comes straight from 1996's "Falling Down".


I thought it would be an interesting idea to compare "I Love You But I'm Lost" and "The Tipping Point" in various aspects. Both songs came after a long period of silence and both signalled the beginning of something new; in the case of the 2017 single, it turned out to be a false alarm, and a bit of a cul-de-sac as the album that apparently was almost ready for release back then was not issued in its original form.

But both songs were co-produced with the same team - Florian Reutter and Sacha Skarbek - so they share a common aesthetic as opposed to, say, "Floating Down the River". Skarbek also co-wrote two songs on the coming album (in one case with Reutter), so even though the band has decided to remove "I Love You But I'm Lost" from the album, it remains a part of the same "era".



MELODY

Both songs are melodically strong and it's hard to choose. I think "I Love You But I'm Lost" may be more obviously catchy but that obviousness is also its weakness, as - with a different arrangement and singer - it could easily pass as a song by any number of younger acts (Bastille's singer Dan Smith and their producer Mark Crew co-wrote it). "The Tipping Point" is more recognizable as a TFF song, but "...Lost" is the one that keeps going through my brain unprompted, so I'm not going to choose.

1 : 1

CHORDS

Perhaps surprisingly, "I Love You But I'm Lost" has a more interesting chord sequence. It's not spectacularly inventive but they change it around enough to keep it fresh. The middle eight ("All we needed was some time") especially helps there.

2 : 1

LYRICS

"The Tipping Point" wins this one. "I Love You..." isn't bad, and especially in retrospect it is recognizable as coming from the same mindset (lines like "came to life in my arms and then turned to dust"). Hindsight makes it a far more bitter lyric; Roland telling Caroline that he loves her but is lost as to how to help her. However, some of the lines seem kind of throwaway to me.

"The Tipping Point" fits in the TFF tradition. I'm reminded of this Orzabal quote from 1995:

I think that the perspective behind Tears For Fears is one of that things are slightly damaged, things are slightly disturbed and they need to be healed, they need to be made better. I think that is running through every album... (source)

Incidentally, I feel that this aspect was noticeably missing on the Everybody Loves a Happy Ending album. It was a record about death, mostly, but it didn't feel justified. The guys were only in their forties.

2 : 2

PRODUCTION

Both songs are very much in the synthpop vein, dominated by electronic sounds and underpinned by "traditional sounding" but programmed drums. They don't sound "retro" though, in the sense of how some of the old 80s bands like Visage or Camouflage have tried to avoid the modern traps of overproduction, and that's where my main grumbles lie.

I'm somebody who mostly leans towards the rocky and organic side of things. My two favourite TFF albums are The Seeds of Love and Raoul and the Kings of Spain, so the move back towards more electronic sounds was always going to be a tougher road for me. As far as I'm concerned, I also don't need to hear anything from TFF that involves the guy who co-wrote the horrific "You're Beautiful" with James Blunt (as well as other not particularly great radio hits like "7 Seconds" or Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball"), and I generally despise the trend to throw lots and lots of "producers" at a song to end up with an unremarkable overproduced stew of frequencies and electronic noise. This is what plagues "I Love You But I'm Lost" especially.

"The Tipping Point" at least has some typical guitar chords by Roland on the intro, but the instrument rather quickly disappears. Still, the more typical production touches swing this one for the newer song.

2 : 3

MIX

Both songs aren't particularly well-mixed. They drown in mids and low frequencies; I find it very hard to pick out the actual bass. The slightly better drum sound causes me to give the nod to the newer track again.

I have a strong feeling that "The Tipping Point" will open up much more when the band plays it live. Of course I can't be sure that it's going to be played (neither two new songs from 2017 were ever done) but Curt especially said they wanted to have an album that was well suited to playing live.

2 : 4

MASTERING

Mastering is a strange part of music making. Everybody does it but its original purpose has been forgotten and perverted. Because LPs have less dynamic range than magnetic tape and also only allow for a certain amount of bass, it was necessary to perform some EQ'ing and dynamic compression / limiting to get the sound right for the format. (This is also the reason why songs are often better sounding on 12" singles than on LPs, as there is more space for the grooves and therefore for bass.)

With the advent of CD, the dynamic range of released music increased to show off the new medium's capabilities. But then engineers discovered that you could do things in the digital realm that were previously near impossible. Digital lookahead limiters allow for a much more extreme raising of the overall loudness to the maximum (which is defined as 0 dB in any digital file). Producers, especially in pop and when it came to the jukebox market, had long liked their recordings to be louder than the competition, but the new tools turned that quest up to eleven.

Tears for Fears used to be a bastion of good sound, but that ended with the reunion. Back then it was Stephen Marcussen (who just outperformed himself in mastering the most recent Rolling Stones reissue into complete oblivion, breaking his own loudness records) who made the US release of Everybody Loves a Happy Ending the band's loudest release by far, while somebody decided that this was not loud enough and added further compression to the UK and European release (the one with 2 bonus tracks), leading to a steamrollered, flat sound that doesn't manage to keep the listener's attention for more than two tracks in a row.

The DR meter is a software that analyses how much a song has been affected by the loudness war. It doesn't measure the difference between the loudest and quietest parts but the density of the loudest parts. In other words, how much does the music vary in amplitude near digital zero.

On the DR meter, none of the new music and not even much of the reissues released by Tears for Fears in the last 25 years scores well. In comparison, the original mastering of The Seeds of Love (which was also included on the Blu-Ray disc of the 2020 box set) still stands up as a good example of a dynamic mastering.

As I wrote down at length here, Everybody Loves a Happy Ending was a real low point, especially in the 14-track version. "I Love You But I'm Lost" and "Stay" score similarly low on the DR meter (both DR5). They have a slightly lower RMS (average volume) but the density of the mix on the former is so extreme that when it kicks in, it feels like a sonic assault.

"The Tipping Point" (DR6) is a bit better, but both songs are mastered abysmally. I'm giving zero points on this count. They just turn into a wall of noise on headphones. If you don't believe me, try switching back and forth between any song from the first five TFF albums and the new material; the difference shouldn't be subtle.

The horrible sound of modern CDs and digital files has been one of the main drivers of the vinyl revival, so it's reasonable to expect the LP sounding better, although that's not a given. There have been cases where dedicated files with less compression were used for the vinyl editions (the Tears for Fears Record Store Day release Live at Massey Hall is an excellent example); often enough the cutting engineer simply takes some of the bass off, which improves the DR without really restoring anything. In some cases (Clockwork Angels by Rush springs to mind) that still makes it easier to listen without getting a headache, as a lot of energy can be concentrated in those low frequencies.

2 : 4

VIDEO

I don't want to give marks for the video clips but "The Tipping Point" also wins that comparison, as it's a simple mix of Curt and Roland singing and a couple of strong visual images, therefore well in the tradition of the band's 80s clips. "I Love You But I'm Lost" wasn't even advertised with a video at first and when it was released, it turned out to be a rather weird story-video that didn't even feature the band.

So all in all, "The Tipping Point" bodes better for the coming album then "I Love You But I'm Lost" did in 2017 for the scrapped album, still I have some reservations.

I know some people will question my even being a fan. But it's a question of emotions. Was I happy to get new material? Yes. Do I think "The Tipping Point" is a good song? Sure. But whenever I hear "Sowing the Seeds of Love" on the radio, it's a rush of emotions, it's pure bliss. And the same goes for quite a few other TFF songs. In comparison, anything they've released more recently has been a bit limp/grey. It's good music but it just doesn't make me feel much. I'm glad it exists, but either the production brings it down instead of enhancing it, or maybe I just don't 'get it'.


As far as the other two songs we already know go, I'd say "Please Be Happy" is the best so far (judging from the demo version, which criminally also has a huge amount of compression baked in - on a demo!!). "Stay" has the main problem that it sounds like Curt's solo work. While he is a good writer, he doesn't have Roland's genius. Also, it's very reliant on electronics, therefore not a good live track.

I hope that any song Curt didn't like and that was therefore discarded will show up on an Orzabal solo record. Considering how much I like the second half of The Seeds of Love (unlike Curt) there should be some very strong material.

But I also assume the coming album will contain songs that impress me more than the title track. After all, "Closest Thing to Heaven", the first single from Everybody Loves a Happy Ending, wasn't its strongest track either. And I'm glad I caught the opportunity to grab the special edition that Paul Sinclair managed to negotiate with the band and label, which contains all three bonus tracks that are otherwise only available in separate markets, plus an exclusive interview. Regardless of how much I'll end up liking the album, that is one of the coolest ideas I've seen in the CD business.

By the way, the next single "No Small Thing" will be out on December 3. Since it was described as containing acoustic portions (as you can hear in the preview clip), I'm having rather high expectations for this song.

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