Think back to your days listening to pop music in the ’80s – say, for the sake of argument, 1985. Thriller‘s wrapped up its run of seven hit singles. Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. is in the middle of its own seven-hit stretch. Purple Rain made Prince a juggernaut – and Tears for Fears, the British duo behind the moody, electronic The Hurting (1983) have broken into the mainstream with the progressive psych-pop of 1985’s Songs from the Big Chair, including back-to-back chart-toppers “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and “Shout.”
Can you imagine what any of these acts would sound like by the end of the decade? You can probably draw a through line to Michael Jackson’s calculated pop muscle of Bad; Springsteen’s introspective, minimalist rock of Tunnel of Love; maybe even sprawling albums like Sign “O” the Times or Lovesexy. But Tears for Fears’ The Seeds of Love, issued in 1989, was anyone’s guess. Chilly synths, precision drum programming and lyrical psychoanalysis have all given way to Big Ideas about politics, feminism, the excesses of man and the apocalyptic anxieties that seem to accompany adulthood. And against all odds, there was a massive pop hit, to boot!
Years after Universal Music Catalogue gave The Hurting and Big Chair a maximalist box set treatment each, The Seeds of Love finally gets its due as a 4CD/1Blu-ray set (Mercury 4770699). A record so unlike the two that came before it is in need of a package that would do its best to solve its lingering mysteries and explain how a pair of Janov-obsessed Brits tumbled head over heels into a thicket of shuffling jazz-pop, Beatles pastiches and soul-searching seriousness that pushed half of the band away when the dust settled. Ultimately, the answers are as bewildering as the questions themselves.
The Seeds of Love takes root in the end of TFF’s Big Chair cycle. Bored and frustrated with playing to programmed tracks on tour, singer/songwriter/guitarist Roland Orzabal and touring keyboardist Nicky Holland begin writing more abstract, looser songs, inspired in part by Orzabal’s ongoing psychotherapy. Eventually, he and singer/bassist Curt Smith begin tinkering on a Big Chair follow-up, first with that album’s producer Chris Hughes, then fitfully with pop producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, then back to Hughes (with longtime touring member Ian Stanley making some contributions). Eventually, the band finish up the record themselves with Big Chair engineer David Bascombe as co-producer, plus a secret weapon: Oleta Adams, a soulful singer/pianist the duo had seen perform in a Kansas City bar after a gig.
Though Smith was increasingly on the sidelines, he did make major contributions to three of the album’s best songs: the Beatlesesque “Sowing the Seeds of Love,” a No. 2 U.S. hit; the emotive “Woman in Chains” (featuring duet vocals from Adams and a powerful rhythm section that included Manu Katche and Phil Collins on drums); and the sophistipop “Advice for the Young At Heart” – his sole lead vocal. The Seeds of Love pushed the limits of vinyl pacing with its near 50-minute runtime – only two of the album’s eight tracks fall short of the five-minute mark – but the pace rarely slackens. (Even slow songs like “Standing on the Corner of the Third World” glisten from accents like Adams’ delicate piano and Pino Palladino’s furtive bass.)
Adams delivers another star vocal on “Badman’s Song,” a shaggy jam inspired by a disparaging conversation Orzabal heard about himself while on tour; elsewhere, jagged numbers like “Swords and Knives” and “Year of the Knife” feel like the most logical connections from Big Chair, albeit with a much more organic sound. Things come full circle with the quietly powerful “Famous Last Words,” a heartbreaking, imagined lovers’ rendezvous against the end of the world. (With “Woman in Chains” and “Year of the Knife,” it’s one of three to repeat “the sun and the moon / the wind and the rain” as a lyric and theme.)
Seeds was not an album that lent itself to the sort of B-side and remix mania that offered much of the bonus material on the other two TFF box sets. The Seeds of Love offers one disc primarily devoted to the form; while it’s great to have single edits of “Sowing the Seeds,” “Woman in Chains,” “Advice for the Young At Heart” and others, the songs are often too dense to make sensible edits to. (At least one edit apiece of “Chains” and “Famous Last Words” dispense with an entire verse to save time, and even the version of “Seeds” commonly heard on U.S. radio omits too many passages to have the same impact.) More successful are odd B-side sketches like “Tears Roll Down” (later turned into a full song for TFF’s first greatest-hits album in 1992) and the trippy dance cut “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams” – the latter of which was remixed twice and released as an anonymous club 12″ in 1991.
With less released material in the wings, that makes room for some unreleased gems, and this packet of Seeds doesn’t disappoint. There’s a brace of demos (including a previously-unreleased version of Orzabal’s “Rhythm of Life” that was later given to Oleta Adams for her 1991 hit album), early and alternate mixes, a tantalizing instrumental take on “Badman’s Song” from the Langer/Winstanley sessions and even a half-hour’s worth of excerpts from 1988 album rehearsals led by Orzabal and Adams (and notably with Palladino in place of Smith). There’s glittering prizes to be had in all this unearthed material, from the loose interpolation of The Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night” that closes a take on “Badman’s Song” to the many mix variants on “Year of the Knife” that seek to recast the track as a more muscular pop-rock song – or in one case, a late ’80s trip-hop/rock hybrid.
One of the simple standouts, though, is an alternate, longer mix of “Sowing the Seeds of Love,” stripped of some of its greatest production excesses (the heaviest drum reverb and vocal effects) and lets the Beatles-is beauty of the song shine through over seven minutes – longer than the version on the 12″ single release, which was likely dropped from the set in favor of this version. If you spent your youth pressing your ears to the speaker to appreciate every bit of joy as the song faded out, your 30-plus years of patience will be rewarded.
The Seeds set closes with a Blu-ray featuring an expansive new surround sound mix from Steven Wilson, who also gave the same treatment to Big Chair. By the engineer’s own admission, the complex production and editing combined with the eternal difficulty of tracking down every last multi-track tape meant the process wasn’t entirely perfect, but it’s an enjoyable listen nonetheless. That said, the Blu-ray could have benefitted from the inclusion of the Going to California live video chronicling a set from the Seeds of Love tour. Given the generous video included in the other two TFF box sets, this omission is slightly disappointing, for completeness’ sake at least. (A noteworthy, literally small quibble on packaging, too: not the actual materials – nicely designed gatefold cardboard wallets, a mini-replica of the original Seeds tour program and a generous book of liner notes and interviews – but the text can be very hard to read for those who have trouble doing so. A nice touch – with all the TFF boxes, honestly – would have been adding slightly more detailed production or original release info.)
Perhaps the biggest complaint has nothing to do with its strong presentation, but its availability. Within months of the box’s October 9 release, it appears to be selling mostly through after-market sources. (In full transparency: The Second Disc canceled a pre-order of the box set when realizing it was possible to obtain a copy for review; that copy never showed – the publicist and many other retailers, including Amazon, were already backordered – and TSD HQ squeaked through the wire in obtaining the box through a smaller vendor just before the American election week.) If anything, this speaks to a larger, sadder trend that big boxes like this usually have one small print run; the box set of Big Chair belatedly got a repress earlier this year which also sold through.
But if you can find a copy, the deluxe The Seeds of Love is well worth it: a thorough investigation into a fascinating step in Tears for Fears’ career – one that established them as one of the ’80s most unique British bands.
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