During the 41 years since the release of its first recordings, Tears For Fears has learned something crucial about itself. “You come to the realization that the best music we make is normally when it means something — and certainly means something to us,” the duo’s Curt Smith tells Billboard by Zoom from his home in California.
And that search for meaning is what made The Tipping Point, Tears For Fears’ first new album in nearly 18 years, so challenging.
Smith and Roland Orzabal formed Tears For Fears as teenagers during 1981 in Bath, England. They hit charts in 1982 with the singles “Mad World” and “Pale Shelter (You Don’t Give Me Love),” while the following year’s debut album, The Hurting, topped the U.K. album charts and went gold in the U.S. Two years later the five-times platinum Songs From the Big Chair and its Hot 100 No. 1s “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and “Shout” secured Tears For Fears’ star status; Smith and Orzabal have soldiered on, with occasional hiatuses, to the tune of more than 30 million worldwide album sales.
“We became popular but, like a lot of acts that have been around for awhile, were not really selling new product,” Orzabal says from his home in England. After the modest showing for 2004’s Everybody Loves a Happy Ending — “Which maybe lacked the depth and soul-searching of the strongest Tears For Fears albums,” Orzabal acknowledges — the duo wrote a pair of fresh songs with Bastille’s Dan Smith for the 2017 compilation Rule The World: The Greatest Hits but was content to work primarily as a live act.
“We have a great band and have a lot of fun playing shows,” Orzabal says. “We didn’t feel we needed to go away and write another album or do anything like that.” Orzabal, in fact, began writing novels (his first was published in 2014), but then his wife Caroline, who was also a nearly lifelong friend of Smith’s, passed away during the summer of 2017, taking Tears off its tour with Daryl Hall & John Oates for a time. The duo resumed working that September. In the wake of the hits album, the band’s now former manager Gary Gersh suggested the idea of an all-new album, writing with “what one would consider to be modern hit songwriters,” according to Smith.
It was not a good idea.
“It was an interesting exercise,” Smith acknowledges, “but in retrospect clearly not for us. We ended up after all these sessions, and they were over a long period of time, with a whole bunch of songs that sounded like us attempting to write a modern hit single. And by then I was left with the feeling it was rather dishonest, and it wasn’t really saying much. We’ve never written vacuous pop songs, nor should we start now. I came to that realization probably first, and Roland a bit later after he listened to it a bunch of times.”
“There was some clever stuff,” adds Orzabal, who grappled with his own “serious health issue” in 2018, “but we didn’t have a soul to the album. The heart and soul were missing. We were left with a depleted album, which certainly Curt didn’t like.”
After some time off, the two resolved to try it again, this time gathering at Smith’s home during early 2020, just before the pandemic, and writing together on acoustic guitars — the first time they’ve done it that way since The Hurting. The first fruit was “No Small Thing,” The Tipping Point’s opening track and second single, and a moment that truly tipped the creative scales back in their favor.
“That song is about freedom, obviously — OUR freedom of expression — and all of a sudden we realized what we’d been missing,” Orzabal recalls. “There was the true narrative of what had been happening in the years when we were making the album, with my wife becoming fatally ill and all the things that were happening in my life, which hadn’t really been explored.
“And then it was just a joy. Curt and I being of one mind again was the essential thing we needed to push this album to its conclusion. And I’m so relieved that the other, what I call ‘the broken album,’ didn’t come out because I think it would have meant nothing.”
Though the subsequent lockdown consigned them to their homes, Orzabal and Smith continued to create and work towards an eventual album. They had developed one strong relationship from the collaborations, with Sacha Skarbek (Miley Cyrus, James Blunt, Adele), and five tracks were retained from those writing sessions — including The Tipping Point‘s upbeat title track, which evokes “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” and “My Demons.” Tears band member Charlton Pettus came in as a co-producer and co-writer, and when the troupe was able to reconvene later in the year it was able to finish the album in less than three months.
“Once you get to the point where you know what you’re doing and you have a body of work you knows says something and means something to you, the actual process isn’t hard — at least we don’t find it that hard, ’cause we’ve been doing it long enough,” Smith says. “It’s the meaning behind it and why you’re doing it that’s the key, and it took us a while to find out why we were doing it this time.”
The Tipping Point‘s 10 songs (with bonus tracks on deluxe editions) run the emotional gamut, encompassing Orzabal’s loss, Black Lives Matter, social and political strife, interpersonal conflict and, in “Break the Man,” what Smith calls “toxic patriarchy.” “Master Plan” was inspired by the failed initial attempt at making the album, while Smith says he wrote “Stay” at a time he was considering leaving the band.
“If there’s one thing I’m proud of on this record, it’s the journey it takes you on,” Orzabal says. “I think the true gift that we have as artists is to take our suffering and turn it into music and allow other people to connect, through the music, to that suffering so they know they’re not alone.” Smith, meanwhile, adds that, “There was so much going on during the same time period we were writing — the pandemic, Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo movement, climate change, in America four years of Donald Trump and toxic masculinity. Enough has gone on in the last five or six years that you really shouldn’t be stuck for material. We both love this album, which is a great position to be in for both of us, ’cause that usually doesn’t happen. This is probably the first album since The Hurting where we’re both like, ‘Yep, this is great, thank you. ‘”
As The Tipping Point rolls out — preceded by three singles and videos — Tears For Fears is looking forward to returning to the road. The group begins a U.S. amphitheater tour on May 20 in Cincinnati, with U.K. dates during July and other territories planned for later. “These are gonna be cracking songs live,” Orzabal predicts. “Over the years we’ve become a very good live act, indeed…but we got to a point where it really had become a greatest hits show. I’m already intending to star with ‘The Tipping Point’ on the live show, and then for other tracks we’re spoilt for choice. So I’m excited.”
Will that translate to more writing and another new album before another 17 and a half years go by? “We have no idea,” Smith says. “We do get asked this, and the reason we have no idea is because during various stages of our career, there was always a plan — ‘OK, we do this and then we make another album and we go on tour with that album and then we make another album…’ Those plans a lot of the time fall flat on their face.
“I certainly don’t want to go through what we went through prior to making this album, which is doing it for the sake of doing it and as something you’re supposed to do, and not for the right reasons. So if we’re of the same frame of mind, say, next year, after we’ve toured a bunch, and we feel like we have something more to say, then we’ll do it. But that’s what it will take.”