Review Summary: Find out what this fear is about.
I hate that album cover. It suggests a sort of introspective quietude by two men with very dated hair who claim to have found the big truths to life from the condescending position of some metaphorical big chair. Of course, none of this (aside from these guys having dated hair) is correct at all. Songs From the Big Chair is a big and colorful album matched by big production and big hooks steeped in a sentiment of insecurity and fear. It would be a case where I would bring out the idiom “Don’t judge a book/album by its cover,” but it’s clear that the advice has already been taken. Songs from the Big Chair was a massive success in 1985, sporting a flurry of chart-topping singles and sales of many millions to its credit. It’s an instance where popularity was backed by great content.
The big selling point of Tears for Fears in their early albums is the expert pop songcraft, and none of that is lost here. However, as is the case on many sophomore albums by successful artists, Roland Orzabal, Curt Smith, and co. expand their sound. The songs here are much bigger in magnitude and longer than those on their fantastic debut The Hurting which mixed its confessional, personal lyrics with a smaller but still dynamic atmosphere. On this release, Orzabal and Smith spend less time looking inward, opting to broaden their vision, and it shows in the music. Shout serves as the perfect opener for the band’s second album, not only because it aesthetically fits the role with its rousing anthemics, but also because thematically, it demonstrates clearly a transitional step from the previous album. It features sentiments that would have fit perfectly on The Hurting, unloading mounds of emotional baggage pent up from adolescent angst pointing fingers at misunderstanding parents and authority, but these lyrics are filtered through a new lens suitable for Shout’s stadium-ready design. Orzabal invokes a communal frustration and directly urges you
and everyone to “Shout it all out”. Songs from the Big Chair introduces Tears For Fears’s interpretation of the Arthur Janov’s primal scream ideology to a more extroverted sound and comes off as less of an exorcising of personal demons and more of a confrontation with the world at large.
The new magnanimity comes full force on Mothers Talk, the most rambunctious song here. Full of big, jerky beats coming from everywhere, it somehow manages to mix disparate themes of nuclear war paranoia and traumatizing superstitions passed on by mothers. Like the topic, the song itself is perhaps too formless and jagged for its own good, but elsewhere, free-flowing songs like Listen and The Working Hour leave big impressions. Listen is about as “experimental” as Tears For Fears got as it’s basically a soothing seven-minute, keyboard--led soundscape with sparse lyrics thrown in that once again seem to reference the Cold War. While Listen revels in being subdued, The Working Hour is a busy, emotionally charged song with the best vocal performance Roland Orzabal ever put to tape. To top it off, the song is flanked by a couple of beautiful saxophone solos which add a luscious feel to the song’s rolling, propulsive rhythms. I’m going to step away from feigning objectivity as a reviewer and assert that this song is one of my personal favorites and certainly Tears For Fears at their finest.
Regardless of what I think, you can make judgments for yourself on Everybody Wants to Rule the World and Head Over Heels. Chances are you’ve already heard both of these songs, in some form, so there’s no need to mention how great they are or how huge and inviting the hook on Head Over Heels is. Both songs are surrounded by great material. The album as a whole moves very well with only eight songs, all of which are memorable, distinctive, and huge. Unfortunately, Songs from the Big Chair would be the last release from the band before they fell into bloated mediocrity. Still, it’s a tremendously enjoyable and well-crafted album packed full of gems, and it’s a delightful and essential listen for anyone interested in 80s pop and new wave.