By David James
How do you follow up the album that made you seriously famous? The question isn’t just rhetorical – from Fleetwood Mac’s manic, cocaine-addled Tusk to the piecemeal quasi-religious experience of Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden, various artists’ answers to it have resulted in some of the most fascinating moments in popular music. This brings us neatly to the subject of this review: the enfant terrible of Tears for Fears’ 80s trilogy, the magnificent and newly reissued The Seeds of Love.
On their previous album, 1985’s Songs from the Big Chair, the band had differentiated themselves from the infamously clinical pop sounds of the era with their combination of peerless hooks and near-absurd melodrama – and made themselves pop royalty on both sides of the Atlantic in the process. On Seeds, though, an obscene production cost (about £2.5 million in today’s money) and a well-utilised legion of session musicians meant that that anthemic songwriting now had equally vivid and soulful music to back it up; the result was one of the most gloriously over-the-top records to ever grace pop music.
Having said that, the album’s opening moments threaten to make a liar of me: “Woman in Chains” begins slowly, with a gentle funk-tinged bass/drum groove, gradually adding layers of guitars and synths. The song perfectly sets the scene for an even more ambitious album than Big Chair: a feminist-influenced duet between frontman Roland Orzabal and gospel singer Oleta Adams, it builds towards the first of the album’s brilliant climaxes, during which Phil Collins’ drumming is the only sound anchoring it in the 80s. Its momentum carries over into the explosive “Bad Man’s Song”, whose mix of flashy jazz drumming, funky guitar and Orzabal’s astounding vocals make it a real highlight of the album. Strict devotees of the concise pop song might point out that it’s twice as long as it really needs to be – but if its electrifying performances and constant changes of pace aren’t entertaining enough to make an exception here, what is?
Persevere if you’re in that camp, though, as the reward is one of the album’s most insistently catchy moments afterwards. As unsubtle as a “love train” to the face, “Sowing the Seeds of Love” is a 60s-style hippy anthem at heart, with lyrics ranging from acidic (no prizes for guessing who “politician granny with your high ideals” is aimed at) to joyous (the addictive “anything is possible / when you’re sowing the seeds of love” refrain). “Advice for the Young at Heart”, meanwhile, sees that corrosive bombast dialled back to a faint melancholy. The lyrics detail reluctance to let go of happy naivety, and the music conveys that contrast wonderfully: in Curt Smith’s delivery of “we’ve got the whole wide world in our hands,” forrump example, what might be a cheerful, life-affirming lyric carries a hint of regret instead.
The second half opens with two songs which both see the band come as close as they’ve ever done to abandoning pop entirely: Orzabal’s vocals hover above a cloud of brass, synths and percussion on “Standing on the Corner of the Third World”, and the jam which occupies most of the second half of “Swords and Knives” saves it from lyrics which veer into the wrong side of nebulousness. While the band’s trademark feel for intricate and melodic songwriting keeps both of these bold experiments engaging throughout, I find “Year of the Knife” to be the point they play most to their strengths on the entire record. Most vocalists would be drowned out by its relentless, driving drum part and arena-sized guitar shredding, but Orzabal rises above it with an awe-inspiring vocal performance in what comes together as an utterly captivating piece of music and possibly the most convincing argument that “more is more” I’ve ever heard put to tape.
“Famous Last Words” closes the album on a fittingly opulent note, but with an emotional narrative that makes it more than just another loop-de-loop in this musical roller-coaster, a confirmation that despite the pomp and, one might argue, delusions of grandeur that characterise this album, Tears for Fears were more than capable of writing a thoroughly affecting piece of music when they felt like it.
All in all, The Seeds of Love is a “super deluxe” experience itself; the sheer stylistic variety is enough to gawk at by itself without the unmatchable melodies and conviction to go along with them. This month’s reissue offers something for everyone: for existing diehards, the chance to pull back the magician’s curtain through the litany of demos and instrumentals is hard to resist; for everyone else, what better excuse to bask in this immaculately conceived, performed and produced piece of expansive pop for the first time?
Image: Tears for Fears at the Royal Albert Hall via WikiMedia Commons