Deep In The Discography: Elemental by Tears For Fears

What’s the general consensus regarding the two Tears For Fears albums that followed The Seeds of Love? I never see them getting discussed too much. Does a perceived lack of quality have them treated like Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter stories where you can’t even mention their names? Or are they just quietly appreciated by the fan base, but nonetheless neglected like a red-headed stepchild? My only experience with that era of the band thus far is with the 1993 album Elemental. Due to the lack of discussion around that recording, I’ve chosen it to be the subject of the first installment of my Deep In The Discography series that I will use to take a closer look at albums by artists that are either forgotten classics or just plain forgotten but nonetheless worthy of more analysis.

The reason for Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal’s fracturing relationship that resulted in their 1991 split-up seems to stem from a combination of creative differences as well as circumstances surrounding their management. Smith went his own way with a solo album Soul on Board and later in another project called Mayfield in partnership with Charlton Pettus. Orzabal, on the other hand, opted to keep Tears For Fears going. Why did he keep the name? I’m not too sure. Contractual obligations could be a possibility. This is essentially considered to be a Roland Orzabal solo album and looks to practically have been marketed as such. Images of him in various poses are all we see in the packaging, never mind the cover’s photo as well. While other musicians join him in creation of the album, nobody else appears as a Tears For Fears member in the fashion Curt Smith or even to the extent that Songs From The Big Chair-era members (keyboardist Ian Stanley and drummer Manny Elias) would have been.

Tracks on Elemental were largely co-written with Allan Griffiths. Griffiths played in the short-lived post-punk band Apartment and later in new-wave band The Escape prior to becoming a touring musician with Tears For Fear in 1985. The songwriting team of Orzabal and Griffiths were joined by Tim Palmer, whose credits to that stage in his career included mixing Pearl Jam’s Ten and co-producing Robert Plant’s Now and Zen, and all shared the producer’s chair on Elemental. The trio also handled most of the instrumental duties here, but they do get reinforcements on a number of these tracks. The remaining musicians to make appearances are bassist Guy Pratt (best known for working with Pink Floyd) and pianist Mark O’Donoughue (the album’s engineer). John Baker provided backing vocals on a pair of tracks, one of which (“Cold”) also features Roland’s brother Julian Orzabal fulfilling that role. Giving the recording was also accomplished in Roland’s home studio (Neptune’s Kitchen), this close proximity to family must have been a comfort coming off the heals of such a monumental personnel change.

With all due respect to Curt Smith, who I am a definite fan of, I have to admit I always had a preference for Orzabal’s vocals. Leaving out Smith’s voice may seem odd to some, but perhaps since I never grew up on the band I am more forgiving than most. I don’t blame anyone for missing the two-vocal tandem on their albums, which is a large part of what makes them entertaining, but I feel there’s enough to hold the listener’s attention within Elemental where I don’t find myself wondering how different it would sound if both singers co-existed across these songs.

Walking through this track-by-track, I’ll share some of my thoughts. Keep in mind that I really don’t like doing album reviews since I hate being super-critical in any capacity without having the musical chops or writing and recording history to back up my words, so I’ll think of these as impressions. I’ve avoided reading other critiques so I can have more honest reactions.

“Elemental”

The title-track is a well-orchestrated opener, and contains a bit more tonal variety in terms of the instruments than what I’m accustomed to hearing from the band. Rhythmically it has a different feel as well, but we get Roland’s powerful vocals to ground it into familiar territory. I’m not sure if all the voices are his in the background, but in any case there’s an intriguing array of vocals here. The chorus stuck with me from the first listen, though musically there wasn’t much of a shift between different sections.

“Cold”

I have memories of hearing “Cold” on the radio as a kid, and when I watched the music video after not hearing the song for years, it brought me right back to a typical car ride in which I would have heard the track. The part that jumped out then and still sticks with me is the melody beneath the vocals during the chorus. That’s somewhat surprising because at a younger age I would have been more drawn to the vocals on most music I’d hear. The song feels heavy at moments, almost hard rock instead of pop with the distorted guitar the occasionally rings through and some soaring leads that add colour to the track. The dual vocal lines in the verse work to great effect as well.

“Break It Down Again”

This is the strongest vocal performance on the album at this point, never pushing himself to the extremes of his range or anything, but fits right in that comfortable pocket. It’s a bit more open and sparse musically, tying it more to their ‘80’s sound. I don’t think it would sound out of place next to the Seeds Of Love material. Lots of interesting variations occur in the second half of the track as well.

“Mr. Pessimist”

I didn’t even need to check the liner notes here because the groovy bass line felt like it was a different player, and it is the track Guy Pratt plays on. Not sure if it’s fretless work on this song, but the tone has that vibe in spots with a bit of a reverb effect thrown in. A very laid-back song that makes good use of the studio to fill out the sound. I know for a fact that this wasn’t one of the album’s singles, and it does have that good deep-cut vibe that I like.

“Dog’s A Best Friend’s Dog”

This kicks the energy of the album back upward with riffing that reminds me a little of Def Leppard’s “Rock of Ages” at moments. The lyrics are more on the abstract side, which at least make my ears perk up and wonder what he’s going for. This may be the closest thing to filler due to it feeling more unorthodox and contrasting from the rest of the songs, but I’m still not reaching for the skip button on my CD player.

“Fish Out Of Water”

Another calm number with probably the least amount to hook me in as a listener, but it makes it easier for me to pull an interpretation out of the lyrics. The lyrics seem to be based on the record industry and the fame attached to it. It’s rare for any album to be full of hit-potential, so maybe the subject matter would have thrown that out anyway since it may be harder to market such a tune.

“Gas Giants”

I’d call this the album’s intermission, if that makes any sense. This is the briefest track on the album and with nothing but keyboards and bass seemingly making up the instrumental component. The only words being “Giants on Armistice Day, caught between the rock and the renegade.” I’m thinking that as the vocals take nearly 2 minutes to make an appearance, would this stand as some form of representation of the two minutes of silence normally observed on November 11th? If you add up all the running time both before and after the portion with words, you easily get two minutes. I’ll have to look more deeply into this track as I may just be spouting nonsense here.

“Power”

Yes! Living up to the name, this song built the album back into promising territory for me. Sometimes you don’t need many words to have an effective chorus, and this one keeps it simple.

The track builds as it progresses, the chorus cuts through more with each pass, with my interest growing along with it. The drums really help contribute to boosting the energy, dropping in and out of subtle rhythmic nuances into more muscled approaches. The arpegiatted guitar in the verse is strangely hypnotic, and the soft bluesy lead mid-song in this sticks with me a lot, working well with the established melodic context of the track. More evidence that there is more to an album than its singles.

“Brian Wilson Said”

I’m Canadian, so when I saw the title of this song, my mind immediately went to the Barenaked Ladies song that references the man. This is a much different song than that one. A good piano and keyboard showcase that is as clear-cut a tribute to The Beach Boys’ linchpin as you can get. I don’t have a huge knowledge of Brian Wilson’s, so I can’t really pinpoint what exactly they would be quoting in this song if anything in particular.

“Goodnight Song”

I’d say this is something of a cliché to end on. I can think of songs like The Beatles’ “Good Night”, “The End”, or The Doors’ “The End” as popular examples of those songs too on-the-nose of a signal that the album is wrapping up. Wouldn’t it be bold to instead start an album with a goodbye/farewell/so long track?

Anyway, as much as I’m a critic of the idea of a “Goodnight Song”, I can’t fault the execution. The echoing guitar lead passage beneath the chorus is cool, and it’s a well-crafted tune. It seems to fade out a bit too quickly, which in this case means I wanted to hear more of how this song would play out.

It made somewhat of a dip in the middle of the record, and may not have singles quite as infectious as “Mad World” or “Shout”, but as a whole this feels like a complete album to me and not a hastily-assembled collection of songs. Sequentially, I think they made the right decision on how the songs were presented. The album sounds great sonically, and did well to update their direction without making sacrifices. It sounds like a ‘90’s album without doing the typical “grungefying” of their style and trying to duke it out with the Nirvanas of the world, and can be listened to today without feeling it is too locked into that time period.

Many may not realize this today, but the album had some good success going for it. The album was a gold-seller in at least three different countries (Canada, France, and the United States), Silver in the UK, and the single “Break It Down Again” charted in several markets. The numbers took a step downward when comparing it to the band’s previous albums and singles, so it would have likely been viewed as an upset. Still, from certain perspectives this could be seen as a rather respectable showing considering that the group was essentially cut in half.

While I’m relieved that the disagreements have subsided between Smith and Orzabal and they resumed their musical partnership in 2000, I’ll continue to advocate that you don’t sleep on Tears For Fears’ output from the ‘90’s. If you haven’t listened to Elemental, hesitate no longer!

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