From Mad World to Quiet Ones: A Tribute to the Lyrics of Roland Orzabal
Pop songs come in many varieties. Some are suitable for playing quietly in the background while focusing on other things. Others with a driving beat lend fire to dance moves or power to exercise maneuvers.
And there are the select group that have meaningful lyrics worthy of not just a cursory listen, but also thoughtful reflection. Like fine poetry, they can redeem and enlighten. They can lift the hearts of the despondent and set a course for positive change. Despite the challenges faced by the music industry, the tradition of lyrics that resonate and inspire deserves to flourish.
In a former post, I wrote about the clever allusions to quantum physics in several of the songs by Roland Orzabal, the Ivor Novello award-winning co-founder and principal songwriter of Tears for Fears. In this piece, on the occasion of his 55th birthday, I’d like to offer a broader retrospective of some of his other songs throughout the years, especially those that have moved me through their poignant lyrics. Here are twenty of my favorites (in addition to God’s Mistake and Schrodinger’s Cat, which I wrote about in the previous post):
Went to school and I was very nervous
No one knew me, no one knew me
Hello teacher tell me what’s my lesson
Look right through me, look right through me
Although Mad World was released more than 30 years ago, it has become ubiquitous in recent years through innumerable cover versions. Notably, Seal recently recorded a gorgeous cover version. One of the reasons the song is timeless is due, no doubt, to its stark treatment of childhood and its anxieties. It offers one of the most honest takes on the trauma of walking into a classroom, feeling ignored by classmates and teachers, and taking to heart that awful sense of loneliness.
Where does the end of me
Become the start of you?
In line with one of the themes of the first Tears for Fears album, The Hurting, this song explores youthful alienation and the changing parameters of friendship. Childhood friendships can veer in a flash from suffocating closeness to puzzling detachment. The cadence and style of the song is reminiscent in some ways of the best of the Talking Heads.
There are some reports that the title of this outstanding song is a reference to the painting Pale Shelter Scene by Henry Moore, part of a series of snapshots of underground life in London during the Second World War. The song lyrics draw stark contrast between a loving, thriving home, and the cold comfort of an underground shelter. It seems to be a desperate call by a child for a more supportive family, rather than just room and board.
Head over Heels
You keep your distance with a system of touch
And gentle persuasion
Head over Heels (framed by Broken) was one of the biggest hits for Tears for Fears in the 1980s, and it is arguably one of the band’s catchiest songs. The lyrics capture well the delicate dance of courtship, balancing the call of passion with the perils of appearing overeager.
We are paid by those who learn by our mistakes
This song offers an important societal theme, alluding to how the ruling class takes advantage of our fear and our needs to control us. To break free of the cycle we would need to ‘find out what this fear is about.’ Then we’d be empowered to take charge of our own lives.
Sowing the Seeds of Love
A call to revive the spirit of the ‘Summer of Love’ in the midst of Margaret Thatcher’s UK, this song is a great example of lyrical call and response between Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith, who share writing credits. The lyrics are exuberant and simply a lot of fun.
Swords and Knives
A waking world of innocence
So grave those first born cries
When life begins with needles and pins
It ends with swords and knives
For me, this song offers a sobering look at the bookends of life: birth and death. Even an innocent child might be fated to suffer a violent end someday. The needles and pins used to sew a baby’s clothes or the ‘needles and pins’ of anticipating his or her birth also cruelly symbolize the much sharper instruments used in battle.
Guilt in the frame of the looking-glass
Puts a shine on the mind where reflections pass
This song is a lyrical masterpiece, in my opinion, for its brutally honest treatment of how to respond to criticism by others. Should one examine their motivations or should one look within? The imagery in this song, of walls and mirrors, brilliantly depicts a shift from one perspective to another. At some points the narrator is focused on the critics’ attitudes and at other times on his own weaknesses. The lyric ‘mind over matter won’t you stop all your chatter’ perfectly embodies the notion of mindfulness: learning to accept your inner dialogue, rather than fighting it.
Woman in Chains
A song that tells a very moving story of women’s liberation.
Laid so Low (Tears Roll Down)
Drew the blade way too slow
Was shackled by your honesty
This offers a rather stark depiction of the dilemma of dealing with a friend who is disarmingly honest, yet with whom you disagree.
Does your conscience always get you down?
While Badman’s Song and Laid So Low address being weighed down by guilt and frozen into inaction, Elemental seems to represent a break with the past, obliterating what came before and rebuilding one’s life from the building blocks of the remains. It offers the prospect of a new cycle of life. This leads to the next song:
Break it Down Again
This is one of my all time favorite songs. I love the imagery of endless cycles, finding beauty in decay, and re-inventing oneself over and over again. The line ‘fast off to heaven just like Moses on a motorbike’ has just a great sound to it.
If by chance we both forget
The passage of space and time between
I find this song particularly healing and redemptive. It seems to argue that we need to feel our emotions and work through them.
Raoul and the Kings of Spain
This song has just a mystical quality to it, and offers clever allusions to the myths regarding the extraordinary powers of the seventh son of a seventh son.
All of the Angels
Say goodbye to the world and it’s false conclusions
Know that time is a wall and one more illusion
There are many allusions to ghosts and the world beyond in the RATKOS album. This song offers an eerily positive take on following angels into another world. It offers reassurance about death, it seems to suggest that the afterlife is so much better than this life, we are tempted to step over the threshold.
Sketches of Pain
Great wide stretches of canvas
Signed by a godless name
Strange bright colours of madness
Only a fool would frame
My interpretation of these evocative lyrics is that while it might be psychologically healthier to let go of our mad obsessions and painful moments, we tend to display them, finding them artful and more interesting than ordinary (and maybe healthier) chains of thought.
You’ve been crying in the rain
You’ve been drowning in your pain
Ain’t gonna die
This song was written for Emiliana Torrini, as part of her album (with an amazing title) ‘Love in the Time of Science.’ The juxtaposition of ‘you’ve been drowning’ and ‘ain’t gonna die’ is yet another example of the clever depiction of contradictory thoughts.
These are the days of futures by design
So does your faith give you powers of immunity?
This is from the innovative solo album, ‘Tomcats Screaming Outside.’
Life would be easier, in some ways, it seems to suggest, without strong emotions such as love. The ‘futures by design’ offers the diametric opposite image of the chance motif in an earlier song ‘God’s Mistake.’
Who Killed Tangerine?
Stuck inside a wheel, inside a wheel
Wondering everyday, is it all for real?
This song has a fantastic build-up and haunting aura of suspense. Intriguingly, rather than answer, or even address, the titular question, it seems to imply that it doesn’t matter anyway, as the end of one life constitutes the beginning of the next. It reminds me of the novel ‘El Tunel’ by Ernesto Sabato, in which a murder occurs in the beginning of the story, but time is so out of joint that the murdered character persists as one of its protagonists.
Oh salvation shine a light on a different world
And carry out thoughts on golden rays
I’ve listened to this beautiful song again and again and each time I get a different message. I think it refers in part to the death of George Harrison, ‘the quiet one,’ of the Beatles.
It also seems to refer, in general, to the influence of ghosts (of those who are gone) in our lives.
Here’s wishing continued creativity for the brilliant songwriter who shaped these (and so many more) outstanding songs! Happy Birthday! Looking forward to the next Tears for Fears album, targeted to be released in 2017 (so I hear).