No matter who we are in this absurd, brief, and messy life we can all lay claim to a peak, a shining moment where we were the best we could be, where all the stars aligned and we freakin’ delivered the goods.
Welcome to “That’s Their Pet Sounds” our semi-regular feature where we endeavor to spotlight and celebrate a heretofore maybe uncool, often unjustifiably underrated, sometimes polarizing, not as acclaimed as they should be, or “what the hell?” artist’s grandest artistic achievement i.e. their greatest album.
*”That’s Their Pet Sounds”is named after the Beach Boys landmark 1966 LP which is universally regarded as one of the greatest albums ever made but yeah, you probably knew that.
And now please join us on a trip over the top…
Tears For Fears BEST ALBUM : Seeds of Love (1989)
Background: The general consensus is that Tears For Fears 1985 album Songs from the Big Chair is their magnum opus. That it is The One. It remains the duo’s best-selling album by far (multi-platinum) and is filled end to end with clean, angsty, earnest, occasionally pretentious but seriously wonderful pop music. Over the past 10 years or so, even the most hardened critics have had to come clean about it’s undeniable and considerable charms. It now appears on every single “Best Albums of the 80’s” list without fail. There it eternally sits in all it’s radio-friendly, big chorused glory, the existentially tortured, two-headed pop turtle amongst your Sonic Youths, Smiths and Public Enemies. Now while the deep cuts on this thing are pretty great ( yeah “The Working Hour”, I’m talking about you) if we’re being truthful, the heart clutching love people have for Big Chair is primarily related to it’s triumvirate of enormously popular and memorable megahit singles. Let’s rank them in order of wonderfulness :
1.“Head Over Heels” which consists of unrequited love, familial disappointment and a pretty glorious hook. Also, bonus points, it’s video takes place in a library, the architectural equivalent of a secret crush. We, all of us will probably be swooning along to this thing forever. 10/10.
2.“Everybody Wants To Rule the World”: The best 80’s pop song that was partially inspired by the Cold War, easily crushing it’s 2 chief high profile competitors in that category: “Two Tribes” by Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Sting’s “Russians” the latter of which we’re not even going to discuss because I just freakin’ can’t. The chorus and intro get all the glory in “Everybody…” but the real heroes here, the heavy lifters and secret genius’s within it, are the sunshine strewn, singalong guitar solo, and the clever little vocal embellishment by Tears man Curt Smith immediately following it: “Say that you’ll nevernevernevernever need it”. Also remains pretty glorious.
3.“Shout”: And now the party is over. This bitter chant was a massive hit but okay, I’ve never liked it. Yes, it is undeniably memorable in that insidious, easy to sing along to the chorus way but it’s also an interminable dirge: it’s missing the unspeakably wonderful melodicism that is not only showcased in the 2 aforementioned tracks but in the album’s handsome deep cuts as well.
That aside, make no mistake, Big Chair is a very good record…but it isn’t Tears For Fears greatest artistic achievement.
No, to experience Tears for Fears at their maximum Tears for Fear-edness, behaving in the most Tears For Fears manner possible, we need to turn an ear to Big Chair’s spoiled and overfed younger sibling, 1989’s Seeds of Love. It’s full of over the top windswept melodicism and cryptic weirdness. It’s scope and overall sound have an underlying unity which is to say Seeds sounds like one big fat song as opposed to 8 smaller ones. It comes across as a singular emotional vision. It’s bigger than Big Chair, way, way bigger.
Why it’s their Pet Sounds: Basically Seeds of Love is the Good Morning Burger in the form of an album. It is made entirely of musical carbohydrates. It is bloated, garish and grandiose. It is pompous and overwrought. It’s also Tears men Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith at their most adventurous and playful, more so then they had been up to that point and have ever been since. It is also positively filled with estrogen. As in 5 of the 8 songs were co-written by singer-pianist Nicky Holland. As in Oleta Adams ridiculously soulful vocalizing is prominently featured on several key tracks including the behemoth “Woman in Chains”. As in that very song is about toxic masculinity. Seeds is fueled by Girl Power.
This album had an extremely difficult birth, taking roughly 3 years and millions of dollars/pounds to complete to everyone’s satisfaction ( namely Roland and Curt). Those years saw key Tears stalwarts Ian Stanley ( keyboardist & co-writer) and Chris Hughes ( producer & co-writer) both leave the fold due to that dusty old classic, creative differences, as well as the scrapping of all the initial album recordings that had been done by the legendary UK production team of Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley. This ultimately led to the guys taking on the production themselves assisted by engineer David Bascombe. It was a bumpy road.
And, unsurprisingly, Roland and Curt themselves were starting to really get under each other’s skin, ultimately resulting in the latter’s quitting the band in 1991 after the tour in support of the album. This departure was followed by some genuine Mean Girls style retribution wherein both Roland and Curt released nasty songs describing each others shortcomings on their first solo releases after Seeds: “Fish Out of Water” where Roland talks shit about Curt ( “the only thing you ever made was that tanned look on your face”), and “Sun King” where Curt talks shit about Roland (“boy you looked so bad”). Burn baby burn.
And so Seeds was born under duress.
As for the contents of the album itself, this is one of those cases where you can actually judge a book by it’s cover, which looks like a Sgt.Pepper album and a Metropolitan Museum of Art Calendar that have melted together in the sun i.e. it sounds exactly like it looks. It’s completely flooded with color, and there are no empty spaces. Tears had never exuded light-heartedness or humor prior to this album, and the subject matter in the Seeds songs hold to that standard. What you get are mostly despair songs as opposed to love songs…but the despair is about the state of the world, not another singular person. It’s full of fun stuff like political hypocrisy, inter-band hatred, and the impending apocalypse. Honestly, it’s kind of angry but it hasn’t given up, it desperately wants things to get better. It’s some Everest, epic and majestically beautiful pop music and even though it’s about that dry, dense real world stuff and not I love you baby, it’s still extraordinarily romantic.
“I Love a Sunflowuhhhhh”…
The Songs: This album is officially 8 tracks long. When it was released back in 1989 that was it. 8 tracks. If you go to Spotify or iTunes now, you are presented with the expanded version which features 4 additional tracks, former b-sides and what not. Here’s the deal, while these bonus tracks are okay, they are not part of the original album release…and so you should ignore them. We’re excommunicating them from the listening experience here. With that in mind I’m now gonna get all Dark Side of the Moon on you : in order to really experience Seeds properly, the album needs to be listened to in sequence . It’s a suite, a body, all the songs feel connected and meld into each other…and, okay, you may want to sit down, I’m going to use the P word: it is a little bit Prog. But with a small p. This isn’t Yes or Rush, don’t get scared. This has soul, big fat soul. And as stated earlier, it’s also somewhat…excessive. This record is just excessive. Just like this piece you’re reading now. The average running time for each song is 6 freakin’ minutes. It is full and I do mean FULL of horns, strings and piles of backing vocals. The whole thing is as a slick as an oil filled rain puddle. There are no sharp edges in here. And oh yes, Phil Collins makes an appearance playing his GIANT GUEST DRUMS. I know, it sounds like the very definition of “Eighties “. But wait, it is also full of absolutely transcendent hooks. Like in every song. And though it doesn’t get talked about much when we talk about Tears, Roland Orzabel possesses one incredibly soulful whine of a voice ( that’s a compliment I swear) and can swoop from the depths of the ocean to the most manic falsetto in mere milliseconds and sound pretty fantastic. And co/backing vocalist Oleta Adams’ stunning supporting voice pulls him so far up throughout the album and is so in sync with his, that half the time it’s impossible to tell where he ends and she begins. For years I confused who was singing what in certain songs, so similar in timbre were the two. And so, the songs…
“Woman in Chains”: The band first encountered Oleta Adams whilst she was performing in a hotel bar in Kansas City back in 1985 while they were on tour, and oh lord, if you’re going to unexpectedly discover a singer in a Kansas City bar, you couldn’t haven’t been more fortunate and blessed than to stumble upon freakin’ Oleta Adams, and her soaring, heavenly voice. “Woman” is one of the the album’s signature songs and is, in a nutshell, about man’s commitment to overtly masculine behavior and how heinous it is…but it is not a clinical presentation or scholarly dissertation, it is a total power ballad duet. Like freakin’ “Almost Paradise” by Ann Wilson and Mike Reno, the gigantic love blob from “Footloose” that put the O in Overwrought , only “Woman In…” is about ingrained misogyny, because you know, this is Tears For Fears we are talking about here. Widescreen and beautiful.
As mentioned earlier there was some serious band discord happening through Seeds birthing process. “Bad Man’s Song” is about that very thing. Roland is the real life Bad Man in question and describes a scene that took place on the bands Big Chair tour wherein he heard the band talking about what a tyrant/asshole he was through a hotel wall. The vocal interplay between he and Oleta A. is exceptional here, and this incredulous, but accepting acknowledgement of bad behavior has got soul, soul, soul.
“Sowing the Seeds of Love” was the first single released off the album and is, for all intents and purposes, The Beatles’s timeless pop chant “I Am the Walrus” with a chorus that sounds like sunshine replacing the original one that sounds like rain. It is bitter and fun at the same time, calling out Margaret Thatcher’s infamously cruel reign and using Paul Weller’s musical transition from The Jam (where he was the rebellious mod man of the streets) to The Style Council (where he was a complacent coffee bar soundtrack provider) as a metaphor to drive the point home. It’s also one of Roland Orzabal’s finest vocal performances featuring all kinds of quirky note stretching and emotional word spitting. While we’re here I would like to state, politics aside, I think Style Council were better than the Jam. More tunes, more romance and yeah, I know you don’t agree and please leave me alone on this because I can’t help it.
“Advice For The Young at Heart”: “Everybody Wants to Rule’s” older, more mature sibling, “Advice” positively shimmers while emitting the sweetest light on the whole album, both airy, and wistful. It’s also the only song to feature a Curt Smith lead vocal (uh oh).
The next 4 songs feel connected in sound and scope and are Seeds secret foundation. They are what makes this thing truly great. Starting with “Standing On The Corner Of The Third World”, the Tears version of a quiet/loud song. No, that does not mean it sounds like the Pixies ( thank God). It sneaks in delicately, then gets all in your face loud, with big horns, and assertive backing vocals…but it’s all kind of sad. It’s somewhat convoluted and cryptic lyrically but seems to be talking about hiding all your bad thoughts or things you don’t want to admit to or show and using the now dated term “third world” as a metaphor for that place you hide them because, big picture, it represents a place people try to deny and forget. At least that’s what I think it’s about. This lyrical interpretation thing is always a losing game. Which leads us into… the plush and windy “Swords and Knives” which starts at birth and walks headlong into death as embodied by…“Year Of The Knife”. Is this song about regret and denial ? Is it a deathbed scene between father and son? I have absolutely no idea. All I can tell you is it’s a gigantic heartbreak locomotive and features some pretty fabulous screeching ( no, seriously) from Roland…once this ends we survey the countryside from the mountaintop as the closing ballad wafts in over the credits, that being…
“Famous Last Words”, Tears’ version of a love song. Which means it is about embracing one other in the face of a pending nuclear apocalypse wherein all that will be left is “insects and grass” all the while “listening to the bands that made us cry” which while completely fatalistic is undeniably romantic .
In Conclusion: Despite being platinum, this record remains a bit of a sleeper. You don’t hear it mentioned too often these days, if at all. Which is a pity because it’s the finest thing this band ever did ( high praise because they did some seriously fine things especially on their first 2 album releases). It’s cynical, anxious and confused by the world but is all hope and love at it’s core. And it still sounds as melodically magnificent as the day it was born. Oh Seeds, you’re so pretty when you’re angry. Don’t ever change.
Hear it here: