IT'S SUGGESTED to Roland Orzabal that the new Tears for Fears album reuniting him and partner Curt Smith after a 15-year split -- a decade of which they spent not talking to each other -- could have played off the title of their 1983 debut, "The Hurting."
" 'The Healing?' "
Orzabal lets out a laugh.
"If that were only true, we could have, yeah," he responds.
Instead, the new Tears for Fears album is titled "Everybody Loves a Happy Ending," a tongue-in-cheek play off one of their biggest hits, "Everybody Wants to Rule the World." Which, of course, the duo did for much of the '80s before the unhappy ending after Smith's departure in 1990. Orzabal didn't call it Tear for Fear, but he kept the band name alive in the '90s via two albums and two world tours before finally pulling the plug in 1996.
Orzabal and Smith, who both released solo albums, might not have communicated at all were it not for the business attending their Tears for Fears legacy -- best-ofs, continuing royalties, leasing songs to soundtracks, etc. When they did talk, it tended to be over the phone, through lawyers, or through common friends in their home town of Bath in England.
"We were leading pretty open lives, without much stress and a lot of comfort," Orzabal recalls. "Yet there was always this guy in your background who was like a bogeyman, someone that you don't really talk about, someone that you try to avoid, and that's not a very healthy thing."
Three years ago, they began to socialize again when Smith, who'd relocated to the United States in 1990, was visiting his family in Bath. By then, enough time had apparently passed to heal old animosities. And as talk turned to music, it inspired some tentative collaboration, with each critiquing, then augmenting the other's new songs, almost casually ending what Smith once described as "the longest sulk in history."
"A lot of that was, I think, a desire for reconciliation," says Orzabal of the patch-up, "and also a test to see how much we'd really grown up, to see whether we would revert back to moody teenagers."
Orzabal and Smith, both born in 1961, had met at the start of moody teendom, as 13-year-old schoolmates. Within a few years, they'd joined their first band: Graduate, ska revivalists who had a minor hit in the late '70s with "Elvis Should Play Ska" (it was the height of the ska revival in England).
In 1981, they decided to form their own band, wisely changing the original name, History of Headaches, to Tears for Fears. The new name came from a chapter heading in psychotherapist Arthur Janov's primal scream text "Prisoners of Pain," which counseled confronting fears to eliminate them. Orzabal had turned Smith on to Janov's book, and it would provide a psychological underpinning to much of the duo's early music, notably the chart-topping "Shout," where they counseled letting it all out.
The '80s were good to them. They followed their debut with 1985's sextuple platinum "Songs From the Big Chair" (with No. 1 worldwide hit "Everybody Wants to Rule the World") and 1989's Beatlesque "Seeds of Love." But what was being sown in the latter part of the decade was not love, but rancor and distrust. As so often happens in successful partnerships, differences in personalities and approaches to the work made it difficult to continue. For one thing, Orzabal was known as an obsessive perfectionist in the studio (production costs for "Seeds of Love" were reportedly more than $1 million).
"You can have certain artists who don't know a lot about arranging and production, and therefore they will rely on the producer," he responds. "I know a lot about it. I know how to get things. . . . My drive to create something magical is really evident on the song 'Woman in Chains' from 'Seeds of Love.' If I have to be obsessive to get something to sound that good, then I will be. Curt's not into that."
By the time Orzabal got to 1993's "Elemental" and 1995's "Raoul and the Kings of Spain," Smith wasn't into Tears for Fears, period.
"The relationship between me and Curt was almost nonexistent," Orzabal admits. "Curt was singing less and less songs, and that was part of the problem. He sang four songs on the first album, two on the second, one on the third, so it was moving in that direction anyway. But the record company wanted me to carry on, they wanted to make [continuing to record as Tears for Fears] part of the deal."
Smith made his solo debut in 1993 with "Soul on Board," and followed up in 1996 with a band project, Mayfield; Orzabal's first effort under his own name, "Tomcats Screaming Outside," had the misfortune to be released on 9/11. But by then, doors once slammed shut seemed to be opening, albeit slowly.
"The tricky thing was when we were being successful, we both wanted different things, and we were operating as individuals within a collective setup," Orzabal explains. "That's why when we decided to make another record, it wasn't going to be like the past, where I would bring in most of the songs; we actually sat around together, forming kind of new energies, really.
"It was very tentative at first," he says. "I was trying to get away from orthodox songwriting, doing trip-hop and drum'n'bass -- you can hear it on my solo album and an album I produced for a girl named Emiliana Torrini. Curt and Charlton [Pettus, Smith's partner in Mayfield] were still hooked on very traditional songwriting, based on the guitar or piano, four or five chords. So it was, well, exactly what are we going to do, because I hadn't really written like that in years.
"But they won, I suppose. We sat around and something came along, 'The Closest Thing to Heaven,' and I thought, well, this is different and a bit retro."
In fact, much of "Happy Ending" has a rich retro feel, though more from the chamber-rock "Seeds of Love" era than the band's new wave/synth pop origins. Standout tracks include the aforementioned "Closest Thing to Heaven," "Secret World," the gorgeously melancholy "Who You Are" and "Who Killed Tangerine?," with its insistent chorus, "When you think it's all over / It's not over, it's not over."
For proof of that, just look at the weird afterlife of a song Orzabal wrote when he was 19. "Mad World" was one of the first Tears for Fears singles, and though it did well in England (reaching No. 3), it didn't chart at all in America. Cue to 20 years later when writer-director Richard Kelly commissioned Los Angeles singer Gary Jules to create a new version of the song for Kelly's debut feature, "Donnie Darko." Working with film composer Michael Andrews, Jules recast the synth pop original as an exquisitely melancholy piano and cello plaint. Its chorus -- "the dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had" -- captured the adolescent ennui central to "Donnie Darko," about a disturbed teenager convinced the world is about to end in the midst of the 1988 presidential election. The film's original release did little business, but the film reappeared on the art house circuit and gradually turned into a cult hit (a director's cut DVD was recently released).
The Jules version of "Mad World," used in a pivotal sequence in the film, began to garner airplay and proved a classic sleeper as well. Recorded in 90 minutes for $50 in Andrews's basement studio, last December it became only the sixth track by an American artist in more than 30 years to top the British pop chart during the highly competitive Christmas week. Its success also brought Tears for Fears' "Tears Roll Down (Greatest Hits 82-92)" back into the Top 10 a decade after its release.
Orzabal, noting that he and Smith had finished their new album in September 2003, suggests the song's perspective -- looking out at a mad world from the eyes of a teenager -- is quite common.
"I wasn't working when I wrote it," he explains. He and Smith "had this apartment, which my mum helped us get, 14 pounds a week, right in the center of Bath above a pizza joint, and I used to sit by the window and watch people walk by. I think it's a common sentiment when you're not working, and don't particularly want to work, and you see people having to work as being a rather sad thing."
The Jules version, Orzabal says, was "miraculous. It was a song that I had pretty much dismissed. I hadn't performed it live throughout the '90s. I loved the way we did it, but recently in rehearsals we tried to do it in the way we had recorded it and it just didn't feel right at all. We're now playing yet another version of 'Mad World.' Gary Jules and Michael Andrews have shown how beautiful the song is, and they showed me that. It was shocking, really."
Meanwhile, the reunion seems to be going well.
"So far I would say the least of our problems is how we relate to each other, and I'm guessing that it will remain that way throughout the promotion of this album," says Orzabal, recalling what he said to Smith "when we were talking about it potentially happening. I said, 'Look, if there can be peace in Northern Ireland, don't you feel that we can probably make this work?' "
In any event, "if you're not more philosophical at age 40 than you are when you're 18, there's something wrong. One thing about growing up, having kids and all that kind of stuff, a fuzzy warmth does appear," Orzabal adds, though he also cautions that the reunion and the happy ending may not be permanent.
"I've been coming up with loads and loads of songs and there were loads and loads of songs we didn't do as well, but to be honest with you, this album would have to be pretty damn successful to warrant us doing another one."
TEARS FOR FEARS -- Appearing Tuesday with Dirty Vegas at Lisner Auditorium. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Tears for Fears, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8121. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)