Review: 'The Tipping Point' Empathetic and Life Affirming

by Kevin Schattenkirk

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday February 25, 2022

Review: 'The Tipping Point' Empathetic and Life Affirming

It's a common critical tactic to assess an artist's newest work with their oldest, often invoking a classic as a point of comparison ("their best since [insert iconic album title here]"). While this is pretty standard, too often it can descend into lazy, taken-for-granted proclamations ("a return to form").

So, how does one size up "The Tipping Point" by Tears for Fears, the band's first album in 17 years? A band that, while currently celebrating 40 years of music-making, has only released seven studio albums in that time? That's not exactly prolific. Reviewing their latest might be easier if their albums largely sounded similar — but they don't.

What signals that "The Tipping Point" is indeed a TFF album is a distinct sense of style in songwriting and vocal performance. Roland Orzabal's assertive voice contrasts, and yet meshes well, with Curt Smith's gentler, more brooding intonations. Orzabal, the duo's primary songwriter — and still one of the most under-appreciated of the New Romantic era — effortlessly strings together strong hooks (the bouncy pop of "End of Night") with deceptively complex harmonic progressions (the Beatle-esque "Master Plan").

"The Tipping Point" was borne of two significant events. One was the band's former management setting the duo up on "speed-dating" songwriting sessions with purportedly hot songwriters and producers in the quest for the elusive hit single. As a consequence, Smith nearly departed TFF a second time. They reconsidered their efforts and returned, as many bands do, to the songwriting approach of their youth: Sitting face-to-face with two acoustic guitars and writing album opener, "No Small Thing." The song begins with a Dylan-esque strumming that gradually builds toward a hybrid of live and electronic instrumentation.

However, it was the 2017 death of Orzabal's wife, Caroline, that informs much of the remaining nine songs. The title track places us at her bedside of someone "at the tipping point," closer to death than life, about to depart "this unforgiving place, to that vague and distant void where the sunlight splits the eye." Orzabal's poignant performance, set to a minor-key mid-tempo shuffle, points toward other, equally affecting moments.

Smith takes lead vocal on "Please Be Happy," a vulnerable plea with a loved one in the throes of both mental illness and alcohol dependency. It's another song about Caroline, but too personal and painful for Orzabal to sing, he astutely handed it off to his bandmate — just as he'd done with one of their well-known classics.

"Rivers of Mercy," the album's haunting centerpiece, seeks redemption in the midst of grief and mourning. Humble and prayerful, Orzabal vocal is nuanced and subtle, affective in its articulation of tenderness. Smith turns in similarly stunning performances on "Long, Long, Long Time" and "Stay."

None of this is to suggest "The Tipping Point" is an entirely reflective affair. The rocking "My Demons" is imbued with a playful irony ("they will always find you when your cell phone is on"), and the pro-feminist "Break the Man" is set to a propulsive beat. But even in these instances, TFF haven't squandered any opportunity to make meaning.

"Dare I imagine some faith and understanding," Orzabal asks on "Rivers of Mercy." This sentiment sums up a reflective, mournful, and empathetic album, subtly life-affirming and vital in its quest for, as he sings on "No Small Thing," "one more song to sing, one more story to tell."

"The Tipping Point" is available on Feb. 25.

Kevin Schattenkirk is an ethnomusicologist and pop music aficionado.