The triumph of The Tipping Point, Tears for Fears’ first studio album in 18 years (or 17 if you take a Euro-centric approach to when Everybody Loves a Happy Ending was released), is that it sounds like a band with something to say. All too often, artists that have had an extended creative hiatus return with material that amounts to little more than an attempt to capture past glories, to write in the style of the band they were/think they were. This is the sort of accusation that you can level at Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith for the singles they released a few years back, and in recent interviews they’ve admitted to feeling obliged then to write songs with echoes of their back catalogue in a manner that felt contrived to them.
The Tipping Point has taken five years to get right after numerous aborted sessions, a walk out by Smith over the direction the record was taking, huge amounts of material being scrapped, along with personal tragedy for Orzabal with the death in 2017 of his wife, Caroline. That The Tipping Point is brimming with energy, pathos, and on-point political sentiment is exactly why the record should exist – it feels like it needed to be made.
With its acoustic guitar and Americana folk style opening, “No Small Thing” feels like an odd way to open proceedings. It’s an understated beginning, but as the track builds towards its slowly winding anthemic chorus you appreciate that this is a statement of intent, and a confident one to boot. The on-going and heartbreaking events in Ukraine make the song’s vocal refrain of “’Cos freedom is no small thing” even more poignant than it would have been when it was written. The title track follows, meandering towards its first verse, perhaps as a rebuttal to the listener wanting the instant hook of another “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” or “Head Over Heels” (which is their best song by an absolute mile, by the way). The first two tracks are enough to convince that there is still a huge amount of energy left in this band, and a desire to push their sounds in varying directions.
“Rivers of Mercy” is a lushly produced and superbly performed album highlight. The sense of loss is most strongly felt in the lyric “I too often see the world through a veil of tears”, that sense that everything continues as normal while your perception of the whole world is skewed, perhaps altered forever after the loss of a loved one. The wilting vocal delivery adds an obvious sense of pensive grief, those moments of acceptance and quiet defeat that are left after the tidal waves of grief (anger, disbelief etc.) have had their way with you. There’s a choir to add a spiritual element to the track, and it’s the restraint of the use of the voices here that stops the tracks falling into mawkish melodrama. It’s understated rather than derivative or manipulatively seeking sympathy. Then they hit you with “Please Be Happy”, the song that most obviously addresses Caroline, Orzabal’s wife who died after an extended bout of alcoholism and mental ill health. It’s a double whammy of emotion, and if these don’t hit you in the feels then it’s maybe best to check your pulse.
“Master Plan” has a similar theme to “The Working Hour” from 1985’s masterpiece Songs from the Big Chair. It’s a critique of their management, and the music industry in general, with a Beatles-esque melody pattern which acts as a slight nod towards their own track “Sowing the Seeds of Love” – there’s a lot going on beneath the glossy surface across this record, such are the depths of writing that Smith and Orzabal play with. Thematic similarities are also evident on “Break the Man” which once again highlights the duo’s feminist impulse that was previously best illustrated on their duet with Oleta Adams, “Woman in Chains”. “Break the Man” isn’t a plea to dismantle the patriarchy, rather it’s an ode about a strong woman who showed the capacity to do just that. The hook of “She’s the fire and the fallout / She reminds you of the things we never talk about” weaves its merry way over a polished production that adds to the juxtaposition rather than submerge it. It’s one of those songs that Tears for Fears do so well – bouncy, light in musical tone, but deep in lyrical meaning and nuance. I mean, c’mon, this is the band that wrote “Mad World” and recorded it as a Gary Numan-lite synth pop banger. With those lyrics! Brilliant.
The album’s 10 tracks have a natural flow, culminating in Curt Smith’s simple “Stay”, which was written around the time he was just about to throw in the towel and walk away from it all. It’s a simple acoustic guitar and voice song, but the reverb-drenched production, coupled with the falsetto performance, add an ethereal quality that’s unusual for Tears for Fears. Smith’s lyric of “It’s all or nothing” is as heartfelt as anything on the record, such is his love for his craft of writing songs as a member of Tears for Fears. A great way to end the album, and a real mission statement of how the band value these songs.
Anthemic, emotional, powerful – The Tipping Point is a very good record. It has some negatives, though. “Long, Long, Long Time” is the sort of aimless waffle that Chris Martin has made a career out of selling to hapless idiots for far too long. Lyrically weak and somewhat musically naïve, the track is the only real blemish on the album in terms of the writing. It makes you pine for the days when Tears for Fears would ape Robert Wyatt (the gorgeous “I Believe”) rather than bloody Coldplay. Some tracks are perhaps a little too polished, too – taking the radio friendly gleam factor down a notch or two may have allowed for the rawness of the emotions to be more to the fore, more visceral and exposed. But I’ll forgive them these issues for now.