It’s possible, even likely, that Tears For Fears’ music has been played at every single ’80s theme night since it became popular to pay tribute to the decade of glossy pop bombast, teenage comedies and spiked hair. Their 1985 multi-platinum smash Songs from the Big Chair cemented hits like “Shout,” “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” and “Head Over Heels” as timeless radio staples. As anyone who’s ever attended one of those theme nights can tell you, we tend to look back on the ’80s through a lens of warm affection that inadvertently lumps all the era’s aesthetics into one giant ball of kitsch—which means that Big Chair’s cavernous, reverb-coated ambience (and the accompanying cringeworthy haircuts)—will always be unfairly synonymous with that kitsch.
When co-founders Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith re-convened in 1986 to begin work on a follow-up, they did so as superstars who, in Orzabal’s words at the time “wanted to come back down to earth.” Meanwhile, they were both keen to explore a more organic approach to song construction. Like so many hitmakers of the day—Duran Duran, The Fixx, The Police, The Cars, The Cure, etc.—Tears For Fears helped cement the role of synthesizers in pop music, without diminishing the guitar. But, as integral as the synths were, the quirks in the band’s writing style also propelled its rise to the top of the charts.
On Songs from the Big Chair, those quirks were largely masked by a natural instinct for hooks shared by Orzabal and then-keyboardist Ian Stanley. With The Seeds of Love, which now gets its own “super deluxe” edition for the first time, the band scrubbed away at its polished, somewhat mechanized sheen to let the quirks take the foreground.
This transition is actually captured on opening track “Woman in Chains,” which at first appears to head down the same electro-pop path as before. It begins with electronic drums clapping against a bass figure that mimics a loop. The drums’ echo feels contained, artificial and cold. When flute-like keyboard lines, rippling guitar chords and various shades of hand percussion all emerge in succession, it’s like watching time-lapse footage of flower buds gradually emerge from soil—living, breathing sounds taking over a barren space like vines. The change, though subtle, marks the first of many indications that Tears For Fears were once again about to significantly expand their sound, much in the same way that Big Chair marked a decisive leap from the band’s 1983 debut The Hurting.
“Woman in Chains,” an unlikely top-40 hit, is followed by “Badman’s Song,” the album’s most epic track and arguably its centerpiece. It’s a jammy gospel-tinged jazz-pop hybrid that’s crammed with more dynamic peaks and valleys than the band had ever attempted prior. The product of Orzabal’s jam sessions with a crack group of A-list session players, including drummer Manu Katché and bassist Pino Palladino, “Badman’s Song” documents Tears For Fears swelling into something resembling a big band. There are stretches where it seems like all the musicians on “Badman’s Song” all blare at once, each playing the busiest parts they could imagine. That said, the tune stands out most for its poise. Orzabal leads as if piloting a powerful airplane, cutting the engine to perform breathtaking maneuvers where the vehicle appears weightless. In new, detail-crammed liner notes assembled as an oral history for this reissue, Orzabal looks back almost in disbelief at the audacity it took to follow a 10-million seller with this pair of songs.
Truth be told, The Seeds of Love does take some work to get through from start to finish, but it also retains the essence of the band’s sound, even as they stretch past their limits. Once again, Orzabal and Smith’s vocals mesh into thick, resounding harmonies—Orzabal’s voice wide and rich like a dark burgundy wine, Smith’s light and airy like cloud vapor distilled into melody. And, though the music steers clear of the strong, pulsing grooves that defined previous efforts, The Seeds of Love nevertheless betrays the band’s pop instincts.
By the late ’80s, artists like Sting, Sade, Paul Simon, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Terence Trent D’Arby, Simple Minds and others were blazing trails into deeply progressive realms of pop. Tears For Fears managed to do the same, touching on jazz and “worldbeat” stylings, only more discreetly, without getting mired in pretense. In the liners, Big Chair producer Chris Hughes, who came onboard for Seeds of Love and left the project multiple times, talks about turning Orzabal onto bands like Little Feet and Steely Dan, the latter having a decade earlier contributed some of the most paradoxically complex yet catchy tunes the pop canon has ever seen.
Orzabal borrows from Steely Dan’s “Aja” when “Advice for the Young at Heart” switches to an unexpected, ambiguous jazz chord. Likewise, the soulful backing vocals on the ozone-light “Standing on the Corner of the Third World” echo the Dan’s “Babylon Sisters.” “Third World” again features Katché and Palladino, along with ambient jazz luminary Jon Hassell on trumpet. All of these players leave indelible marks on the music, including none other than Phil Collins, who plays on the second half of “Woman in Chains” and who, according to Orzabal, hilariously refused to play in “that big Phil Collins style” à la his mega-hit “In the Air Tonight.” The band even tried to bring Tom Waits in for a guest appearance. Alas, Waits refused, but it’s not like Seeds of Love needed any more personality.
Pianist/vocalists Nicky Holland and Oletta Adams in particular steal the show here. Holland, the less visible of the two, co-wrote five of the album’s eight songs and was integral in the early stages of the process, when she and Orzabal tried new ideas at soundchecks while touring Big Chair, later workshopping material as a duo. Without Holland and Adams, The Seeds of Love simply wouldn’t be what it is, as their fingerprints are all over the music in obvious ways as well as those that require multiple listens and a close read of the credits to appreciate—which pretty much goes for the album as a whole. Even at its most accessible, such as on the jangly “I Am the Walrus”-copping title track “Sowing the Seeds of Love” (which reached just shy of #1 on the American charts) the album introduces a slew of unfamiliar flavors to the pop lexicon, pre-saging the experimentalist daring that would define the impending ’90s.
The Seeds of Love took more than three years to make and required several clusters of writing and recording sessions helmed by a rotating cast of producers with various creative teams often going around in circles. Label executive David Bates, for example, rejected the band’s first mix of the title track, ordering them to keep mixing, which resulted in six (!) more months in the studio to get the mix right. Bates then chose an earlier mix already in his possession which turned out to be the original one the band had given him. Smith recalls leaving Orzabal in the studio to work on drum edits for another song, returning about two weeks later to find him working on the same drum edits.
Reading about these various bumps in the road, it’s no wonder that this album broke the relationship between Orzabal and Smith, which had been straining under the weight of the former’s increasingly dominant role. But that dynamic also contributes, in its own way, to the album’s overall mood. The annals of pop are littered with creative triumphs that had a difficult birth. As one of them, The Seeds of Love stands as a testament to making music on one’s own terms. It remains as enticing—and challenging—today as the day it was released.
Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a longtime contributor at Paste. You can find him on Twitter Twitter.