With only one album to their credit, The Postal Service have become current indie darlings--near-superstars in certain circles. That album, 2003's Give Up, is a winning combination of glorious pop hooks and vocals as warm as the bed you just got out of, transposed against a much colder electronic backdrop. When people play spot-the-influences with their music, groups such as Depeche Mode and Erasure are often bandied about, but in reality, the music of The Postal Service owes much more to the oft-overlooked British duo Tears for Fears' first album, The Hurting.
Perhaps it's because The Hurting went largely unheard in this country when it was released, or maybe because Tears for Fears didn't make a career out of that sound, choosing instead to constantly evolve. But with the band's original core members--Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith--reuniting after a nearly 10-year period of estrangement, now seems like as good a time as any for them to finally get their due.
The pair met in their hometown of Bath, England, when they were introduced by a mutual friend at age 13. Orzabal heard Smith singing along with a record and asked him to join his band. Eventually that band, Graduate--named after the coming-of-age film--released an album of ska revival songs, Acting My Age (1980), that included the minor hit "Elvis Should Play Ska." Smith and Orzabal were less than pleased with the results, as Smith recounts: "We played live all the time, and then we went into a studio and just plugged in microphones and did it all live. It was before we realized that that's not how you make records. And then the advent of technology around that time, when we were pissed off with being outvoted by three other guys who didn't write any of the stuff ... technology meant you could do it yourself. So that's when we started to learn how to record." Thus, Tears for Fears was born.
Released in 1983, The Hurting employed then-new electronics and, due to its subject matter, was a weighty document of those angst-ridden teenage years when one thinks too much about life's big questions. The album's lyric sheet reads like a less-horny, more-academic version of the Violent Femmes' first album.
The duo's follow-up was an enormous progression, both in sound and content. If The Hurting represented a period of psychological torment, Songs From the Big Chair (1985) represented the healing process that follows. Its sound was also bigger and brighter than its predecessor, and with the smash hits "Shout," "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," and "Head Over Heels," it catapulted Tears for Fears into the realm of superstardom.
"It's more outward-looking," acknowledges Smith. "Once we'd become a little more comfortable with ourselves, we were less reticent to be obvious. We had very much shied away from any big guitar or anything that might be obvious; we tried to be abstract and, like I say, introspective and dark. And I think on Songs From the Big Chair, we'd kind of gotten over that. ... We're just not content doing the same thing twice."
Look no further than 1989's The Seeds of Love for proof. On that album, Tears for Fears wholeheartedly embraced live instruments again, and the Beatlesque arrangements and production were markedly more sophisticated than either of their previous albums. "We were trying to become better players and also better producers," Smith says. "We spent a lot more time on the sonics of that record. And it was a weird mixture; I think that Seeds of Love ... was the most incomplete work. ... Apart from 'Sowing the Seeds of Love' and 'Woman in Chains,' which are obvious song-songs, the rest were kind of done in a studio and hacked together. It wasn't a case of writing them and then working them out, it was really more of a musical landscape. The music was of more importance than the song itself."
During that period, there began to be some friction between the band's two primary members, and Smith began to experience the burnout of being a famous pop star. It certainly didn't help that he was in the process of divorcing his first wife. After the Seeds of Love tour, Smith decided he'd had enough.
"I mean, we'd been playing together since we were 14," he says, "so we'd been playing together for half our lives at that point in time. And I left. For me personally, I really wasn't comfortable with the fame aspect of it, of being recognized all the time. And I don't think either of us were comfortable with being 'that guy'--you're always 'that guy.' 'Aren't you that guy from Tears for Fears?' You're never an individual. I find that all kind of weird."
Orzabal remained in Bath and soldiered on in a Smith-less Tears for Fears, releasing two lackluster albums along the way, while Smith was content to start a new life in New York. (He now lives in L.A. with his wife and two children.) He says that he didn't resent Orzabal carrying on without him, and that he's glad he made the decision to walk away when he did: "I think the nice thing about the fame we achieved, on an emotional level, is that it is absolutely impossible for me to equate fame with happiness, or money with happiness. ... So I think the fact that I realized that and got the hell out was a very healthy thing."
With their business dealings being handled via lawyers and accountants, the pair didn't speak for nearly 10 years--ironic, when you consider how many of their song lyrics were based on psychological healing. "Unfortunately, that's the way we are," says Smith. "I mean, as you get older, you realize it's kind of hard to change people's personalities to a certain degree. You can become calmer within yourself, but the unfortunate thing about myself and Roland is that we've known each other since we were 13, and to rile each other, or get on each other's nerves, we become 13 year-olds. We can go back there with each other, and so, consequently, we end up sulking. We become petulant teenagers."
It was Smith who finally took the first step in getting back in touch with his old mate. "There was one point that we had to sign off on some paperwork. And it just got to the point that it was stupid that we had to keep paying lawyers (laughs), to be the go-between. And the paperwork got faxed through to me, and it had Roland's fax number on it, and I didn't know where he lived or what his phone number was. And so I faxed him and said, 'Why don't we just deal with this ourselves? Here's my phone number.' And so, of course, back to the petulant teenager again, he faxed me back with his phone number (laughs). Like, 'You first.'"
Smith called Orzabal, and the pair began catching up. Smith was going to visit his family in Bath a month later, and he suggested they go out to dinner while he was there. One dinner led to another, and eventually talk turned to music. The two began playing each other songs they had written individually, critiquing each other's work, until they decided to try to write together once again, pressure-free. Writing led to demoing, which led to recording, and by the time they signed a new record contract, they had recorded more than half of an album.
Released in September, the aptly titled Everybody Loves a Happy Ending sounds like a natural progression from where they left off nearly 15 years ago. If The Seeds of Love was their Beatles album, Happy Ending is their Wings album, albeit imbued with shades of sophisticated pop songwriters like Burt Bacharach and Serge Gainsbourg. In short, it sounds like they never took any time off.
"We did it for our own benefit," Smith explains, "to see if there was any kind of spark, if there was what it was that made it sort of special or different to what we did individually. We still don't know what it is, just we now know that there is something."
The band's show in Tucson this week is the final U.S. stop of the tour, with a set of European dates to follow. Whether it's their final U.S. date period remains to be seen.
"We're just dealing with it in the moment. I think this is a far better ending than Seeds of Love was. Whether it's the start of something else, only time will tell."