What Happens When a ‘Heritage Act’ Wants More Than Playing the Hits?
When Tears for Fears released their album “Everybody Loves a Happy Ending” in 2004, the English pop duo’s future, or lack thereof, seemed clear.
“I thought that was the last hurrah,” the singer-guitarist Roland Orzabal said on a recent video call from a house he owns in Los Angeles. “I thought it was a beautiful way of putting a full-stop at the end of the sentence.”
Tears for Fears had experienced a remarkably successful run in the 1980s, highlighted by worldwide hits including “Shout,” “Head Over Heels,” “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” and “Sowing the Seeds of Love.” The group had already endured a nasty breakup in the early ’90s, after which Orzabal carried on under the Tears for Fears banner while his erstwhile bandmate, the singer-guitarist Curt Smith, made solo albums, both to diminished returns, before they patched up their differences.
But in the music industry, there’s rarely a full-stop at the end of the sentence. While pop music is often a measure of the current moment, it has always been borne back ceaselessly into the past. Bands rarely break up; they go on hiatus. A successful career can outlive the performer that once powered it. Nothing, not even death, can stop the rumbling engine of commerce. Minting new hits and new stars is a gamble, but the past is the closest the music industry has to a sure thing.
For a time, Tears for Fears participated, somewhat ambivalently, in this nostalgia industrial complex, playing their hits on periodic tours of casinos and wineries and the summer festival circuit. But while the life of what the industry calls a heritage act was enriching, it wasn’t that engaging.
“We were getting a bit bored with it,” Smith said on a separate video call from his home in Southern California. “Us being a heritage act was never going to work because we need new material to keep us excited. Trying to find that new material was the hard part.”
This was the particular jumping-off point for the protracted odyssey that would eventually yield the band’s first album in 18 years, “The Tipping Point,” due Friday. But this tension between commerce and art is hardly unusual for any artist with a catalog of past hits. Reconciling it often takes time.
Tears for Fears is just one of a number of veteran acts that’s re-emerged as a recording entity in recent months after an extended period on the sidelines. Abba, Jethro Tull, Wet Wet Wet, the Temptations, the Boo Radleys and Men Without Hats all have also just released their first albums of new material in more than a decade, or are about to. For some, the pandemic likely played a role in their return. With touring shuttered for long stretches of the past two years, many artists were losing income. And with long stretches to sit around, songwriters, unsurprisingly, often write songs.
Eddie Roeser, the guitarist-singer for the Chicago alt-rock trio Urge Overkill, who released its first studio album in 11 years, “Oui,” on Feb. 11, said, “the only gateway to playing together and having fun is working on new things.” Urge scored modest hits in the 1990s with “Sister Havana” and a cover of Neil Diamond’s “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” but Roeser was wary of becoming “a greatest hits machine. Anybody who does music professionally dreads going up and playing the one song people came to the show for.”
In the 1980s, the English synth-pop duo Soft Cell often refused to play its biggest hit, “Tainted Love,” on tour. “We were so sick of it,” said David Ball, the group’s multi-instrumentalist. “Nostalgia Machine,” a song from “Happiness Not Included,” Soft Cell’s first album since 2002 (due in May), is a cheeky nod to the industry’s obsession with the past. “It’s really about the fact that everything is recycled and reused,” Ball said.
He and the singer Marc Almond originally reconnected at the behest of Universal Records, to discuss a Soft Cell boxed set the company was releasing in 2018. The pair agreed to perform what was then billed as a “final” show at London’s 02 Arena that year.
“I said to Marc, ‘Don’t say ‘final.’ Never put ‘final’ on anything,’” Ball said, laughing. “At that point, we didn’t foresee the pandemic. I think everybody had a lot of time to sit and contemplate, and he thought, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have said that.’” The duo sent new tracks back and forth during Covid lockdowns in Britain, and made the entire album remotely.
Advances in home recording also aided the Doobie Brothers, who released “Liberté,” their first album of new songs in 11 years, in October. “To get the whole band in there, it used to take weeks or even a couple of months to do an album,” the singer-guitarist Tom Johnston said. Now, “we could have an album done in a week and a half.”
Tears for Fears began working on new material more than six years ago and said they were steered by their then manager, the industry veteran Gary Gersh, into teaming with professional songwriters for a series of writing sessions. “They’d come up with this backing track that sounded like classic Tears for Fears,” Smith said. “But we’ve done that already. By the end, it was kind of depressing.”
The pair powered through, and by 2016, had 12 finished tracks. They began negotiating with Universal, who already owned the rights to most of the band’s catalog, but the label suggested putting off releasing a new album and instead dropping a second greatest hits compilation — the first came out in 1992 — packaged with two new songs.
“Universal said, ‘The Greatest Hits will put you back in the limelight, then we’ll go with the album!’” Orzabal said. But after the hits package was released, there was no deal in place obligating Universal to release the new album, and it wasn’t picked up.
This created something of an existential crisis for the band. Orzabal wasn’t sure what to do with these new songs; Smith wanted nothing to do with them. “It all sounded like a bunch of vain attempts at a hit single,” Smith said. “I said, ‘If this is really what you want to do, you should, but I can’t be involved.’”
Before Orzabal could decide his next move, the rest of his life cratered. His then-wife, Caroline, died after a long, debilitating bout with alcoholism and depression. In the wake of her death, Orzabal struggled with his own mental health, and spent time in and out of hospitals and rehabs.
He wrote the new album’s title track about the harrowing experience of watching Caroline flit between life and death in a hospital bed. The song energized him, and a conversation was arranged with a record label to discuss releasing new Tears for Fears music. After the meeting, their manager quit.
“He emailed us afterwards and said, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” Orzabal said. “He said we were a heritage act and that was it, and there was no point in putting out any album.” (Gersh, who is now the president of global touring and talent at AEG Presents, declined to comment.)
In purely business terms, it’s hard for a veteran act to justify spending time and budget writing, recording and releasing new songs when the money is in touring, merch, and getting your old hits in films, TV shows, commercials or even TikToks.
“Going into an album now is nothing like it used to be,” said the Doobies’ Johnston. “You don’t get the payback you used to. So, where it used to be, you’d do an album and tour to support the album, it’s now the other way around.”
For veteran artists, live shows are less likely to drive significant sales or streams of new music than they are to boost the artist’s back catalog. Tears for Fears lived through that while promoting “Everybody Loves a Happy Ending,” which was frustrating, but as Smith noted, “It’s still our income.” The band’s past commercial success provides the luxury to make decisions solely on artistic merit. “The hardest thing with managers for us is them wrapping their heads around the fact that we don’t care that much if we’re hugely successful,” he added.
Eventually, what cleared the path to a new album was returning to making music the way they had when they first met as teenagers. In early 2020, Orzabal and Smith got together and, with a pair of acoustic guitars, hashed out “No Small Thing,” the dramatic, swirling folk-rock epic that opens the new album.
“It was just the two of us, prepandemic, no team of songwriters, no interfering record company, no manager, no animosity,” Orzabal said. They revisited material from the earlier sessions, eventually reworking a handful of those songs for “The Tipping Point,” which will be released by Concord Records, an independent label.
“The best thing that happened to us,” Smith said, “was to be left alone.”