From 'The Hurting' to the healing: How family tragedy inspired Tears for Fears' astounding comeback album

Nearly 40 years ago, British new wave duo Tears for Fears released The Hurting, an opus “very much influenced by a Californian psychologist called Arthur Janov and his primal scream therapy” that “obviously was about our childhoods,” the band’s Roland Orzabal tells Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume. Now Orzabal and his Tears for Fears partner Curt Smith, both age 60, are releasing their first studio album in 17 years, The Tipping Point, and it’s a companion piece of sorts to The Hurting — and just as impactful, if not more so.

While The Hurting trafficked in adolescent angst, The Tipping Point harrowingly examines the trauma of adulthood and middle-age, with much of the record inspired by the tragic death of Orzabal’s wife of more than 35 years. “I mean, we couldn't have made The Tipping Point when we were kids,” Orzabal, looking like wise prophet with his long silver hair and beard, says softly. “But the wonderful thing about where we are now is you see two lives lived — not two lives in potential. I feel honored, kind of blessed, to be… well, not a granddaddy, but more of an uncle. You know, an elder-in-the-tribe kind of thing.”

Tears for Fears' Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal (Photo: Frank Ockenfels)
Tears for Fears' Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal (Photo: Frank Ockenfels)

Orzabal met his first wife, Caroline, when they were teenagers in Bath, England, and they married in 1982. However, when she hit menopause in 2007, she lapsed into depression, for which she was prescribed medication that was not supposed to be taken with alcohol. Caroline continued to drink and her mental state worsened, and she eventually developed alcohol-related dementia; Roland then became her caregiver for the next five years. In 2017, Caroline died while Tears for Fears — who still toured regularly, despite having not released a full album since their underrated 2004 reunion LP Everybody Loves a Happy Ending — were on the road with Hall & Oates. Tears for Fears canceled weeks of tour dates, and Roland later did time in rehab himself as he grieved.

Many of the songs Roland wrote during this fraught period formed The Tipping Point, and the tragedy brought Orzabal and Smith, who had gone their separate ways musically from 1991 to 2004, closer than ever before. After all, Smith had been there from the very beginning.

“Curt and I, we met Caroline at the same time. We were 13 or 14. We used to hang out together in the Snow Hill flats where Curt lived in Bath and we'd be drinking cider illegally, getting completely wasted on a Saturday night,” Orzabal recalls with a chuckle. “I remember my first date with Caroline, my wife of 36 years; my first date with her was at some street disco, everyone smuggling in alcohol. And I remember she climbed up a pole because she was absolutely drunk. And I should have known then that maybe alcohol was going to be a bit of a problem! But I didn't.

“So, the question is, why did [Caroline’s illness and death] bring us together?” Orzabal continues. “I think it's quite natural when you see someone you've known for all these years go through something pretty traumatic. Of course there was a period where I was noncommunicative, in denial, and a royal pain in the ass. So, I had to do a lot of work. I did a lot of grief work. In a sense, I’d gone through a little of what Caroline had gone through with alcohol, psychoactive drugs, and stuff like that. But the difference is, Icame out the other side, and after the rehab I was worth talking to again! Oh, I sound like a nut, but who cares? Anyway, I got to a point where I had a new relationship with a wonderful woman called Emily Rath. And I suppose the whole process for me was reconnecting to the heart, if you like. The heart that had been that had grown cold, that had been trampled on, suddenly opened up, and then I could relate to Curt again.”

“There is a certain redemption to this, in that we've come out the other side of it,” Smith muses, noting that The Tipping Point isn’t a traditional grief album in the sense of Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night, the Eels’ Electro-Shock Blues, or Nick Cave’s Ghosteen. “I don't think this album would've come out if that's all it was about; if it was just about [death], it would be an album about confusion. … We're using personal experience — of personal loss, in Roland's case — and relating that to what's going on outside, realizing: ‘Look, I've come through this. Wecan come through that.’ And really, it's that redemption that you're looking for. If you listen to a song like ‘Rivers of Mercy,’ which basically talks about release and redemption and a desire for that, it's more of a healing album than anything else.”

It was Orzabal’s current wife, the above-mentioned writer/photographer Emily Rath, whom Orzabal married in April 2021, that encouraged Tears for Fears to make music again. Their record label’s powers-that-be suggested that Orzabal and Smith — artists who’d sold more than 30 million albums globally, and had charted seven top 40 hits and two No. 1’s in the United States alone — work with outside songwriters-for-hire. Orzabal says understatedly says that was “kind of strange.”

“We initially started [making a new album] at the behest of probably other people, and to be honest, we went along with it because I don't think we knew what we wanted to do,” Smith confesses. “I don't think we'd found the answer yet. So, we started doing all these of writing sessions with what would be considered modern pop kind of songwriters and producers. And after a period of doing that over a few years, we were left with 20 to 30 attempts at writing a modern hit single, none of which really stuck with us. … But after all that Roland was going through during that period of time, I think when we sat down eventually and started to communicate again honestly, we realized that there are subjects that have far more depth that we should be writing about.”

Along with Orzabal’s personal and marital struggles, The Tipping Point’s lyrics also focus on the larger struggles going on around the world. “When we started writing, it was just before the first lockdown of the pandemic in the beginning of 2020. But outside of that, we'd been through the Black Lives Matter movement. We've been through the #MeToo movement. Obviously climate change is getting to a critical point. There’s the rise of the right-wing worldwide, politically, Donald Trump in America, the attempted overthrow of the us government. I mean, there's a lot of subject matter,” says Smith. “It is still an ongoing concern, you know? I mean, there will be another election in America in two years’ time, and the way it's looking right now, you could end up with the dictators here; it would not be surprising to me. That still concerns me now. So, that was the sort of genesis of the album. And we needed to mine all these issues: ‘This is what we should be writing about.’ And once we got to that point, it became far easier.”

So many prescient songs from Tears for Fears’ career have tapped into the Zeitgeist and commented on current events — “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” “Shout,” “Woman in Chains,” and “Sowing the Seeds of Love,” to name but a few. But of course it is “Mad World” — which wasn’t even a hit in America in 1982, but has since reached younger audiences through covers by Gary Jules and American Idol’s Adam Lambert — that has truly stood the test of time.

“You make a statement like that, and you honestly think at the time that no one's going to listen, no one's going to understand it,” says Orzabal. “And yet, it's a hardy perennial. It keeps coming back, and keeps coming back. Obviously it was our first hit in England [where it peaked at No. 3] and it means a lot to us, but I think when Michael Andrew and Gary Jules did their version [which was featured in Donnie Darko], we were shocked by the lyrics and how brutally honest they were. We kind of hid it all under layers and layers of electronica, with an uptempo beat that you could dance to, but they exposed the whole lyric.”

“We played the Bonnaroo festival, which is primarily much younger festival, in 2017, and the audience was really 18-to-25 year-olds. And every member of this audience was singing all the lyrics to the songs from The Hurting,” Smith marvels. “And then you sit back and you realize, ‘Oh yeah, they're all the age we were when we released that record and when that record was written.’ So, they relate to that lyrically.”

And so, the music of Tears for Fears — from two very different yet turbulent periods of Orzabal and Smith’s lives, spaced out by several decades — continues to resonate. “There's one thing being traumatized as a child, because that's where you are at your most vulnerable; life isn't always a bowl of cherries, and bad things do happen,” Orzabal says. “Bad things happen to adults too, when someone you love, and have loved for decades, dies. That's going to change you. It will change to profoundly. And that's what happened here. So, we found ourselves in a situation where we are having to really look in inside, plumb the depths of our psyche and our being again… and find ourselves closer than we had being probably since the start of Tears for Fears. We have the balance on this album [The Tipping Point] — my singing and Curt’s singing mirror mimics very much the balance on The Hurting, and also my reliance on Curt during that period of The Hurting mirrors my reliance on Curt during this period. So, it's quite strange. But I don't think it's a coincidence.”

Orzabal continues, looking back on the ups and downs of his friendship with Smith and his life in general: “I think the message of this album is you can move through things. You have to move through things, or else you are dead,” And we got to a point on this album where you can start to feel and sense the healing in the music. And that is huge, because when you're in the middle of things, whether it's grief or some sort of addiction or anything like that, you don't see a way forward. But for anyone who is going through a particularly bad time and your life is spiraling out of control, if you do surrender, that's the point at which the answers start to come.”

And so, what answers did Orzabal and Smith ultimately glean from making The Tipping Point?

“Obviously, connectivity and valuing the people around you, and trusting them and relying on them — not just being isolationists,” Orzabal says.

Smith adds: “And that you can't do it on your own.”

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The above interview is taken from Tears for Fears' appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Full audio of that conversation is available on demand via the SiriusXM app.