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The Tipping Point is first new album from Tears for Fears in 18 years.Frank Ockenfels/Handout

By the way, which one is Tears?

Music executives aren’t always in sync with their artists. In the Pink Floyd song Have a Cigar, an out-of-touch record-industry man knows so little of the band that he asks, “By the way, which one’s Pink?” Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith of the eighties synth-pop icons Tears for Fears were confronted with the same disconnect when they were “dragged kicking and screaming into the modern world,” in Smith’s words.

After the duo’s 2004 reunion album Everybody Loves a Happy Ending, the band’s management and record label asked the two singer-songwriters to work with contemporary song doctors and cutting-edge producers. The suits wanted hit tunes, not a follow-up album. The latter would be a “waste of time,” the veteran bandmates were told.

“It was all from the perspective of singles,” Smith says, speaking on Zoom to The Globe and Mail along with Orzabal. “But we’ve never done it like that and, in retrospect, there’s obviously a reason. Because we’re not very good at that and, more importantly, it’s not what we enjoy. What we enjoy is the album-making process, and that’s what we got to eventually.”

On Feb. 25, Tears for Fears releases The Tipping Point, an immaculate album of adult pop-rock more than seven years in the tumultuous making, 18 years after their previous album. One of the songs, Master Plan, is a “bit of a dig” at the pair’s (now former) manager, according to Orzabal. Once the manager left and the songster-for-hire collaborators were dismissed, the duo made a record they feel that on an artistic level is the best they’ve ever done.

Both 60 years old, Orzabal and Smith have earned the right to coast a bit. And Tears for Fears has done some of that, releasing only three records since 1995. Still, there’s always something at stake when it comes to legacy acts. Four decades into a career, Tears for Fears is still trying to rule its own part of the world.

The Tipping Point will be released on Feb. 25.Handout

The bandmates have known each other since they met as teenagers in the English tourist town of Bath. In person (sort-of), they present as opposites. Smith (who sang the new wave anthem Everybody Wants to Rule the World in 1985) is tan, taut and tightly wound. The mellower Orzabal (whose voice led the brooding battle cry Shout from 1984) is full of beard and flowing white hair.

Emerging out of the gloomy Thatcher era, Tears for Fears made a name for itself with memorable melodies and sumptuous displays of melancholy, all set to sonic loveliness. Still, the duo has had its fractious moments over the years. The new song Stay was written at a time when Smith was thinking of splitting the tears from the fears once again.

“Go, don’t go,” he sings. “Damned if I do, damned if I know.”

What Smith and Orzabal know is when things aren’t working. They also know when things are clicking.

“When we converge at the right time, there’s some kind of magic that happens that’s bigger than the both of us,” Smith says.

Orzabal agrees. “The times that we come together in the most vital and powerful way is when our destinies intertwine and somehow relates to the zeitgeist. And regardless of the fact that we’re both 60 years old and the fact that we’re not putting out the hits nowadays, there seems to be something incredibly important in our message at this point in time.”

The title track to The Tipping Point is classic Tears for Fears, statuesque and haunting. It was written while Orzabal’s first wife was dying. As Orzabal has explained elsewhere, the song’s image is of a hospital room where the person in the bed is more dead than alive. “That’s the tipping point, and it’s almost like part of you is willing to cross that threshold because you are in that purgatory while they’re in purgatory.”

The album begins with No Small Thing, a waltzing, reflective folk-rock number that touches on maturity, freedom and being “wrinkled and wise” with “one more song to sing.” The shimmering Break The Man is about tearing down the patriarchy.

“The album is definitely an adult record,” Smith says. “It’s our viewpoint from 40 more years of living after our first album.” Adds Orzabal: “We’re exercising our tastes far more intelligently now than we did back then.”

Adult record, exercising taste – all very well and good. But where are the towering bangers of the past?

“We were signed to a major label who were really ready to exploit us,” Orzabal says of the duo’s mid-eighties salad days, which saw the release of the albums The Hurting and their 1985 breakout, Songs From the Big Chair. “On a commercial level, we’re nowhere near the same situation now. There’s no comparison.”

Which isn’t to say Tears for Fears is no longer relevant. A cover of Everybody Wants to Rules the World is on Robert Glasper’s new album Black Radio 3, out next week. Featuring singer Lalah Hathaway and rapper Common, the new version is less bombastic – it would almost have to be – than the synth-pop extravaganza original.

In its stripped-down form, the song’s messages about greed and corruption are highlighted. Lyrics addressing climate change (”turn your back on mother nature”) and fake news (”one headline, why believe it?”) resonate now more than ever.

“That’s kind of what we’re in it for,” Orzabal says about socially-conscious material. “We started off as a very evangelical band. It was a very strange thing for a band to be rattling on about things. But we’ve always done it, and we’re still doing it.”

The return of Tears for Fears has been characterized in some quarters as an unlikely development. But is it? A comeback by a band once ahead of its time would seem to be inevitable. And just because there’s no hit single, it doesn’t mean Smith and Orzabal have nothing to shout about. One just needs to try a little harder to find out what they’re rattling on about in 2022.

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